Didactic Changes in Sound Compositions with Synthesizer Apps


How can tasks and learning environments be designed to activate young people artistically and – in an aesthetically experienced attitude – enable them to turn to these sound worlds by designing them themselves and inventing sounds? The project deals with simple forms and formats of making music, improvising, and composing with digital devices used as musical instruments. This article outlines the effects of adaptations of digital and analog things in collaborative learning processes with smartphones. The design research project “Inventing Music with Smartphones” combines everyday practices of young people using mobile devices with music-related tasks in music lessons at secondary schools. The design research focused on collaborative phases of making or inventing music with smartphones in music lessons in secondary school and sound materials that learners encounter in everyday life as ringtones on smartphones, alerts in public transport, background music in computer games or videos. Due to the rapid technological change during the years of research, the project also documents these enormous changes in the use of digital technologies – and is thus already after a short time already partly a part of history of technology-based music.

Keywords: Music education, creating music, smartphones, transformation, interaction, collaboration, creativity, learning enviroment, digital technologies

Didactic Changes in Sound Compositions with Synthesizer Apps 

Within the last 25 years, mobile devices have gradually conquered the everyday lives of more and more people and transformed the way we all deal with music. Starting in 2016, the research project “Making Music with Smartphones: Creative and Productive Design with Apps in Collaborative Learning Forms in School” has been focusing on the development of didactic settings for music invention and composition with synthesizer apps in secondary schools. The key aspects of this design research are collaborative phases of making or inventing music with smartphones in music lessons­ and using found sound material that learners encounter in their surroundings, such as ringtones on smartphones, alerts in public transport and background music in computer games or videos. 

The project addresses the question of how to succeed in music lessons with digital sounds in aesthetic experience processes,­ and to develop methods for inventing music with smartphones? How can tasks and learning environments be designed to activate young people artistically and – in an aesthetically experienced attitude – enable them to turn to these sound worlds by designing them themselves and inventing sounds? The project deals with simple forms and formats of making music, improvising, and composing with digital devices used as musical instruments. 

Since the beginning of the project, digital technologies and their use have changed significantly. This article discusses the project and its didactic challenges on the one hand and, on the other hand, didactic changes due to technological innovations.

The research is part of the “Landeszentrum Musik-Design-Performance” of the University of Music Trossingen. This department deals with subjects such as sound design, artificial intelligence and mediatisation and focuses on the interconnection between traditional music practices and an increasingly digitalised world.

Background and Sounds

The process of digitisation and medialisation constantly pushes a fundamental cultural change. At the same time, youth studies (Jörissen et al. 2020; mpfs 2018) show that productive and creative processes with regards to playing, creating, composing, or improvising music with digital mobile technologies hardly take place in adolescence. Based on an ontological concept of culture (Scheunpflug et al. 2012), one question became central: Which design principles and local theories for learning environments (Prediger 2021) are important to enhance an activation of productive and creative-aesthetic aspects of music in the context of mediatisation in schools (Ahner 2020)? 

Aesthetically, the focus is on synthetic sounds that appear in our daily lives as jingles or ringtones, generated by our handheld digital devices. Smartphones and tablets turn into synthesizers using apps which mostly are easily accessible, self-explaining and require little memory space. This works on both Android and iOS operating systems, whether or not they are BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) or school-supplied devices (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Creating sounds with the app “Plasma Sound”

In creative and productive actions, analogue and digital things (e.g. artefacts, media, technologies, materials) appear as actors (Latour 2007, p.123) in the manner that they essentially influence music-related target categories such as sonority, intonation, posture, breathing, haptics or agogics. Thus, in the context of actor-network theory, objects become non-human actors with decisive influence on the conditions for the success of learning processes. In the following, digital objects are conceived in a didactic field of creativity-centred design with ubiquitous musical activities (Pimenta et al. 2014) and thus, “our paramount research goal should be solving teaching, learning, and performance problems, and deriving design principles that can inform future development and implementation decisions” (Reeves 2011, pp. 100–101).The project focuses in a didactic perspective on musical and artistic interaction of learners, music and things :


Music: Synthetic sounds are an essential element of our daily audio-visual environment in a variety of everyday situations. These sounds or music are at the centre of the collaborative processes of making music (Cross et al. 2012; Godau 2018) and in aesthetic discussions (Rolle and Wallbaum 2018).

Things: Smartphones with loudspeakers or headphones continuously produce synthesized sounds. If devices are not set to “mute”, students hear these sounds (more or less) passively. Apps that provide the ability to amalgamate such sounds or music through a virtual synthesizer via touchscreen open a way for an active way of designing of these sound environments (Brown 2014; Finney et al. 2007; Jones 2013).

