These lessons are designed to be apart of a modular curriculum. Each student is different and so are their learning styles. Choose, mix and repeat any number of these lessons so that it fits with the learning styles of your students.

Project-based Work

Balance practice time and project work with lecturing, demonstrations and examples. For every 10 minutes of talking and demonstrating, there should be 20 minutes for student experimentation and application. Facilitate group projects by having students create 1 part of a composition (drums), then trade and collaborate with another student (melody). It could even be a class wide project in a round robin fashion.

Loop-based compositions vs. Building from scratch

Electronic composition gets a bad rap from programs like GarageBand and other loop based software. If the class focus is on composition and music theory, try to leave loop based composition to the end of the class or leave it out entirely. A loop based composition is created by dragging and dropping pre made loops, phrases and motifs of music onto the sequencer. In most cases, the loops also automatically sync to the tempo of the song. This has limited music theory applications except perhaps during lessons on arranging. I tend to cover loop based instruments at the end of the semester. The students can use them to add extra layers to their compositions and experiment with sound design and sound collage techniques.

Minimize time spent "Looking through sounds"

For the most part, we try to minimize time spent "looking through sounds". Students should not focus on choosing the right sounds which is why we provide a set number of sounds to choose from. Class time should be spent learning and applying composition and technical skills necessary to compose with digital software.

Sound Design vs. Music Theory

Music theory lessons can be combined with sound design techniques because many of the sound design techniques are driven by music theory concepts. For example, the LFO has a rate knob that controls the rate at which the LFO modulates a sound parameter, like volume. You can sync the rate knob to different subdivisions like 32nds, 16ths, and 8ths, to teach basic subdivisions.

Playing / Recording vs. Drawing / Programming 

In larger classes, teaching a class full of piano novices is fairly difficult. If you are pairing this with a piano class, then it is a bit easier to have students play all of the parts in via keyboard. However, you can also choose to let them program and draw the parts in. Think of it as a composer sitting at a piano (the piano is inside the computer to preview notes) with a pencil and a piece of staff paper. This type of class will focus more on composition rather than the technical/muscle memory skills necessary to play piano. One compromise is to use the on-screen keyboard provided with many audio programs. This is a piano keyboard that you play on your computer keyboard. Oddly enough, a lot of professional composers use it, because it conveniently gives you a one octave keyboard to preview. The best solution is to mix a bit of each into every lesson and see what each student's preferences and strengths are.


Lesson 1: Basic Rhythm, Step Sequencers and Drums!

In the first lesson we usually talk about basic rhythms and how they relate to something called a "STEP SEQUENCER". A step sequencer is great for educational uses because it only shows the necessary subdivision that we need to get by - in this case 16th note subdivisions of a bar. This is a great first day exercise because it allows the students to "paint" with rhythms.

Topics to Cover:

  • What is Rhythm?
  • What is a beat/pulse?
  • How is tempo measured?
  • What is a bar?
  • Downbeats and upbeats
  • 4 beats in a bar in 4/4 (common time)
  • Drum types: Kick, Snare, Hihat
  • Basic rhythm patterns: Hip-hop beat (kick on steps 1, 4, 7), House beat (4 on the floor)

Lesson 2: More Rhythm, looping a bar and the main sequencer

The second lesson is when we go further into the technical aspects of how to program patterns on a STEP SEQUENCER. For example, you can "Copy Pattern to Track" so that it shows up in the main sequencer. This allows the student to see the whole rhythm pattern layered, as well as the ability to manipulate the rhythms with more control.

Topics To Cover:

  • Copy Pattern To Track
  • Main sequencer: snap, MIDI Clips (phrases)
  • Where does the snare usually land?
  • What is the role of a hihat?
  • Kick drum patterns
  • Looping your pattern
  • Accents

Lesson 3: Octaves, Semitones and Basic Waveforms

In this lesson, we will discover octaves, semi-tones and the basic waveforms in synthesizer that are used as building blocks for more complex sounds. Let the students experiment with the octave button on the synthesizer and hear the difference when switching octaves - point out that it's the same note/tone but higher or lower. Explore the sound shaping possibilities of a filter and how that carves out frequencies in our waveforms.

Topics to Cover:

  • Octaves, semi-tones on synthesizer. Briefly mention cents (detuning)
  • Octaves and semi-tones on a keyboard.
  • Sine, Triangle, Square and Sawtooth waveforms. (Smooth to rough sounding)
  • Briefly introduce and explore filters sound shaping possibilities.

Lesson 4: Exploring Sound Design: Filters and LFOs

Now lets take a moment to explore some sound design possibilities. This lesson's goal is to give the students enough time to get real-time feedback with the controls on the synthesizer. One possible music theory lesson for this class could focus on the subdivisions of the LFO's synced "RATE". The rate of the LFO can be synced to 1/16ths, then 1/8ths, and then 1/4s, for instance. Demonstrate how 1/16th notes are double 1/8ths and 1/8ths are double 1/4s. With LFOs, students can also explore playing and modulating pitch.

topics to Cover:

  • Frequency range of human hearing 20Hz-22kHz.
  • Sound shaping possibilities of filters. Sculpting, emphasizing and removing frequencies.
  • Filter types and their function: Lowpass, Highpass, