Project Based Learning in Music

This year my year 13 music class is going to focus less on assessment and more on developing the craft to produce great art.

The focus for my students will be on choosing a project that will be the focus of their year’s work… Project Based Learning. They will come up with a project that interests them but it may be something like:

  • Making an EP or CD
  • Recording a series of concerts and posting them to YouTube
  • Composing and recording the music for a film in the 48 hour film festival.
  • Or anything else they can think of.

As I go through the year I’m going to document the progress of my students so other teachers will be able to see the process in action and decide if this method of teaching and learning is right for their students.

Summertime preplanning

Over the last 12 years I’ve been running a business ( in which I develop resources specifically for the NZ music education system. All of these resources I’ve developed with little input from others, and while I’m very happy with what I’ve produced (as are most of my customers) I’ve always seen areas where they could be improved. It’s occurred to me many times that if I collaborated more with others, then my resources would be of far higher quality.

The most important qualities I hope to develop in my students are a spirit of innovation and collaboration. I see these as far more important than developing any specific musical knowledge or skills. Therefore, it makes great sense that as I seek to develop a PBL course for my students I collaborate with someone highly skilled, and in doing so become a good model for my students.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have the highly knowledgeable, skilled and experienced Ginnie Thorner (@ginippi) help with me the development of this course.

This is my first piece of advice to other teachers wanting to develop a PBL course for their students. Find someone in your school who is like-minded and is willing to kick around ideas.

Where I’ve got so far…

The biggest concern I have with PBL is making sure that my students are motivated and focused right throughout the year, particularly during their busy periods in term 3 and 4. So to make sure they are inspired, choose their project well and come up with a realistic and effective timeline of work for the year I need to make sure I plan the first 2-3 weeks very carefully.

The following are what we are going to attempt at the start of the year before they start working on their projects:

  • Organise ‘creative’ industry professionals to come in and talk to the students – it doesn’t really matter what part of the music industry these people will come from. What is important is they are actively working in the industry and can share with my students about their successes and failures, challenges and where they get their inspiration.
  • Visit local theatres, studios and galleries – take the students on a field trip into the city where art (not necessarily just music) is being created. Try to expand their horizons for the possibility of what they can do for their project.
  • Have each student setup a blog – for every visitor and field trip students will need to document their reflections. They will be required to write in their blog every week, providing evidence of their learning and progress.  At our school this year we are increasing our use of Microsoft OneNote and Evernote so these may be good alternatives to maintaining a blog.
  • Create an ‘Inspiration Wall’ – we’ll setup a physical wall in our classroom where students are required to post anything they find inspiration from. It could be magazine articles, posters, art, etc. We may also setup an online version on our class Moodle page for sharing YouTube clips. Students will also post what they are up to, what they are trying to do, what their challenges are, etc. It’s really important students inspire each other and know where each other is at so they can collaborate and assist each other.
  • Setup a timeline for reviews and progress reports – at this stage we’re setting up eight dates throughout the year that students must report back to me about their progress. In preparation for their interviews they need to do blog posts along the following lines (thanks @ginippi for this list):

Post 1 – My plan. What I think I might do.

                       Why did you choose this?

                       What is most exciting about this project?

                       What are you looking forward to?

Post 2 – Progress after 4 weeks

                       First steps.

What have you done?

What needs to be done?

Has the project idea changed / why or why not.

                       One person that has inspired me ….

Post 3 – These holidays I am going to …

                       OR… I am so brilliant – look what I have done.

Post 4 – Half way there.

                       My most urgent task is to …

                       What I am finding frustrating is

                       At check in I agreed to 

Post 5 – One term to go….

                       These holidays I will …

                       Why did I agree to this?

                       The person who I am grateful to is…    

Post 6 – What I did in my holidays

Post 7  Nearly there. So much to do.

                       Biggest concerns / pressures at the moment

Post 8  I am most proud of

                       What I hope the “audience” notice

                       My best advice to someone doing this is …

                       What have I learnt about: music, creative projects, myself as a contributor to the work, etc

  • Setup a course of learning about recording and mixing – as the majority of this particular class will be wanting to use technology in some way I will be getting them to complete a mixing course from Weathervane Music (in addition to using my own workbooks from

What next?

I’m now a week or so away from seeing students. I’m aware of making sure I don’t ‘over-plan’ as I know that once I start working with students things will change (although this could be me being lazy!). I think this will need to be a fluid process and I need to be adaptable to student and project requirements.

Hopefully for my next blog on this topic I’ll be able to report back about what projects students have chosen and how our planning for the year is going.

2 thoughts on “Project Based Learning in Music

  1. Awesome work Duncan! I am so excited to see what your students come up with. Also interested in how they remain motivated on a big scale creative project. I think one of the things we learnt from Suspect was weekly meetings and tasks kept the motivation and accountability. Lucky students. 🙂


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