A new season for digital music education?

by Sandrine Desmurs and the members of the SMS Digitisation Working Group.

Since cultural practices entered the digital age (Donnat, 2008) in France, musical life has been affected in all its aspects by this technological revolution. The constant evolution of digital tools has contributed to the emergence of new languages and artistic forms (Le Guern, 2012; Prior, 2012), which are changing the networks and conventions of artistic cooperation (Becker, 1999) and fostering creativity. However, considering that digital practices change the way we create, play, broadcast, and listen to music (Prior, 2012), they may also transform the ways we learn music, and therefore concern the way we teach music.

This has become all the more evident since the Covid pandemic has required protocols for social distancing. Music schools have indeed changed their entire operation to continue to carry out their mission and embrace distance learning, often without prior training in digital tools. The use of digital technology became suddenly necessary to ensure the continuity of music education and provoked teachers and students to discover and become aware of possibilities and limits of this alternative mode of musical teaching.

We will first highlight the difference between distance learning and the use of digital technology in learning situations. We will then look at the ongoing transformations in musical practices, and then in the pedagogical sphere in the digital age. Finally, we will examine digital uses in teaching and research issues on digital musical learning.

Distance education as education that lacks physical presence

Distance education is an old way of teaching. It is traditionally approached as an alternative or substitute. The teacher’s role is to ensure that the course content, accompanied by assignments to be completed and documentary or technical elements to be consulted, reaches the learner and that the learner sends back proof of the progress of his or her learning through technological devices. Historically based on epistolary exchange, in other words correspondence, distance learning (named firstly “correspondence courses”), has followed the evolution of communication techniques, such as the telephone, radio, television, CD-Rom, and finally the Internet (with for example the MOOC format), without being modified in its methods.

The exclusive distance (without presence) induces, most of the time, a pre-programmed teaching. Courses are structured and organized in advance. Students have access to lessons, resources and must practice to verify their understanding of the lesson. The teaching is here thought as a product to be delivered whose effects are known and mastered. As Jean Houssaye said, this way of doing is more centered than on teaching, not on learning. It leaves little to change, to improvisation. Interactions and feedback are not immediate, which impoverishes the pedagogical relationship and prevents any adaptation or transformation of the activity during the learning process. The learner is in fact very constrained and passive. This situation experienced during the successive confinements has challenged many teachers and students with regard to very different pedagogical habits. Teaching is in the end something else than transmitting knowledge and giving a lesson, which is what the sciences of education have been teaching us for a long time.

Finally, whatever the technological tools mobilized to create educational pathways, the main challenge is to reflect on the pedagogical model and the didactic foundation underlying this pathway. The digitization of educational practices therefore always requires pedagogical reflection and time for implementation in order to build learning situations. Reflecting on educational technology drives you to the core of pedagogy

Is pedagogical innovation contained in the technique?

Indeed, the pedagogue and educational reformer, Celestin Freinet didn’t wait for Twitter or any social network to make his pupils correspond with one another. And the flipped classroom isn’t born from the web. From then on, the effects of technologies depend on the uses made of them. The confusion between technical innovation and pedagogical innovation is often only the result of a fascination with the performance of a new technical tool (radio, television, computer, cell phone…) and does not stand up to analysis :

“New technologies in education are simply updating and reinterpreting teaching and learning methods that are sometimes thousands of years old. The terms have changed, not the main driving forces behind pedagogy.”(Davidenkoff, 2014)

Pedagogical innovation does not depend on the presence or absence of a particular tool or technology in the learning situation. Even the digital injunction can lead to a deterioration of the teaching and learning processes.

The COVID 19 crisis has just highlighted the technical aspect of digital, namely the immeasurable flow of tools available. However, making an informed choice among these tools does not sum up the stakes of educational digital.

Technologies are not only means of transmission (of texts, sounds, images), but also tools for invention and creation that can considerably transform education in the broad sense and music education in particular. However, these transformations are not determined in advance by the tools and do not in themselves contain any “good pedagogical practice”, which is why the pedagogical reflection associated with these technological means is a key issue for the years to come. The “power of change” (Savage, 2007) of information technologies is not self-evident. What about, for example, digital music practices?

