Can Spotify and New York City save music education with technology?

Forget recorders and bongo drums; the classroom musical instruments of tomorrow could look more like GarageBand and Spotify. And it’s not necessarily because educators want to familiarize students with technology. It’s because, in an age of declining budgets and disappearing school arts programs, technology might be a way to cost-effectively keep and improve music education in the classroom.

In a move that I hope inspires more activities like it, Spotify and the New York City Department of Education this week announced that they’re jointly hosting a hackathon encouraging developers to create apps for music education.

In a post on its blog, Spotify said its goal is to “unlock the creative power of music and technology to address some key educational challenges.”

As part of the hackathon, which will take place later this month, music teachers were asked to identify the problems and issues most important to them. Their input will shape the challenge presented to developers at the event and a few teachers will be on hand to consult with the developers as they create their apps.  The judging panel is expected to include people from startups like Spotify and Rap Genius, an executive from Universal Music and officials from City Hall.

As schools across the country face budget cuts, music and arts programs continue to get cut and scaled back, leaving many students without instruction in the visual arts or music. In New York City’s public schools, for example, one in five eighth grade students graduates from middle school without meeting the state’s minimum requirements for arts education.

Apps alone obviously can’t do what an effective arts teacher can, but they can help educators find interesting ways to engage students around the arts or even academics in general. Already, the New York City Department of Education said educators in its iZone (which includes schools exploring new ways to use technology in education) are using GarageBand and other tools to re-engage students who have fallen behind.

For Innovate NYC Schools, the Department of Education iniative behind the hackathon, the event is a continuation of its efforts to bring the New York City technology and education communities closer together. Last week, it announced the winners of a more involved developer challenge aimed at closing achievement gaps in middle school math and it plans additional hackathons and app challenges.

They don’t expect any classroom-ready apps to come out of a weekend-long hackathon but they do hope that it gets teachers and engineers talking about ways they can hack education together.

The immediate idea is that developers could create tools that will supplement music education programs already in New York schools but, down the road, technology could help make music education of some kind more feasible for more schools. A traditional orchestra program may require a big investment in instruments and rehearsal space, but, as Steven Hodas, executive director of Innovate NYC Schools, pointed out, digital music programs could still teach students about harmony, composition and production — at a lower cost.

“It could make a different kind of music education open to more schools,” he said.

Image by Morgan Lane Photography via Shutterstock.