The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy?

Let me preface this post by stating that I have never taught in the K-12 music classroom with iPads and that I am not trying to be inflammatory by asking this question.  As much as I love the device for my own personal use and music making, I simply do not know the answer to the question I’ve posed above.  I don’t fall on either side or even in the middle; I’m simply baffled.  It is my sincere hope that many readers will weigh in on the question so that I (and hopefully all of us) can better understand whether investing in a classroom set of iPads or in a one-to-one situation if iPads truly live up to the hype, and their potential as the next big learning device.

As I always say when I speak to educators, there are rock stars out there in music classrooms around the world doing innovative and creative things with technology, and specifically iPads.  What I’ve seen with my own two eyes however falls in to three distinct categories: presentation device (where teachers are projecting their iPads on to IWBs or screens to teach musical concepts and students are consuming content), creativity tool (where students are using commercially available apps to compose music), and performance device (where students and their teachers are using instrument apps to play music or to practice).  Let’s look at each category in a little more detail and ask some important questions.

In terms of a presentation device, there is no doubt that delivering content via iPad (eBooks, print music, relevant media (audio/video), and presentation files) has some great advantages.  Showing your own presentations (wirelessly to a projector and screen) allows you to walk around the classroom while presenting and even lets students interact with any content or apps when relevant.  I would love the ability to be untethered while presenting, but a wireless mouse let me do that pretty easily.  How many students are using music textbooks on an iPad?  How many students are putting their sheet music (band/orchestra methods and repertoire) up on their music stands while in rehearsal?  How many students are using apps like The History of Jazz to learn about Jazz?  How many teachers are creating content for their students to consume on their iPads?  While I am sure that there are some examples that answer each of these questions, I tend to think that the answer to all of these questions is: very few.  

As a creativity tool, I know that there are a boatload of very innovative and engaging apps out there for music creation.  I personally have dozens of great apps aimed at a variety of ages and learning styles.  From notation to sequencing to brand new ways of interacting with music, I’m in love with this category of apps.  But how are they being used in the classroom?  Are they used at all?  If so, how does the student share their work with others?  with the teacher?  Is there a place other than the iPad itself where an archive can be kept for assessment and building student portfolios?    I guess the point of all of the questions is what is the connection between students, teachers, parents and the wider community between all of these great tools?  I am hoping that there are hundreds of examples, but I fear that there are, in reality, only a few.

Performing music with an iPad is a lot of fun, and I have seen quite a few examples online of iPad ensembles.  Personally, I would love to be in one.  I’ve also seen lots of great “effects” apps that allow students to plug in microphones and guitars and do some pretty amazing things.  There are some very cool apps aimed at ensemble directors and students to aid with tuning, recording, metronomes, and more.   My questions here include: where is the repertoire coming from?  Are publishers creating iPad ensemble scores?  If so, how do they account for the thousands of available apps and the functionalities of each?  Also, aren’t there other opportunities to pick up real or even found instruments and make music?  Is purchasing an iPad the best way to bring performance to your classroom?

In addition to the questions above, from my limited experience I’ve heard that technology coordinators and administrators tend to make the purchasing of apps for a music classroom somewhat complicated, as there is almost always a central person assigned to be the only authorized purchaser for a school.  Is this your experience?  Are your students, or are you allowed to make app purchases on behalf of your program or school?  Is this simply one more obstacle in the way of smoothly incorporating iPads into the music curriculum, or is it worth the effort?

I know that this may seem a bit heretical coming from me, but in my humble opinion in order for there to be widespread use (meaning student and teacher using them together) and adoption of iPads in the music classroom, a few things need to be worked out.  The point of technology is to make a task easier, not more difficult.  At the moment iPads seem more of a novelty in the music classroom than a serious tool, and from that perspective its difficult to justify the purchase over other technology tools.  Music apps are developed by a wide range of people, few who are educators.  From my perspective there are many apps that are very helpful for music educators, but only a handful that link educators to students in meaningful ways.  I’ve tried and tried to find them, but I can’t.