Musical practices are transformed by the use of new technologies

Talking about music is talking about instrument, lute-making, of objects specifically designed to sound or likely to produce sound. So, even if only from the point of view of lute-making, technological progresses have always had an impact on the making of music, on sound, on musical creation and technological progresses have always had an impact on making music, on sound, on musical creation.

For example, the creation in the 80’s of the MIDI protocol 1 (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a computer protocol that will allow the exchange of algorithmic data between several instruments) allows to decorrelate the gesture of the sound and also, allows the interaction and communication between different instruments, by the fact of a standard that will become generalized and create new conventions in the sense of Howard Becker. (Le Guern, 2012)

Today, digital technologies are inherent in the ways we produce (we make music), broadcast and listen to music, by amplifying practices already in place (such as analog front end recording, now digital), or even by transforming our relationship to music (real-time signal processing, sampling, instant access to 10 million titles available on streaming services, the availability of a symphony orchestra at your fingertips, etc.). Driven by very advanced research in different artistic currents (musique concrète, electroacoustic, hybrid, mixed electronic, etc.), new technologies have opened the way to other sound materials, both by processing an existing signal and by creating sounds that exist entirely as a result of the technological fact. The technique of sampling also allows the almost identical reproduction of acoustic sound by the machine (Adeno, 2012).

The aspect of “music visualization” has also been transformed by new interfaces that allow the visualization of pitches, timbres, and their most complex combinations. Because of interface, sight precedes hearing (Strachan, 2012), which echoes the new ways of listening to music on video streaming channels. Music publishing today benefits from the same combinatorial power as digital text writing.

“Music writing is now a flexible practice, progressing at the speed of a combinatorial copy-paste or undo operations, with the interface representing the work as a malleable digital landscape” (Prior, 2012).

The music thus created is neither definitive nor reproducible in the same way. Hence the term “generative music” (Brian Eno 1995) used to speak of music created “here and now” using a system, always different and changing, music being created rather than having been created.

All these transformations were possible because the repertoire of user-generated uses and their manipulation, do-it-yourself, combinations (Ribac, 2007) transformed our imaginations and our relationship to the world, and among others to the world of musical art. For Philippe Le GUERN, who wonders about the link between technologies and music in a digital regime, we are only at the beginning of the ongoing transformations.

“[…] it is the triple register of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary that is modified, i.e. simultaneously the way in which we concretely make music, but also the way in which we give value to this music in a digital regime and in which we inscribe it in representations”.

If the technical environment (the technical system according to Ellul? ) modifies our practices and our representations of music, aren’t new skills necessary for the musician of tomorrow?

The information society is transforming access to knowledge and our space-time is multiplying

New technologies have invaded our lives and are transforming our relation to the world. We have entered into a permanent accessibility to a set of datas that circulate all around the world. And we now watch the screens of these cell phones more than 300 times a day. We have a tool for expressing everyday life in our hand and an intelligent assistant in our pocket. Space-time is changing. And our relationship to each other is both virtual and physical. What are the implications for teaching and learning processes?

Access to knowledge

At the end of the Second World War, the birth of information sciences aims at building a society of peace, transparency, a much more intelligent and cultured society. Putting information into the hands of the sciences and rationalizing the way we handle it should make it possible to generate collective intelligence. Through the a-centric circulation of information, modern computing and the network of networks constituted another tool for the production of information and knowledge, another way of being able to organize this production of knowledge and information without a center, a-centric in order to generate an authorial future for the public and to put intelligences in the periphery2.

This utopia of origins has revolutionized our relation to knowledge with a paradigm shift from scarcity (before those who knew were those who had access) to infobesity (today accessibility is no longer the issue). However, notes Yves Citton, “As soon as we are immersed in technologies that put information at the click of a mouse in a fraction of a second, the training of skills that takes place within our educational institutions can no longer be organized around the transmission of content”3.