Learners: Nowadays, with a few exceptions, young people own a smartphone with a touch screen and numerous other sensors. Varieties of apps are installed on the devices and the individually used multifunction devices, which are worn close to the body, become a natural part of the ‘social body of humans’ (Krotz 2014, p.15).


(Ahner 2020, pp. 228–229)

Music-related technologies are at the core of this interaction. Changes in technologies through innovations also change this interaction.

Method and Aims

The project “Inventing Music with Smartphones” as a design research project aims to increase the relevance of research for educational policy and practice and to promote it through the development of designs able to withstand stress in practice (van den Akker, Jan et al. 2011, p. 4). The iterative research process took place in cycles in different classes at secondary level. In the classroom, young people used their own mobile devices (BYOD). With a collaborative task of improvising (inventing) music, mobile devices were used as instruments to produce synthetic sounds. 

Fig. 2: “Funken-Modell” (Prediger et al. 2012)

The iterative research process (see Figure 2) ran two meso-cycles in secondary schools (grades 8 to 11). The cycles in this project were divided into pre-test (meso-cycle 0 with two groups in 2016/2017) and (so far) two meso-cycles (with three school classes each in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019). The evaluation of the pre-test and first meso-cycles focused on problems and questions concerning the design of situations and learning environments: an examination of the selection of apps, spatial arrangement, selection of technical accessories, group size and sequence of learning steps for phases of the collaborative making of music with smartphones. The effects of adaptations of learning environments and tasks in the concrete teaching-learning scenario were investigated using a cycling process within the “Funken-Modell” (Fig. 2). In the research process, adjustments were made to the model with regard to the artistic-musical focus (Ahner 2022a).

Fig. 3: Screenshot of the 360° camera in the classroom during chamber music ensemble work.

The evaluation of the video and audio material (see Figure 3) in the sense of a video-based case study (Herrle and Dinkelaker 2016, p. 76) refers to methodological approaches between methods for the analysis of social practices (p. 84) and methods of interaction-analytical approaches (p. 90). Evaluating the first parameter relevant interaction units were identified as “key scenes” (Kranefeld 2017, pp. 40–41) which point to a phase of collaborative appropriation or to irritations, breaks or asymmetries (Ahner 2019, pp. 12-13). For a detailed reconstruction, these video sequences were analysed, coded and written-up in a second step.

The iterative process equally focuses on two areas that are also closely interlinked: didactic research and didactic development. 

  • Didactic development: the development process aims at development products in the form of concrete teaching-learning arrangements and design principles for teaching design as well as a structuring and specification of the learning object. The project’s first results are already public at this level (Ahner 2018a). This practical contribution gives teachers the opportunity to try out the commonly proven tasks of teaching environments in their own lessons. For this purpose, didactic conception and technical operation of the used digital instruments are clearly explained, and worksheets for the students are added.
  • Didactic research: the research process aims at research products, i.e. a search for a theoretical framework, to explore categories and descriptions for the connection of the students’ artistic-aesthetic actions on the one hand and didactical design on the other hand. As a reference theory, I have opted for the “Self-Determination Theory (SDT)” (Ryan and Deci 2018) and therein the partial theory of basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This theory assumes that people strive for positive feelings. For this, three basic psychological needs are the main driving forces in that their satisfaction can promote actions or inhibit their lack of action. 


The design of the planned unit comprised a total of three lessons. In the following, the didactic design is described in general terms and – with a view to the experiments – has already been carried out in the past. In a preparatory lesson, learners became familiar with the frameworks of using smartphones in music lessons. The students received worksheets with QR codes leading to apps and tutorials, formed groups, and were given instructions to install and explore a musical app. In the sense of concepts such as inverted or flipped classroom (DeLozier and Rhodes 2017), learners are given responsibility for developing musical-creative possibilities with digital musical instruments. Depending on individual competences, learners are developing increasingly greater responsibility for planning and designing learning processes (Drieschner 2007, pp. 247-248), and hence they gain more learning time for collaborative processes of musicianship. The next two lessons took place one to two weeks later as a double lesson. At the beginning, the students sat in groups at tables and talked about the technical possibilities of the apps they used. 