I am hopeful that this post initiates a meaningful dialog illustrating best practices and respectful discourse.  My thoughts are simply me thinking out loud and hoping that the amazing music educator community answers my question.


Dr. James Frankel is the Head of Digital Music Education for the Music Sales Group, and Former Managing Director of SoundTree. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Montclair State University in 1993, where he studied the tuba as well as composition. In 1996, Dr. Frankel completed his Masters Degree in Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University where he completed his doctoral studies in 2002. Dr. Frankel is an Adjunct Faculty member at Teachers College Columbia University where he teaches courses on music technology.
Print Friendly
  • James Frankel

    Thanks for your response Brandt. You are certainly one of the pioneers in this area – and a rock star. I would love to come visit. My fear is that districts are buying iPads without answering these questions first. I hope that programs like your can serve as an example for others.

  • We should talk. Come visit.

    This is HARD work. We have to remember that the iPad is only two years old.

    I think I do all three of the above categories, but it would be really cool to have a technical audit.

    1. We are commissioning works for the iPad!/on-air/as-seen-on/Mixed-Up-Musical/150825515 Where we have to invent and manipulate new instruments.

    2. We are starting to use our iPads as “the band book” but this takes time to scan everything in…

    3. We are definitely creating. Not as much as I’d like.

    Biggest plus is mobility and accessibility. Every one of my students can use the iPad and I don’t teach software AT ALL.

  • You can leave your comments here or anywhere on Social Media. :)

  • Very good points Brandt.

  • Jim Frankel

    Thanks so much Brandt. You are certainly one of the pioneers and rock stars that I mention. My question concerns the more widespread adoption/frenzy that seems to be happening across the country. I would love to come up for a visit.

  • Very interesting question. I am currently completing a Masters in Education, and everywhere I look I see people excited about the iPad, but no one seems to know exactly how to utilize them fully. I think there is potential for interactive musical games in the case of beginning musical students who are just being exposed for the first time. Take the simple UI of the iPad and convert it into simple but fun musical games that would help beginning musicians experience the instant gratification previously reserved for experienced musicians. Thank you.

  • Amy

    Jim, my responses would be too long to answer here. Maybe I will write a post addressing your concerns. You ask some good questions.

  • I feel there may be more waste in computer labs, but thats a whole different story.

  • James Frankel

    Jay – Thanks! I couldn’t agree with you more on the points you’ve raised. I think this is a very important issue, and I look forward to hearing from other educators.

  • Jay Dorfman

    This is a really interesting post, and it’s good to ask controversial questions!
    Just like Amy, my answers are too long to post here, but some initial reactions are these:

    – The app culture, while incredibly innovative, doesn’t force us to make real commitments to software like we do when we buy expensive desktop software. As a result, many apps are viewed as novelties. They may be great, but they don’t get the kind of devotion that desktop apps do. Ever heard someone say, “I’m a Pocket Piano user” in the same way they would say, “I’m a Finale user”? I haven’t.

    – My research has shown me that, because the iPad is designed to be a “personal” device, it’s hard for students to collaborate with it (by working in groups, for example). A computer of just about any form factor can occupy two or three students.

    – An interesting obstacle comes when we try to teach students to use music production apps, for example, on the iPad. I know you feel that iPad GarageBand is perhaps the best app on the whole app store, and I agree. The difficulty is that, when projected on a screen, students can’t see where to tap until you actually tap. There’s no cursor. Sounds like a small thing, but it makes it difficult.

    I hardly ever leave my house without my iPad, but there’s a lot of work to do before it’s “ready for prime time” in the classroom. Maybe developers can start by thinking about some of these small problems and how they might be overcome.

    Great questions, Jim. Thanks for bringing it up.
    Jay Dorfman
    President, TI:ME

  • James Frankel

    That would be great Amy! I look forward to reading it.

  • James Frankel

    Great insights Adam. Thanks for sharing.

  • Come visit. Really.

  • Christopher Russell


    I’m loving this discussion.