In this new knowledge regime, knowledge must be reconstructed by cross-checking, analyzing and verifying information. Bruno Devauchelle (2014, 2015) proposes a rewriting of Jean Houssaye’s pedagogical triangle in the era of the information society4.

Figure 1: Bruno Devauchelle and the educational triangle of Jean Houssaye (© Bruno Devauchelle – EIDOS 2015 (with his kind permission))

One risk, often emphasized today, would be to consider that since knowledge is available on the web, it is no longer necessary to learn. However, there is indeed a double challenge with information, that of knowing how to search for it and that of understanding it. Searching for information is an important teaching activity, carried out in a constrained but secure environment. Understanding and taking a critical look at information are two activities of intelligence that are part of the skills to be built in the educational process. Therefore, this is part of learning in an educational context. Teaching implies allowing everyone to search for and understand information. The network of networks is a tool to be mobilized for this. With regard to the shared database that the World Wild Web constitutes, the challenge today would be to “learn to learn in interaction”, to find the method, find the knowledge, adapt it to the problem, model the answers and disseminate them in the shared field of knowledge (Lebrun, 2020; Siemens 2005). The teacher’s role is always to set up the conditions in which the learner can learn.

The relationship to time and space

The digital society is also replaying our relation to time and space. Consequently, the educational field does not escape the phenomenon. The time of formal training is possibly being stretched (in “flexibility”) and the places and spaces of training are in fact changing (in “mobility”).
The pedagogical organization currently uses words such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous”, or “presential” and “remote”. However, rethinking spaces and times makes the pedagogical act disappear in no way, quite the contrary. It is a question of constructing with these other spaces, so-called virtual spaces, and these other temporal data (reconstructed simultaneities, modifications of the recorded and broadcast object, etc.) structured, coherent and secure learning situations. Even if we name them, we still have a long way to go and many possible combinations to imagine what these new dimensions cover. This involves new forms of relationships and interactions between students and between teachers and students. Consequently, space and time, constructed as technical dimensions rather than immediate and environmental dimensions, interfere with teaching/learning (Marcel Lebrun, 2019) and offer teachers new possibilities for scripting learning activities. Distance does not only mean that the student is alone and at home. It can mean that the student is in class with his or her peers but the teacher is not there. This pedagogical modality was not born with digital tools. But here again, new technologies make it possible to amplify or reinforce certain teaching gestures, certain pedagogical methods such as feedback, interactive logic, manipulation, differentiated pedagogy, etc.

When the pedagogical situation changes by integrating new tools in and out of the classroom.

To question the integration of digital tools in learning situations, we can consider these tools as teaching aids rather than substitutes (to be distinguished from the single vision of remote education discussed above). Célestin Freinet spoke in the 1960s about “[…] tools and techniques that allow new forms of work better adapted to our environment: printing and school newspapers, limographs, paintings, files, work libraries, tape recorders, teaching tapes…[…]”5

In Freinet pedagogy, the choice of adequate tools supports learning and in particular during the process of experimental trial and error. Many of the tools used in Freinet pedagogy aim at the teacher’s withdrawal for more student involvement. Through the introduction of new tools, Freinet pedagogy aimed at modifying the work processes of teachers and students. 

If we transpose a strong idea of this pedagogue, the tools used are at the service of the learning situation and the pedagogical project of the teacher. These new tools are simply those that are available in the society of the moment and make it possible to think about the learning of a skill in multiple situations. The technical manipulation is done within the framework of a planned activity, supervised by the teacher, and generates technical learning that is complementary to the main objective. 

“Inspired by technology Driven by pedagogy”6

The theoretical model SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) by Ruben Puentedura (2010) allows to reflect on the differentiated impact of new technologies in pedagogical situations linked to the transformation of the students’ activity, depending on the task they are asked to perform. Starting from a given task, the impact of the use of technology is evaluated with reference to the 4 levels: either the technology allows an improvement (levels 1 and 2: Substitution, Augmentation), or it allows a transformation of the task (levels 3 and 4: Modification, Redefinition).

