I am always on the lookout (or listen-out, maybe) for new music to inspire my students and give them some direction in their explorations.  Music is an organic art form, and that’s a blessing.  New music is being recorded every day, as well as new interpretations of music that’s been around a while.  Keeping pace with new music is important for a teacher – after all, your students are keeping up with new music, and it’s unconscionable to teach with the same set of music examples throughout your career.  You cannot expect your students to want to explore music unfamiliar to them if you yourself are closed to new sounds.

Years ago, finding new music was as simple as listening to your favorite radio station and hearing what the DJ said at the end of the song.  Most songs were announced so that you would be able to go to the record store and buy it.  When MTV came on the scene in 1981, each song would have its publication details presented at the end of the video, for the same reason.  I have found recently, however, that playlists on the radio get longer and longer, and waiting to hear what the song you just heard is titled can take way longer than you have time to wait.  Apps such as Shazam and Soundhound are very useful for finding out what a song is, but you need internet connection for them to work, and sometimes inconvenient factors such as background noise can prevent an accurate match.  Newer car radio players have an impressive way of displaying the artist and title of the selection as it’s playing on the radio, and while this is really cool, it’s actually taken away the necessity of DJs announcing their selections, so if you don’t have a new car radio (or Shazam or Soundhound) handy when you hear something you like, you’re often totally up a stump.

Three new free streaming music players on the market are certainly worth a look for finding new music.  I have found each of them to be great tools for steering me towards music I would otherwise have not heard (or, worse, heard but never been able to identify).  You should definitely check them all out and find your favorite.  Each one has many excellent features.

Pandora has been around for some time now, and is available as an app (for iPhone, Android etc) as well as a web-based player.  I do like how Pandora includes information about each of the artists you’re listening to.  It’s genome-matching algorithm is also very good, and I find the directions it goes to select the next song is often very exciting and unexpected.  My biggest beef with Pandora is the audio ads.  Unless you have the paid subscription option (Pandora One), your music will be interrupted every five or six songs by an audio ad, which is often louder than the music it interrupts.

Spotify recently added a radio player to its already excellent app.  I have very much enjoyed availing myself of the wealth of great music that is played on the Spotify radio, but again there are one or two drawbacks.  Spotify has audio and video ads, which are very disruptive.  I know it’s unkind of me to complain about ads in a free service, but the ads often destroy the emotional direction that the music has taken you, and it’s unbelievably jarring.  Music shouldn’t be about being filler between ads.  Also, I’ve found Spotify’s algorithm for deciding what to play next to be urgently in need of further development.  Every time I try to program a Classical music station on Spotify, I find I just keep hearing different recordings of Pachelbel’s Canon and Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, as if they’re the only two pieces of music that were composed before 1800.  Also, Spotify cannot run just from the website – if you want to listen on your PC or Mac you have to install the app, which may mean problems in schools where installation of apps is controlled and/or prevented.

The newest player on the scene is Songza, and I must admit I’m very impressed with it.  Songlists are created by users, rather than computer algorithm, and the ‘Concierge’ feature, which allows you to select a playlist through menus of your moods and wishes, is really impressive and fun.    Songza is available as an app for iPhone, iPad, Android, etc., and will run from the web site as well.  The best experience is definitely the iPad app, where you can tweet or facebook directly from the player, or go directly to iTunes to make a purchase.  Thankfully Songza’s ads are not audio – just visual, which means your enjoyment of the music is never interrupted (this is undoubtedly my favorite feature of the app).

Please feel free to comment on your own experiences of these apps, and other ways you find new music for your classes to enjoy.

Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland.  He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England.  Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo.  He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance.  He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US.  His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.
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