    Just this past week, I had a visit from a music department where their school is going 1:1 with MacBook Pros because the science department had specific apps that would nor run with an iPad. Although I talked about the things that could be done with an iPad in music that cannot be achieved with any other device, I encouraged them to find some people that have the opposite view of the iPad that I do.

    Not that you have the opposite view. You are taking (mostly) a neutral stance and asking questions.

    I look forward to writing a reply to your post to answer many of your questions. But the truth is that I can’t answer all of them, because I cannot achieve 1:1 iPads for my students. If I could, you would see me doing most of the things you suggest in your post.

    I have submitted a proposal for a music tech course where I would teach music tech from a basis of music theory using a classroom set of iPads. My school administration approved the proposal, fully expecting the district administration to shoot down the proposal because it would require the purchase of an iPad cart for the class. They’re willing to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars into new STEM needs each year, but it is unlikely they will find the $24,000 necessary to create such a course (I included a challenge in the proposal, asking them to demonstrate a commitment to technology integration in all subjects).

    I envy Brandt’s situation. For the record, he has managed to get some grants to cover (some of) the costs of those iPads–and he’s done some grant work with the community to bring those devices to national attention.

    At any rate, back to your post–I need a bit more explanation where you say “it is difficult to justify the purchase [of iPads] over other technology tools.” Can I ask what those technology tools would be?

    The best part about your post is that it comes on the eve of the iPad mini announcement, and if you think we have a frenzy in education about the iPad now…wait 24 hours.

    I find myself to be skeptical about the iPad mini in education, because if the iPad’s screen is “too small” for music (some people think so), the iPad mini is going to only exacerbate the situation.

    I use my personal iPad every minute of the day in my classroom as a presentation device, as a creativity tool, and as a performance device. I also use it as a device of convenience, as it makes some tasks in my room (attendance, tracking classroom discipline) much easier. Again, that is all from the perspective of a teacher with his own iPad.

    I’d also argue that no mouse or slate can give me the control of annotation like I can achieve on the iPad…during lecture or even for teaching concepts like Music Theory.

    Yes, purchasing apps can be a frustrating experience–but so can any situation where a purchase order is required.

    The iPad is the item of technology that I’ve been waiting my for entire life–particularly in music. It would have been SO much better to be a college music major with an iPad. My students have so many tools that can help them with their musical skills–I’m envious of the opportunities they will have.

  • Christopher Russell


    Some good points here, too.

    I actually have been saying, “I use Notion on the iPad.” I understand there is a version of MuseScore for the iPad in the near future (well into development).

    I rather like the 1:1 nature of the iPad, and the power comes in the networking of multiple devices rather than the single user in the classroom. Apple is certainly still figuring out how that will all work, but truthfully, we don’t have that many solutions with personal computers, either.

    I’ve been told there is a jailbreak feature that shows where you tap on the screen. I have not tried it.

    Finally, with the exception of “large” companies (Apple and Notion, specifically), I’ve found that developers are open to suggestions. I could demonstrate how discussions I’ve had with developers over these past three years have causes hundreds of changes in apps (then again, there have been hundreds that have not occurred). These developers listen–and all they need is the feedback from people that aren’t angry and want to improve the product. That level of developer response is something you won’t find anywhere else.

  • Christopher Russell

    I’ve sat in Apple presentations where they sell GarageBand on this premise: “You can make music without knowing anything about music.” At that point, I start to squirm. How about, “You could make music without knowing anything about music, but how about learning something about music while using this app and really making something wonderful and special?”

  • Christopher Russell

    If I were 1:1, I would teach some tricks about software…because I know the tricks. You don’t have to teach basic functions, however. I come back to the Apple Store, where they used to have iMacs set up for kids, and my son (now four) would simply go and touch the screen, not understanding the keyboard or mouse. And with the development of Siri and iOS, I bet the days of the keyboard and mouse are numbered, too–it’s hard to imagine.

    Brandt, thanks for being a pioneer of iPads used by students in music. I know of a number of 1:1 iPad schools where they aren’t used in the music classes (at least on a regular basis).