For the situations in which groups made live-music, only certain apps were considered: the sounds had to be generated exclusively at the time of touching the touchscreen (if necessary, with a reverb or echo). The app-generated sounds could originate either from a selected scale or in a continuum of a certain frequency range. For both operating systems (Android and iOS) apps with a scale-bound and a continuous sound spectrum were selected. The apps were carefully chosen with regard to the possible playing techniques and sounds to ensure that the emulated sounds were close to digital sound events – such as hint tones, ring tones or computer games – and that the controls were based on the two axes of the two-dimensional surface (see Figure 4). Music apps usually assume that the smartphone is used in “landscape format”.

Fig. 4: Dimensions of the play surface (axes A and B)

Finger movement on the playing surface can control the sounds. Music variables are mapped to the two axes, for example can axis A be used to control the pitch within a certain scale, arpeggio or continuum in a defined frequency range and axis B control sound characteristics (alienation, overtones, volume) or defined tones in a harmonic system. 

During the test phase, one central challenge became evident: apps offered in the Android and iOS stores are often updated or changed. This means that some apps abruptly disappear from the market or no longer work after an update, or only work depending on certain versions of the operating system. In the course of the project, apps were identified that promise relatively high continuity and functionality on different devices (including older devices).

The “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) principle applied to the classroom experiments. The learners brought their private smartphones, having already installed one or more synthesizer apps for these learning units (via a QR code). They put their device into flight mode and listened to the sounds either via the built-in loudspeakers or via headphones they brought along themselves. In the first experiments, the learners’ devices were connected right at the beginning via cables and splitters. A problem that was not initially taken into account was that at the beginning of the lesson, learners felt a great need to inform themselves about the apps   they had not yet been introduced to and to exchange information about the playing techniques they had discovered. In light of this experience and development of the didactic design, the lesson schedule was restructured to incorporate a new phase: the learners were given time for a mutual exchange about the respective playing techniques of the new musical instruments on the smartphones before they started making music together. 

In terms of physical technologies, a central feature of this project was connecting the smartphones using a splitter via mini jack cables (see Figure 5). In this way, small chamber music ensembles could be formed, listening to the sound of the connected devices through headphones. in this manner, several ensembles could work and make music side by side in a physical space at the same time without disturbing each other or hearing the sound of the other ensemble (see Figure 6). 

Fig. 5: Splitter, mini jack cables and headphones (please refer in the text)

Images with strong emotional messages (for example pictures of painter Mies van Hout) stimulated the ensembles for their compositions and improvisations. The learner groups were given the task to collaboratively invent sound and perform it live as classroom-concert later on. They worked with their own smartphones and the group could see and hear the interaction process between the individual learners and their smartphones acoustically and visually. Specifically, young people in project-oriented tasks should design sound collages, sound histories or settings of texts, pictures or videos in small groups with a sound instrument that was unusual for most learners.

Fig 6: In small groups, the students design sound collages, sound histories or settings of texts, pictures or videos in project-oriented tasks.

The class lessons ended with a small concert followed by a discussion about the aesthetic experiences. In the classroom-concert, the sound compositions of the groups of learners were brought together to form a piece of art in the sense of a serial sound collage of the various collaborative sound compositions. Finally, the learners described and discussed their own sound compositions and the aesthetic perceptions of the overall performance in a class discussion.

Musical Experience and Immersion

The encounters and interactions, i.e. the interaction of people and things (e.g. artefacts, media, technologies, materials), can lead to intense experiences. Initial questions about material-related properties (age, manufacturer, region of origin for a violin, for example, or processor speed, latency, operating system, storage capacity for a tablet) recede into the background as the intensity of the musical-thing interactions increases. Colloquially, one could also speak of becoming completely absorbed in the music, completely immersed, becoming completely one, as if diving into water. This feeling of being completely involved in something, of being taken over and transported to another place, is described by the word “immersion” as a term that is about a quality (Benyon 2014, p. 10) and thus the individual perception of the “sense-of-being-there” (Höntzsch et al. 2013, p. 3).On the one hand, this term is used for the “degree to which individuals perceive that they interact more with their virtual than with their real environment” (Guadagno et al. 2007, p. 3) and thus in the context of digital technologies (for example, through mixed reality glasses, space-sound systems, virtual environments, etc. in movies, computer games, virtual learning environments, digital concert halls). On the other hand, the term is used to mean immersion in all sorts of activities (i.e. reading a book or listening to the instrumental playing of a violin – both as a player and as a listener; Benyon, 2014, p. 10). In terms of the “receptivity to the specifically aesthetic of music as art, which requires self-referential and accomplishment-oriented perception in an aesthetic setting in order to open it up” (Jank et al., 2013, p. 112), this describes a thoroughly desirable goal in a collaboration of thing and person (Ahner 2021).