Theoretical SAMR model by Ruben Puentedura (2010)
Figure 2: Theoretical SAMR model by Ruben Puentedura (2010)

Students are motivated by the activities we can offer them, not by technology. After the “wow” effect of the digital tool, the student may turn away from the activity if it is not mobilizing even if it’s based on digitals tools. We can create new activities with information technology. And thanks to these new activities, we can help our students to develop transversal skills, such as multimedia skills.

This integration of digital technologies into learning cannot exist without their appropriation by teachers. However, the massive use of new technologies during COVID crisis has reminded us of the lack of training and support in the use of these technologies by a large part of the teaching staff, from the design to the implementation of their pedagogical activities. The TPACK model for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (KOEHLER & MISHRA, 2009) attempts to identify the nature of the knowledge required by teachers for the integration of technology in their teaching, namely the three fields of knowledge that are didactic knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and technological knowledge.

TPACK model for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Koehler & Mishra, 2009)
Figure 3: TPACK model for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Koehler & Mishra, 2009)

The importance of analysing this model lies at the intersection of these three fields. Here are the teachers capable of mobilising digital tools in relation to the learning objectives and the desired pedagogical modalities are located. This model supports the idea that the acquisition of technological skills alone is not enough to integrate technological tools into teaching practices. In France, Marcel Lebrun (2011), relying on the concept of “pedagogical alignment” and its principle of coherence between targeted learning, pedagogical methods and evaluation methods, will add the question of technological means (tools) as a fourth pole to be aligned. 

When digital rhymes with music, teaching rhymes with otherwise

Since the challenge lies in the pedagogical approach that integrates and relies on the tool, what are the leads of reflection for music teaching? 

Starting from a typology of four functions supported by the new technologies that are : 

  • storage, re-use
  • visualization
  • automatic processing 
  • communication, collaboration

Mireille Bétrancourt7 invites teachers to reflect on four types of uses of digital tools at the service of learning that we link to music teaching practices:

1. Uses geared towards training and which take advantage of the possible interactivity through technologies (immediate feedback allowing progression) significantly contribute to acquiring basic knowledge and skills. These are the exercisers, the activities related to rehearsal, and the activities related to training. 

2. Uses allowing to open up to the world around the search for information and the use of media. Today we have a media library and a global video library with a window on the world and on artistic and musical practices that we must use to discover, analyze, document practices and ways of doing things (and thus participate in the common knowledge) but also to develop a critical spirit, a common culture.

3. Uses oriented towards content production (building the “becoming-creator” (Verges, 2017) and). Supporting and reinforcing students’ creative practices and enabling them to generate protean productions, in different formats

4. Uses based on teamwork, collaboration but also communication. Music is often played by several people and digital collaborative practices can be used in this context as well.

The Institute of Technology for Music Education (TI:ME)8 offers six areas of technological skills and knowledge for music education, specifying that each teacher can develop the area(s) most relevant to his or her work and to the learning of his or her students. 

  • Music Instruction Software (educational software, web-based learning, coaching tools): Build on existing software specifically designed to develop certain skills, such as listening, note-reading, exercises, etc
  • Computer Music Notation: Knowing how to enter and edit musical data in different ways, how to connect music notation software to other types of music and productivity software, how to help students compose, etc.
  • Multimedia Development: Know how to create and distribute multimedia productions.
  • Electronic Musical Instruments: Both as new instrumental gestures and as a new sound environment.
  • Productivity Tools, Classroom and Lab Resources: Create spaces for storage and exchange of resources, eco-work system and communication tools. Media education
  • Electronic Music Production (digital audio, MIDI protocols, sound sequencing and design): Knowing how to record, mix store, share and play live.