  • James Frankel


    Thanks for your response. I look forward to reading your post – please be sure to post a link here when you are finished with it.
    To answer your specific question about what other technology tools, I should have been even broader and said any purchase for the music department (instruments/sheet music/supplies/etc). As a hardware device the iPad is certainly more affordable than a desktop or laptop, but from a software perspective I think almost any music software title trumps the functionality, connectivity and usability of almost any app. In my previous post, I mentioned many cloud-based subscription style software programs that are on the cutting edge. I would rather see an investment in those tools (at a much lower cost than buying a classroom set of iPads).

    Again, love the device and use it every day. I think that the hype from today’s iPad Mini announcement will prove my point that the consumer culture has made its way into the music classroom before we’ve actually answered some of the big questions that those editions pose.


  • Hi, I work with children from 6-13 in Norway. Forgive me if my english isn’t perfect…
    You ask some interesting questions.
    1) I normally have 28 students in a class, and we have one iPad for every second student (15 iPads). People often say you need 1:1. That would have been nice, but for economic reasons it is impossible in my situation. But working together in pairs is also really great. (One iPad, one split, two headphones.) We know that students learn more by articulating the skills they develop. When they work in pairs this happens naturally all the time.
    2) I share your concern about good methods for making students’ archive and sharing with the teachers. There are possibilities using mail, cloud services etc., but in education (kids, limited time etc.) we need a more streamlined and consistent workflow. That is why I have chosen to start of with the iPad as a tool for performing music and for organizing the learning process. Recording and producing will follow as the workflow develops.
    3) I find the iPad as a really useful device for organizing the classroom situation. One of several examples: Let’s say we’re learning to play the guitar. With 28-30 kids in one class I’ve always had to struggle with the feeling that I couldn’t help each individual student enough. I can now have the students easily make their own accompanying tracks with for instance the “iReal b”-app, then let them practice in pairs playing the guitar together with the steady drums and bass played by the app. It motivates, keeps them focused and helps them to play with the time&tempo. They can individually adjust the tempo to their level of guitar playing, and they can move on to another song when they are ready, as opposed to when we earlier had to play together in order to keep everyone being focused. The result is a triple win: The students’ practice is better adjusted to their individual level, I get to help them more one by one and they recognize their own progress and thus gets more motivated. I find my students are playing acoustic guitar at a higher level than before we started using iPads. It’s not because we play guitar on the iPad (we don’t), but because of the way we can organize the class.
    4) When it comes to performing music with iPads it surprises me that teachers are so concerned about iPad-bands. Why is that? Music performed by an iPad-ensemble is in most cases only for the specially interested. It’s like tuba octet or trumpet ensemble. It might be fun, and in maybe some occasions musically interesting. It depends on musical genre, but in many styles we still do want the sound qualities and the special touch produced by acoustic or other “real” instruments. I want the students to develop an awareness of this. So in my practice as a music educator I find the “gold is in the combinations”, that is when we use the iPad as a musical instrument. We choose technology (glockenspiel, iPad or whatever) to meet the musical needs. We combine it with other instruments and it brings inn new timbres, new techniques and possibilities for everyone to master.
    There are even more interesting aspects, but this was a few. And my answer to your initial question is definitely: A useful tool. :-)

  • Pingback: An Elementary Music Educator’s Response to “The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy?” | MusTech.Net: A Symphony of Music & Technology()

  • James Frankel
  • James Frankel

    Thanks so much for your great response Eldar. So nice to hear an international perspective on this issue!

  • Christopher Russell

    As requested, here is a longer reply. I really felt the need to get these thoughts out of my head before leaving for the weekend!

  • Pingback: The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy? | MusTech.Net « Tim Topham()

  • A disclaimer, I am not a classroom teacher but rather offer a lab with my private piano lessons. I see the iPad as a revolutionary way for students to learn theory concepts, drill ear training and much more. Although software has served me well for years, apps are so much more accessible and streamlined. The enormous amount of apps is overwhelming so I’ve begun a directory of my favorites/recommended apps to help keep them sorted.

