The iPad in Music Education

| November 6, 2014

the iPad allows the savvy educator to establish critical learning pathways that focus on musical intelligence rather than on the rote acquisition of skills and facts.

In 2014 we find ourselves on the verge of a revolution in the use of computing technology in education thanks to the tablet computer. This is the result of a wave of tactile mobile devices that began as a ripple with the Apple iPhone’s introduction in 2007 and gathered momentum with the launch of the iPad in 2010. The take up of the iPad and other tablet computers in schools has been rapid. The tablet computer today is smaller, more tactile, more powerful, and more connected than desktop computers were less than a decade ago. For someone like me, who has been involved in music technologies in education for some time, it feels like the tablet form factor and the ubiquity of internet access have combined to be a tipping point that delivers on the educational promise long harboured by technologists; that the power of computing would be widely accessible to students and easily integrated into their learning. In this article I survey some of the many ways the iPad, as the most popular of current tablet computers, can be used in music education.

#148163863 / Caption: Young boy laying upside down on couch practices piano on table computer screen in afternoon.

Music Production

Computing devices have long been central to digital music production and many of these capabilities are now available on the iPad in applications such as GarageBand. Often digital audio software is unnecessarily complex for use in school contexts but the trend toward simplicity in iPad app development has facilitated simple and quick audio recording, editing, and music performance.

Audio recording is useful to capture ideas or to assist with reflection on performances. On the iPad, simple apps like #Voice can be used for this. When editing of the recordings is required then apps that display a waveform and allow copying, pasting and timing are useful; for example check out the Hokusai Audio Editor. If the built in microphone is not sufficient, and it often will not be, then an external microphone can be connected with hardware interfaces like the iRig Pre or Tascam iXZ or you can plug in one of many USB audio interfaces or a USB microphone with Apple’s iPad Camera Connection Kit.

Looped-based music making is fun and accessible to students. Simple sequencers include the Little MIDI Machine sequencing app that allows for the creation of step-by-step musical patterns. For younger audiences O-Generator and Beatwave offer similar features with a simplified interface. More extensive sequencing and sampling (recording) practices can be achieved with music production software such as Figure, iMPC and iKaossilator. These often include music clips that scaffold students’ compositional activities while they learn to build their own material from scratch.

For the more sophisticated music producer, the iPad has an increasing range of digital audio workstations (DAWs) that provide the kind of power once reserved for desktop computers. DAW apps for iPad include Auria, Cubasis, BeatMaker 2, NanoStudio, and GarageBand.

The iPad does not have to be used in such traditional ways either. Novel music creation interfaces that exploit the touch interface include Sound Drops, Strange Attractor and Musyc. These apps provide interesting musical playgrounds for students to explore the unconventional and expand their creative horizons.

Those creating notation-based musical scores have not been ignored either. NoteFlight (and the iPad viewer) or Notion for example, allow on screen notation editing, syncing files to cloud storage, and editing of scores. NotateMe makes use of the iPad’s touch display to support hand writing recognition of music notation.


The iPad can be used to display scores for performance. Notation apps can be used or you can simply display images or PDF files of scores using appropriate apps. An increasingly popular extension to score reading is the use of foot pedals to trigger page turns; devices include AirTurn and PageFlip.

The iPad can also provide accompaniment to student performances using backing tracks, for music play-along, or via score following with auto accompaniment software such as SmartMusic. Auto-accompaniment software allows the musician to play along with music displayed on screen. Using its knowledge of the score, the auto-accompaniment software keeps track of the musician’s performance via microphone input and plays an accompanying part (or parts), in time, using virtual instruments.

Backing tracks for performance can be played by many apps including Apple’s built-in Music app. Accompaniments can be purchased from commercial suppliers, downloaded from internet sites, or created by teachers or by students themselves using production software like that mentioned earlier.

The iPad can be played as a musical instrument. There are numerous synthesizer and controller interface apps for this purpose. Even GarageBand has a set of ‘smart’ instruments that provide a good deal of expression and sophistication. Other examples include Yamaha’s VisPerformer or SoundPrism. Using these, the iPad can be a solo or ensemble instrument in mixed or iPad-only ensembles. Computational devices like the iPad have the potential to open up a world of live music to students, but students need to learn to play these devices, not just use them.

Headphones can be directly plugged into the iPad for personal listening, and this outlet can be connected to a loudspeaker system, perhaps via a mixing desk, for monitoring. To save all the hassle with leads and connectors there is also the provision to connect the iPad to wireless speakers and transmit audio over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Study and Reflection

Computers have been used for decades for drill and practice exercises, and the iPad does not escape this tradition. There are apps to support aural awareness and music theory instruction such as ClefTutor, EarBeater or the more game-like TuneTrain. Using the built-in Safari web browser one can access a plethora of online resources, including

Internet access on the iPad can open the door to an expanding array of online learning resources, including massive open online courses (MOOCs) that became popular in the late 2000s. MOOCs use the internet to deliver course materials: videos, podcasts, readings, interactive web apps, and tests. Access can be self-paced or dictated by a scheduled delivery of content. To keep abreast of the latest MOOC offerings check out the mooc-list site.

The iPad can also play a role in assessment processes. Like other computing technologies it is often used by teachers and peer reviewers at the final stages of projects for providing commentary, collating grades and writing reports. But it can also be used throughout the learning process to document activities and provide feedback and learning support. There are apps that can be used for documenting activities and outcomes with video recording and photography, and for reflecting on work via written reports, ePortfolios and social media commentary. Increasingly, messaging and social media technologies facilitate communication between peers, assessors, and administrators. The iPad can access these services and can link to databases that store information about assessment items. In some well-defined areas, apps such as SmartMusic or MusicTutor can be used to make automated judgments about student competence, knowledge, or skill.


The implementation of iPads into a music education program can have many positive effects. However, integrating digital music technologies can disrupt established practices and challenge conventional thinking.

The integration of new technologies and the musical practices associated with them into music education should be seen as an opportunity to re-evaluate learning objectives. Tools such as the iPad allow the savvy educator to establish critical learning pathways that focus on musical intelligence rather than on the rote acquisition of skills and facts.

The form factor of the iPad and it’s relative affordability has prompted many schools to equip all students with the device, and other schools to purchase class sets of iPads. In many cases students will have their own mobile device that can be used in a similar way to that described for the iPad in this article. In these cases schools can augment them by providing auxiliary equipment like wireless networks, loudspeakers, control surfaces, mixing desks, microphones, and audio interfaces.

Data security is an issue when using shared devices. Students should be encouraged to save and manage their own data using portable storage devices or cloud-based portfolios. Teachers can minimize data loss by keeping snapshots of student work and backups of electronic resources and materials.

Making the most of the iPad requires music staff to be well versed in its operation and applications. Professional development is a vital aspect of an effective integration of iPads into the music program. Approaches can include training sessions conducted when equipment is purchased; colleagues sharing knowledge in seminars, conferences, and external training courses; or the use of knowledgeable students to brief staff about the latest developments.

The benefits of integrating iPads and their associated musical practices into schools are many. They include increased student engagement, the renewal of music curricular, and encouraging educators to refine their missions and priorities. The integration of iPads and other digital music systems and practices can enable more relevant, inclusive, and efficient music-making opportunities for both staff and students.

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