Findings in context of technological change

Local teaching and learning theories are created in an iterative process. They form a new and expanded basis for the next cycle (Prediger et al. 2012, p. 454). These are theories with a limited scope. The systematic evaluation of design experiments leads to patterns and general phenomena that are relevant to all areas of the iterative cycle. The design principles form a bridge between local theories and didactic design.

In classroom learning processes, a wide variety of things is used. In the following, I will only look at things that are used directly by the learners (Rabenstein 2018, p. 328). These individual interactions in the classroom vary and take place de-centrally. Things are thus considered in the context of learning activities and in the construction of meanings (Rabenstein 2018, p. 328). Essential elements of the respective local teaching and learning theories and corresponding design principles are presented in three areas: selected apps, accessories used as well as spatial and social order. The process of theorizing (Prediger et al. 2015, p. 886) in the iterative process is summarized with regard to these learning objects. This should also indicate how didactic design and local theories are interrelated in the iterative research process and systematically linked by design principles as a “connection between scientific knowledge production and innovative practice design (…). The ‘design principles’ act as a hinge between these focal points. On the one hand, these principles arise as a result of theoretically and empirically guided forms of knowledge production. On the other hand, they form, as prescriptive statements, the basis for designing practical action concepts to achieve the defined practice goals” (Euler 2017, p. 2).

The period described here, a good four years in total, is admittedly relatively short to talk about changes in “Rethinking the History of Technology-based Music”. However, the technological innovations and especially their distribution were particularly strong during these years. Devices, possibilities of connectivity and ports, functionality of the apps and distribution of these technologies have changed significantly in the years 2016-2020:

  • Distribution and availability of devices: at the beginning of the project, (almost) all young people aged about 16 and older had a smartphone. In the age group of twelve, owning a smartphone was rather the exception. At the end of the period under consideration (and with the beginning of the Corona pandemic), almost all twelve-year-olds in southern Germany also had a smartphone. This is also shown by relevant youth studies conducted by the German media institutions. However, the device specification is not queried there. On the practical level, it could be observed that especially younger students use older smartphones that have been discarded by older siblings or parents due to a new investment. Young people aged 16 and older, on the other hand, are more likely to have a current model. This refers not only to smartphones, but also to associated accessories such as headphones or smartwatches.
  • Development of devices: Smartphones have changed significantly during this time. For example, displays and storage space have become larger, cameras have higher resolution, microphones have better sound conversion and built-in processors are faster. However, an important change for this project is the move away from a mini-jack for wired headphones. Both Apple and Samsung do without this component in newer models, so headphones can only be connected by means of an adapter via USB-C or Lightning or via Bluetooth. Other developments that are particularly significant for music is the reduction of latency and the control possibilities of music-related applications through different sensors.
  • Mobile internet: at the beginning of the project, young people seldom had a contract with a mobile phone company that included larger amounts of data. In 2020 (and this process has continued until today), young people of all ages predominantly had a mobile phone contract which enabled them to stream music and videos at any time. This development is linked to the development of faster mobile phone standards such as “5G”. While streaming services like Spotify or Deezer were too expensive for most young people at the beginning of the project, and music was transferred from the computer to the mobile phone by cable, by the end of the project music files and videos were accessed almost exclusively online. Whether data is stored on the device or merely streamed from a server is often invisible and irrelevant to young people.
  • Accessories: at the beginning of the project, young people who owned a smartphone also had wired in-ear headphones. Music-loving young people also sometimes owned over-ear headphones. Mobile speakers or Bluetooth headphones were exceptions. A few years later, mobile speakers and wireless in-ear headphones (buds), all connected via Bluetooth, have become the standard. 
  • App development: In connection with the changes described above, apps have been developed further and new ones have come onto the market. In many cases, the further development of existing apps led to an expansion of the musical design possibilities, as well as an increase in complexity and connectivity in the apps. The conditions for offering an app on Android or Apple have been continuously tightened over the years. This also led to the disappearance of a whole series of apps for which the app developers were unable or unwilling to meet new security standards.

