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Syncphonia app transforms music education

Speed read
  • Playing music has great psycho-social benefits
  • New musical notation app alleviates the stress of sight reading
  • Educators experience reduced attrition and quicker mastery

The Syncphonia app has music educators and music students humming a different tune.

Syncphonia, developed by academics and musicians at the University of Sussex, enables a music teacher or conductor to segment pieces of musical notation so that the notes and tempo for each player's instrument are displayed on their own tablet, highlighted bar by bar.

In sync. Orchestra of Sound and Light with Networking Technology at Dorothy Stringer School. Syncphonia app co-creator Ed Hughes hopes that the app will mean more school children will be able to take advantage of the benefits associated with playing in an ensemble. Courtesy Ed Hughes.

The music app helps keep students in time with the rest of the orchestra without being distracted by multiple lines of music — thereby reducing stress for children and learners.

“Reading music notation and playing in a group at the same time is a complicated activity, and often you are expected to learn it by diving in straight away,” says Ed Hughes, head of Music at the University of Sussex.

“When I volunteered to play piano in my daughter's school orchestra I noticed that some children became visibly upset or put off when they lost their place in the music.”

To remove theis obstacle to musical experience, Hughes turned to his colleagues with music computing and psychology expertise for help designing and evaluating an app. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from arts computing and psychology backgrounds collaborated to design, program, and test the new system and app.

Chris Kiefer and Alice Eldridge led the design and coding of the tablets, while Fidelma Hanrahan and Robin Banerjee evaluated the impact of the system on players' enjoyment, engagement and ability.

“We found that the Syncphonia app removed a lot of the stress of getting lost for children and made them feel more confident and relaxed,” says Hughes.

“This encouraged them to start or continue learning and playing together — the orchestra in our test school grew in size. It's also enabled them to play longer and more complex pieces that previously would have taken weeks to perfect.”

The app was launched at an event during the British Science Festival, and its developers hope that it will be taken up widely by schools to support music teaching and learning — especially as music in primary schools comes under threat from funding and curriculum pressures. 

“Previous psychological research has shown that children often lose motivation at an early point when learning a musical instrument, if they do not feel they are doing well and progressing,” says Robin Banerjee, deputy head of the school of psychology at the University of Sussex.

“When we tested the Syncphonia app with a primary school orchestra of children aged 8 to 11, we found that the children responded with high motivation and enjoyment of group playing. In fact, many of the children who previously perceived themselves to have less ability found the Syncphonia app to be especially helpful.”

The technology was created through a participatory design process — rather than making 'expert decisions' for the musicians, the researchers worked closely over many weeks with students and staff at a primary school in Sussex to design and develop every part of the software in ways which made sense for them.

This participatory design process promotes the creation of usable, sustainable technologies as it ensures the end product both meets the needs of users and is intuitive for them to work with — two key aspects of good design.

“Ensemble music playing can have a positive psychological impact on children, especially socially,” says Banerjee. “Supported by Syncphonia, the children in our test group placed a high value on the opportunity to play music together in an orchestra, to develop new relationships with their peers, and ultimately to belong.”

<strong>Hitting the right note.</strong> Ed Hughes is part of a team that designed an app to aid a student's abiity to read musical notation. Tests show the app increases ensemble creativity and cohesion. Courtesy Ed Hughes.

The app successfully removed barriers to learning, like getting lost, or getting out of time with the other players, while not 'deskilling' them — they still had to read the music, Hughes explains. As a result, fewer children become discouraged and left the group, allowing the ensemble  to progress more quickly, learn more complex pieces, and produce a better quality sound than without the app.

“We believe there is a big — and growing — potential market for Syncphonia,” says Mike Herd, executive director of the Sussex Innovation Centre. “With music departments and amateur ensembles often keen to embrace new technology, there is a great opportunity for the system to become a feature of musical education throughout the UK and beyond.”

For more information about the project please visit the Networking Technology and the Experience of Ensemble Music-making website.

The research has been funded by an AHRC Digital Transformation grant and supported by the University of Sussex's Enterprise Development Fund.

Read the original article on the University of Sussex school of media, film and music website.

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