Tinkering and Music

‘I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning’ (Plato). It is an important message that continues to resonate with me as I watch my 3-year-old daughter bang away at various objects making vastly different sounds. She is completely immersed in the sounds each object makes, thinking about how they connect to each other. The look on her face is wonderment and awe, intense. What is she thinking about?

Music and movement is innate in all of us in some way shape or form. Whether it be playing a musical instrument, singing or connecting with the sound by dancing, tapping or moving. Music is the language we all share. How do we know what music we like? What drives people to be musicians or take up an instrument and learn to play it? Exposing children to music and learning through music improves memory and develops language and reasoning skills. Where does this connect to the modern classroom and student?

We know children learn best through play and experimentation. They like to build things and pull them apart. Their curiosity drives their intensity for learning. However in this day and age, students are expected to learn many concepts and skills, focussing on results and standards otherwise imposed on them. Where is the time to look closely, experiment and build something? At what point does the fun go out of learning?

I feel I am very lucky and privileged to be part of the amazing Upper Primary staff at The Geelong College. I work closely with other passionate educators committed to providing our students with a vast array of experiences to challenge their thinking and capabilities. More particularly in Year 5, I work in a maker-centred classroom that promotes curiosity, creativity and collaboration through making things and tinkering with stuff.

It was over 12 months ago and I was working with a group of students completing a small tinkering activity. We focussed on the Parts, Purposes and Complexities of broken technology. We asked the students to pull things apart, check out the parts, how it worked and how these parts combined to make the machine work. After which I gave them the task of can you use the parts you now have to up-cycle and make something. I had a tub of Makey-Makeys sitting on a table and a student asked what they were and could they use one. I said ‘sure but I’m not telling you what it does or how to use it.’ So off they went to find out.

The students came back to me and asked if they could make a musical instrument as a YouTube clip demonstrated the Makey-Makey turning bananas into piano keys. I said ‘sure, go for it!’ This lit a fire under them. They designed and built their instrument feverously. What was interesting to note was that no one directed them, no one gave them parameters or outcomes, and they followed their idea and passion.


When it came to coding the instrument sounds, again they followed their nose. They investigated ideas on YouTube, learnt new blocks on Scratch and learnt about the way electrical currents and circuits worked. I observed them working. They were in flow, in control and motivated. Other students fed off this enthusiasm and soon others wanted to have a go. Soon the sound in room changed and it became one of sounds, notes and music. The students joined groups and created little bands, recorded their sound and played it for others. Did I teach them anything? I have to be honest and say no. All we did was create the right conditions and it was simply amazing to see 10-year-old children come together through music.

This experience taught me:

  • Children have innate learning skills that are untapped
  • We need to create the right conditions for learning to happen
  • The teacher doesn’t need to be in control
  • Technology is a great tool to bring things to life
  • A set of outcomes and standards doesn’t drive student motivation to learn, it comes from them

Piaget once said ‘knowledge is the consequence of experience’ and this is no truer than what we try to provide for our students in Year 5 at The Geelong College. Making music through tinkering and coding has opened up another avenue for our students to communicate and express themselves creatively. We hope they continue to connect this way as they navigate through the formative stages of their lives. I hope my daughter continues to find joy and happiness in the music she creates.

I will be presenting; STEAM into the Humanities and Tinkering with Music at this year’s Leading a Digital School Conference, in Melbourne in August. I hope to see you there.

James Colbert