These explanations of technological changes and their uses are deliberately limited to relevant aspects and kept short in this text. In relation to the situation in music lessons, where young people are supposed to invent music together with their smartphones, central challenges have arisen from the above-mentioned changes:

  • Additional functions in apps significantly caused irritations and negatively impacted processes of collaborative music-making. These irritations follow from changes in which the learners’ individual interaction with their digital devices is interrupted while simultaneously making music[JR3] This is especially so for functions of the apps, either with which the sounds are available over the time of touching the touchscreen (e.g… save) or can be arranged in a certain rhythmic system (sequencer) or can import certain predefined sound patterns (templates). In some cases, the experienced competence of the learners was negatively influenced by these functions of the apps (excessive demands due to too high complexity), in other cases strengthened (stronger interaction between digital technology and individual). 
  • On the one hand, the learning subject’s and structuring (and the didactic designs based on it in the iterative process) specification led to a selection of apps that offer comparatively few such additional functions. On the other hand, we took care to inform the learners about these additional functions and their non-use. The awareness of not using the apps’ functions such as “Hold”, “Repeat”, “Safe” or “Add” and thus focusing on “live” music making also increased the perception of the musical process in the group. Nevertheless, these functions can pose a challenge for the learning situation’s design as well as in the group-dynamic process during music-making together.
  • ·      The variety of different smartphones and headphones caused several problems and these were intensified by the different needs of the learners. The technical performance of the headphone outputs vary from device to device. So, even if the volume settings are set to the same level on all devices, they will be perceived differently. Therefore, to find a balance between the devices, special attention was needed when using different devices and apps. In addition to that, the qualities and designs of the headphones vary considerably. This does not only refer to the perceived volume and sound quality, but also to the corresponding immersive effect of the sound event. The same app can therefore lead to very different sound experiences depending on smartphone, adapter, headphones, and other connected smartphones. Comparably good (or bad) technical equipment within the group seems to facilitate artistic-musical collaboration. Considerable differences also lead to problems in musical-social collaboration.

The relatively short intervals at which user interfaces, data protection guidelines in the area of streaming services, video portals, software products (apps), digital devices for the production and processing of music change and have to be included in the design of teaching-learning scenarios, represent a particular challenge for everyday school life. This leads to unstable or destabilising situational interaction processes and in continuous restructuring as a result of technological developments. These ongoing restructurings in relation to music and music teaching, which are characterised by many small transformation processes and change musical practices, appear in different distributions, i.e. in different densities at different places and times. They therefore have an effect of varying intensity (Ahner 2018b; Rammert 2007) in a very confined space (e.g. within a classroom). This instability, however, points to a core of musical practice that is also of central importance in these situations: musical experience and an associated immersive experience.


A recurring observation of the collaborative processes in the video data’s evaluation (coding) resulted in focussing on a field of tension with a musical-immersive effect of (digital) technologies and making music together. Codes such as openness, attention, musical experience, affection or recognition corresponded with codes of collaborative processes of making music together. In contrast, sequences in which learners immerse themselves in the sound worlds they create, or sequences in which they are torn out of these, corresponded with codings such as putting on or taking off headphones, the question of whether one or two ears are fitted with headphones, the design of the headphones, the sound card of the device, how the devices are networked and wired, and how the haptics and latency of the device fit together (Ahner 2022b). “Becoming one with the music group or coordinating many individual sounds into a common group sound” (Hellberg 2019, p. 300) was interrupted in various situations by individual interaction between the learner with digital actors, so that (digital) communication between human actors was greatly reduced or even absent. Due to the affordances inherent in certain designs of headphones, they became powerful actors in these interaction processes by immersively affecting the self (Herzfeld-Schild 2019, p. 72). 

This makes it evident that an affordance – i.e. a technology’s offer of agency – not only has an effect on technical handling, but just as strongly on the aesthetic and social perception of human actors. The technical handling will change again and again in the course of time due to technological innovations. This means that the challenges for didactic design also change. In technical design, the didactic design researched in this project already forms a “History of Technology-based Music”. In the guidelines, i.e. in the didactic principles, the findings of this didactic research can also be used for future collaborative and immersive teaching-learning scenarios with digital technologies in music lessons.

The fast evolution of mobile technologies and hence their affordances for musical learning will continually challenge both students and teachers to keep up with the widening range of possibilities that come with them.


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About the author

Philipp Ahner (Dr. phil.) is Vice President and Professor of Music Education in the Context of digital Media at the Landeszentrum MUSIK–DESIGN–PERFORMANCE of University of Music Trossingen. He is a recognised expert in national and international networks, both for university development and leadership and for music education and music didactics in science and teaching practice. His research focuses on music didactic with digital technologies in adolescence as well as in teacher training and higher music education. Previously, he was Professor for Music Didactics at the Detmold University of Music, lecturer at the seminar for teacher training and didactics, as well as head of department and teacher for music, business and history at a vocational school centre and employee at the National Theatre Mannheim.