In the World:
Using Music to Crack the Code

Summer 2017 | by Melissa Fralick 

Georgia Tech faculty developed EarSketch to get high-school students across the country excited about computer programming.


It’s long been understood that music helps us learn. Remember School House Rock? Setting intimidating subjects like grammar with catchy tunes made them easier for generations of kids to digest and retain.

Adjusted for a 21st century curriculum, the same concept has been applied to computer programming with great results by a team from Georgia Tech. Jason Freeman, a professor in the School of Music, and Brian Magerko, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication, created a unique software program called EarSketch, which teaches students computer coding by allowing them to compose their own songs.

“Computer science has traditionally been taught in a way that’s very abstract and doesn’t excite a lot of students, and doesn’t really show the power of computing to touch all the different areas of our lives,” Freeman says.

But after surveying high school students, Freeman learned that what they do get excited about is music, with most listening for one to two hours every day.

“Music is a major part of their lives. We wanted to tap into that, in a way they could harness some of that excitement into learning computer science,” Freeman says.

So the idea for EarSketch was born as a way to blend coding with music production, using an interface similar to Apple’s popular Garage Band program.

Geared toward high school students, the program requires no previous experience with music or computer programming—but provides users with a creative way to learn about both. The building blocks of the software are short snippets of sound known as “loops” that were created by electronic musicians. Freeman says all the loops in EarSketch were created by professional electronic musicians, including Richard Devine and Young Guru, an audio engineer known for his work with hip-hop artists like Jay Z.

Students can then pick and choose from thousands of loops in a music library to make their own songs. But the catch is that in order to put the sounds together, they must write code using either JavaScript or Python, the two coding languages that the software teaches.

“They’re learning a real programming language. It’s not some sandbox they’re learning in, it’s a real language that’s used throughout the industry. They can take those skills directly into another learning environment or eventually into a job,” Freeman says.

All of the loops were designed to fit together, so that the result doesn’t sound totally dissonant, even coming from a novice. In the end, students have composed their own song in a style that they are passionate about, from dubstep to electronica to hip-hop.

“I think contextualizing computing into something very personal and expressive and creative is a really powerful thing to do,” Freeman says.

The program was first created in 2011, and after a few years of pilot studies, it was released online in 2014. The program, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, is free to use. In the years since, Freeman says the EarSketch team has formed active partnerships with metro Atlanta school districts —including Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cherokee and Clayton counties—for teachers to use the program in their classrooms.

Currently, more than 11,000 students are using EarSketch each month, with many of those being high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles classes. Indeed, EarSketch has found an audience well outside of Atlanta, with students from approximately 300 schools in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

Since the software was introduced, Freeman and his team have spent many hours observing in classrooms and studying how students learn and interact with their software, and the findings have been quite interesting. According to their data, before female students begin studying EarSketch in class, they tend to be much less engaged than male students. But by the end of their training, they’ve gained so much in these engagement measures that they have either matched or surpassed their male peers.

“What we’ve found through our research with students in metro Atlanta is that this is a really exciting way for students to learn about coding and that it has particularly strong impacts on female students,” Freeman says. “This is important given the long-standing problems we’ve seen with gender balance in the tech industry and in computer science education.”

Pam Whitlock, a computer science teacher at Chattahoochee High School in Fulton County, has incorporated EarSketch into her own AP Computer Science Principles class. She says the musical aspect of the software makes it appealing to students who are intimidated by coding.

“The thing I probably like the best about it is when you have new programmers coming in, they have this preconceived notion of what a programmer is supposed to be like or how challenging it’s supposed to be,” Whitlock says. “But everybody likes music. Before they knew it, they were doing some really complex coding but in a really non-intimidating tool that they were getting really great results from.”

Likewise, Whitlock says EarSketch has also been beneficial for her students who are already computer enthusiasts. “EarSketch pushed them to be more creative,” Whitlock says. “It really pushed them out of their comfort zone.”

In 2016, EarSketch was highlighted by the Obama Administration’s “Computer Science For All” initiative.

Freeman says the researchers behind EarSketch—an interdisciplinary Georgia Tech team including members from the Center for Music Technology; Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC); Digital Media; and the College of Computing—are working on the next version of the software, which will make it easier for students to collaborate.

“It’s a great example of how projects of this scale are beyond the expertise of any one person or department,” Freeman says. “It’s a moving target and we’re always trying to get better.”

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