The Sweet Sounds of Learning

A discussion with Per Emanuelsson, co-founder of an eclectic team of engineers, designers, and producers passionate about music and technology.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT SoundtrapAn incipient movement has begun that involves using new approaches to increase skills and knowledge among students in the critical STEAM areas. After all, technical skills, collaborative abilities and creative thinking represent tomorrow’s job requirements, going well beyond the three R’s of yesterday. Per Emanuelsson, CEO of popular online music studio Soundtrap (Per is pictured, far left), is among those who believe music can be utilized to boost knowledge and retention in math, science and other important curricula. A musician, software expert, management professional and entrepreneur, Per is a co-founder of Soundtrap, which is co-located in Stockholm and Silicon Valley. This easy-to-use, collaborative music and audio

One particularly important finding is that students who are making music, not just listening to music—that means actually playing instruments—acquire knowledge much more easily.

recording studio is involved with MathScienceMusic.org, a groundbreaking education platform with free, engaging games, apps, and more, that uses music as a tool to teach STEAM skills to K-12 and college students. This recently launched effort is supported by the U.S. Department of Education and UNESCO. Per is passionate about how music can help knowledge stick with students—an idea that’s been getting support not just from scientists but from teachers in the trenches lately.

First, what exactly is Soundtrap for those who might not be familiar with it?

Soundtrap logoPer: It’s the first solution that lets anyone make music or audio recordings with fellow friends and students within their invited group—in short, a collaborative music and audio recording studio online. They can record a tune or podcast, then share the music with classmates in the cloud from just about any device or operating system. We officially released a consumer version in 2015 and followed that up with one specifically for education in January 2016. It’s also simple—students can be up and running in less than three minutes. And it’s secure because teachers can protect individual students or an entire school or schools from the rest of the Internet.

Have you received any feedback yet from teachers using it?

Per: Happily, teachers have been telling us it’s been working well as a way to engage their students and increase their knowledge. We’ve been told it keeps students focused on assignments and homework while learning new topics and collaborating with students in other locations. One teacher even did a YouTube video where she talked about how using music like this helps kids retain what they learn. For example, she said one of her middle-school students could better remember the formulas for speed and velocity after putting them in a pseudo rap song she wrote and recorded.

Is there any scientific support for the idea that music can boost learning?

Per: Music engages visual, motor, and auditory cortices. This kind of thinking boosts the ability to plan, strategize and focus on details, which translates to enhanced memory function.

How is Soundtrap involved in the MathScienceMusic.org effort and what’s the concept there?

Per: We strongly believe that doing music—not just listening to it—is a tool for better learning and making content stick. This idea is shared by the people behind MathScienceMusic.org, which includes a hero of mine, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, along with New York University’s Music Experience Design Lab. NYU developed Groove Pizza—it’s a playful tool for creating grooves using math concepts like shapes, angles and patterns. Students and teachers can use it on the web for free and it integrates directly with Soundtrap. Students can make a groove in Groove Pizza and export it to Soundtrap easily.

Why hasn’t the studio software market, Soundtrap’s market segment, already been making learning tools like this?

Per: The general market for audio production is certainly competitive but there have been lots of limitations before when it comes to supporting the education area. It boils down to three main problems. First, they’re way too complex. Instead of being made for students and kids, they’re made for studio technicians or professional sound engineers. The second thing that stands out is that they’re a single-device, single-platform environment so only work on, say, Mac or Windows. The third problem is that they are single-user environments, so people have to use it by themselves, but music, in its essence, is about collaboration. We set out to create a different approach when we developed Soundtrap.

How much musical experience is needed to get the most out of Soundtrap? Won’t some background be necessary?

Per: None is needed, actually, that’s the whole idea. When a person wants to do music, complexity and prior experience would become a huge threshold to get over. We designed Soundtrap so it could be used by even six-year-old kids with no prior knowledge whatsoever. This is possible with modern software technology and we focus on ease of use.

Do you see the idea of using music to improve other areas in education as having a big potential impact in schools?

Per: It should have an impact because educators keep searching for methods of improvement for teaching kids what they’ll need to know to be successful adults. One idea in some quarters is the STEAM movement, which highlights the importance of (A)rts in conjunction with the more traditional STEM subjects. This fits right into our belief about using music as a vehicle. Also, there are the so-called “four C’s,” which are critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. These are extremely important skills that kids will need to be able to get work, basically, in the future. The four C’s aren’t subjects in school on their own, they are in their very nature, cross-functional skills and hence, they must be integrated into all school subjects. What’s music if not a way to teach communication, collaboration and creativity? And if you combine that with the knowledge-boosting effect gained from making music, then we understand why interest is so high in new disruptive tools that are making this possible.

What impact does bringing music into the classroom have on improving the mood and attitude of students?  

Per: We all know how engaging in creative activities—particularly music—is a mood booster for just about anyone. And there have been many studies that prove all the other positive results from music in the classroom. One particularly important finding is that students who are making music, not just listening to music—that means actually playing instruments—acquire knowledge much more easily. This musical exposure helps them organize knowledge in a different way so that when they become adults, they’re better able

Connecting knowledge to something a student feels positive about is one of the most powerful ways to improve education.

to perform complex analysis and have the right stuff to become executives and take on more responsible roles. And the research has also shown how playing music as a kid decreases potential negatives. These children are less likely to be violent or hyperactive and are able to better focus on their studies. In fact, the research recommendations are that music exposure should start young to reap all these benefits. Say, before age five or even before age one.

What does music do to touch the soul?

CREDIT Soundtrap Per EmanuelssonPer: I’ll be speaking for myself here (pictured, left) but I believe my experience is universal and likely applies to anyone involved in music, most definitely including children. Music gives me a different language for personal expression. When you play music or dance or do similar things, you’re expressing other parts of your nature than with spoken language. It’s like having a new language that’s very much connected to your emotions. For me, music is also sort of like yoga or meditation for the mind. When I’m doing music, it feels like I’m opening up completely different channels and blocking theoretical reasoning, in a way, which also lowers stress.

Why is it important to create a more soulful and joyful experience for students?

Per: It’s all about learning better and increasing creativity. If, for example, a student needs to learn a math formula, doing a short rhyme or a short song about that formula—which makes for a more soulful, joyful learning experience—makes it much more likely to be remembered than if the formula was just taught in the usual way. The joyfulness that comes through music helps increase creativity in all activities. Connecting knowledge to something a student feels positive about is one of the most powerful ways to improve education.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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