With all these elements in mind, from the perspective of learning and developing the skills of the musical student in a music school, let’s look at four musical skills that can be supported by digital technologies:

  • Recording / editing sounds: knowing how to record, edit a sound file and produce an editing of sound tracks/sources. 
  • Musical notation (visualization of music) in all its variety (link between sounds and images) to fix your ideas, memorize them, modify them, and share them. 
  • Reinforce the creative path of students and new technologies are interesting levers for the manipulation of sound materials, the invention of rhythmic, melodies but also new instruments.
  • Search/found/understand music resources in the digital world


The political discourse of recent years speaks of digital as a “promise”9 and strongly encourages the educational community to seize it10. This is why it is necessary for teachers to understand the issues surrounding the integration of new technologies in educational spheres. The transversal nature of this media literacy concerns in fact the entire educational community and all disciplines.

In 2013, in his article “The Digital Divide, Myth or Reality?”, he wrote, Pascal Plantard invited the educational community to build its training systems “with the digital, in the digital and by the digital”. This invitation can be transposed to the professional training of artist-teachers, which could be part of this approach, and include pedagogical systems that allow taking into account and developing practices: 

  • with digital technology: Artist-teachers will be able to choose the most relevant technological instruments, through a constructed approach 
  • in the digital technology : Artist-teachers will be able to find their way around and adapt to the uses of their learners, among others, in order to build support points for their pedagogical approach. 
  • by digital technology: Artist-teachers will be able to experiment new artistic and pedagogical practices stemming from digital cultures in order to build a common and shared professional culture.

The debates surrounding the introduction of new technologies in education are quite divisive, and research on the subject, which is not new, allows us to qualify the views of both the anti (digital is a problem) and the pro (digital is a solution). The strong constraint posed by the health crisis has been the occasion for numerous experiments. This new experiment makes it possible to continue to document the evolution of uses and the emergence of pedagogical practices and to analyze what happens to the teaching staff, students and learning. It is indeed experimental research, perfectly adapted to pedagogical research that we need, and among others, in our field of special education. At a time when presence seems to be able to regain some of its place11, and when urgency still leaves little room for long periods of reflection and accompaniment, it is nevertheless desirable that we continue to exchange, to share in order to build common knowledge on these questions. The challenge is not so much to define “good practices” or recipes, but to rely on the testimonies and analyses of professionals and learners on ways of teaching and learning in the digital age. Finally, we have not addressed here the crucial question of equipment and structural means to accompany this reflection. How can this subject be taught at the level of a team, a structure, in connection with students and parents, in dialogue with local authorities and at the level of a territory, and in response to a cultural policy that embraces the subject? These workcamps are opening up all over Europe today. Let’s hope that the long-awaited “return to normal” and the sum of the frustrations accumulated over the last few months will not be an opportunity to put the lid back on this subject which has been rather ignored until now in our professional field.


1 The MIDI protocol appeared in 1983 at the same time as the TCP/IP protocol of the Internet network, which was also adopted as a standard.

2 In reference to the Whole Earth catalog: access to tools, an American counter-culture magazine published by Steve Brandt in the late 1960s

3 Yves Citton, For an ecology of attention

4 Bruno Devauchelle Techne – EIDOS 2015

5 Élise Freinet, L’Itinéraire de C. Freinet, Petite bibliothèque Payot, (1977)

6 Title of an OECD report published in 2010 « Inspired by Technology, Driven by Pedagogy: A Systemic Approach to Technology-Based School Innovations » (inspired by technology, guided by pedagogy)

7 Professor in Information Technology and Learning Processes and Director of TECFA at the University of Geneva

8 Non-profit organization of international experts

9 Read for example the Report of the parliamentary mission of Jean-Michel Fourgous, deputy of the Yvelines, on the innovation of pedagogical practices through digital technology and teacher training delivered on February 24, 2012.

10 As an example, the French Law of July 8, 2013 on orientation and programming for the re-founding of the École de la République reaffirms the desire for media and information education as well as responsible use of the Internet and social networks. In 2015, the French State adopted a digital education plan worth 1 billion euros over 3 years.

11 At the time of writing, in France, the conditions of resumption of activities for artistic educational institutions are those of the decree « 2020-1310 » allowing, among others, the reception of minors


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