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Music professor uses computer technology to enhance classroom instruction

snograss_t.jpgBOONE—Students in Jennifer Snodgrass’s music theory classes are learning more than the dynamics of composition. They are exploring ways technology can enhance their learning, and in the process helping develop ways other students and instructors can use technology to teach the nuances of music theory.

Snodgrass is an assistant professor in the Mariam Cannon Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University. She has received $39,823 from Microsoft Research & External Programs to explore the use and efficiency of Tablet PCs in the music classroom.

“We are very excited by the depth and breadth of the projects for the Tablet PC,” said Jane Prey, program manager with Microsoft. “Jennifer’s creative approach to enhance musical theory with the Tablet represents the innovative way technology can work to provide greater resources to faculty while enriching the classroom experience for students and musicians alike.”


Tablet PCs are laptop computers with a touch screen enabling users to “write” or “draw” on the screen when using a special stylus. The screen rotates 180 degrees and can lay flat on the keyboard. Images from the laptop can be projected onto a screen for classroom viewing.


Jennifer Snodgrass, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University uses a Tablet PC laptop computer to teach music theory. Snodgrass received $39,823 from Microsoft Research & External Programs to study the effectiveness of the technology in music classes. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)

Using technology in the classroom is a regular practice for Snodgrass, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland with a research focus on computer-assisted instruction. While a faculty member at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, she received an SBC Ameritech Grant for Teaching with Technology.

When Snodgrass came to the Hayes School of Music, she began evaluating the Tablet PC as a way to enhance her classroom instruction. “In music theory, you look at the intricate details that comprise the musical composition,” she said. “I used the Tablet PC for a semester, and my students were just amazed that I could scan a piece of music, then zoom in on a particular measure of music, draw on it, and zoom out so that they could see how the measure works within the context of an entire piece.”

The technology allows her to save notes written on the tablet for later use, or share with students who might have missed a particular class. It has another benefit too: student engagement. “I think they are more involved (in the class),” Snodgrass said. “Being able to show different interpretations of the music generates a lot of great discussion among the students.”

Charlie Meadows, Snodgrass’s research assistant and a graduate student in the university’s library sciences program, has helped research the use of Tablet PCs in the classroom. The technology isn’t new, but the research he found focused on the laptop’s effectiveness in math and science classes. Nothing had been published on the effectiveness of Tablet PCs in music classes. Armed with that knowledge, Snodgrass and Meadows submitted a grant proposal to Microsoft.

Snodgrass has used a portion of the grant, coupled with funding from the Hayes School of Music and an Appalachian State University Foundation Faculty Fellows grant, to purchase eight laptops which students will be able to use in class and check out for assignments.

The Microsoft grant also is supporting the work of Appalachian graduate student Katherine Reid, who will develop a Web site that will complement the music theory textbook used by Snodgrass and other music educators across the United States. Recent music school graduate Alex Newton has analyzed compositions and compiled classroom material for the project.

Thompson/Schirmer, publisher of the text “Anthology for Musical Analysis,” has given Snodgrass permission to scan 30 compositions from their text for the project. Students will analyze the compositions, and faculty and students from the Hayes School of Music will record the music, which will be available from the Web site as mp3 sound files. When the Web site is complete, music instructors and students will be able to see different analyses of a piece and hear it performed.

Meadows also has helped Snodgrass secure copyrights for the music being used, scanned the music to create a digital image of the piece and prepared sound files for the project. He continues to research ways the technology is being used by other academic disciplines. Meadows will also help analyze data being collected on music students’ familiarity with the Tablet PC, how they use it in class and for assignments and any problems they have experienced.

Meadows has an undergraduate degree in music. He appreciates the difference the Tablet PC can make in music classes, particularly theory classes. “When a teacher circles a particular note or passage of music displayed by the laptop, the student knows exactly what passage is being studied,” he said. “It can reduce any confusion between the material the teacher is presenting and students’ understanding of the material.”

Music theory is required of all music majors, whether they are majoring in performance, music education, music therapy or music industry studies, Snodgrass explained. It includes study of how phrasing, harmony, melody and rhythm work together in a composition.

“As a performer, you need to understand why the music works the way it does. If it changes key, you need to know how to reflect that in your performance,” she said. “If you are conducting an orchestra, you need to understand the changes that are occurring in the music so that you can better interpret and indicate these changes to the performers.”

To hear Jennifer Snodgrass talk about the Tablet PC project, listen to the audio files listed below.