  • Having my high school band now 1:1 with iPads has revolutionized grading, and feedback. Using one of the many free recording apps available, I have the kids record themselves while the whole band is playing. They send me the file, I listen and can fix mistakes that I often can’t hear when the whole group is playing. It has made the one on one instructional feedback of the lessons they had in middle schol possible!

    Plus the fact that they have access to excellent tuners and metronomes, and now have no excuses when they are late filling out a Google forms self-assessment survey, this band teacher is a happy camper. :)

  • Pingback: The iPad in the Music Classroom: Useful Tool or Expensive Toy? | Each One Teach One, Each One Reach One |

  • George Hess

    Hi Jay
    Sorry I’m so late to the discussion.
    I’ve been using a visualizer for my workshops with the iPad so the kids can see my fingers. It does limit my movement, but also limits how much I HAVE to move around as the kids understand more quickly. It’s easier to follow my fingers than a cursor too.

  • Steve Lincon

    iPads in Music Classroom is just perfect, its more of making the best use of technology. There’s an app garage band that i use for teaching my students in music class. And its already widespread in its use. Im took an online learning for that too: iPads in the Music Classroom 101-

    This course was really really helpful and the tutor is just amazing :)

  • Ellen Wubbels

    I have used iPads to teach general music to 300+ 6th grade students for the past two years. My first hurdle was to rethink my approach to teaching music. Now that kids are carrying around more technology in their pockets than are contained in most music rooms, by the time students reach 6th grade, they don’t want to do the “baby” stuff anymore – like folk dances and music bingo. They don’t like it and neither do I.
    What I knew for sure was that these 11-12 year olds love music. They just hated music class. So, I decided to approach my subject from their perspective. They love listening to music, watching music videos, etc. so we start the year by listening and watching and then experimenting with Garage Band on the iPad. Rather than teach them about time signatures, I have them figure out that they need to count in 3’s or 4’s to make their chord progressions work together. Rather than teach them how to read notes, they learn how chord progressions work to make the sounds in the music they like. Rather than teach them about verse, chorus, bridge, intro, and coda, I have them “discover” the form in the music they like and then try to copy it in their own “composition.” Rather than only listen to the emotion that various types of music convey, they figure out how to create music that is adventurous, happy, sad, romantic, etc. Rather than do all of this for no good reason, they create the sound track to a video in which they must also write the story – putting text into iMovie after creating the sound track.
    By the end of the year, most of my students are excited to have created a phenomenal and fun project with music that they created. They can explain the time signature, the key, the form, the balance, the tempo, and how chords are formed, how melodies are written, and how the timbre of certain instruments elicits certain responses from the listener.
    Last year, I was able to recruit 22 students into our band program just because they came to what they were learning about music in class.
    By the end of the year, I have 300+ students who think music class is the coolest and are disappointed that in 7th and 8th grade all they get is choir or band or orchestra. And they know more about music than any band student I had when I was teaching 9-12 grade instrumental music.

  • Jim, Amy, Jay and others – I just want to note how much I appreciate that the key issues being discussed are curricular and pedagogical in nature. It is sometimes frustrating when conversations regarding music technology focus solely on tools and techniques and the larger contexts get lost in the shuffle. These types of critical questions are key to situating technology in ways that can forward the field. Similarly, the dialogue around such questions can help us move beyond deterministic thinking i.e. this app causes this or that positive or negative phenomenon or focusing on discrete tasks or activities that don’t necessarily connect to broader ideas or ways of being musical. As the conversation continues it will be interesting to see how people are grounding their integration of technology in a foundation of curriculum, philosophy, and pedagogy. I’m also interested in the diverse ways that iPads might be used in music programs – for instance one of our recent graduates has been experimenting with developing interfaces for rich musical and learning experiences with the Lemur app His development is grounded in particular musical practices and pedagogical approaches, which makes it all the more exciting to me! Best – Evan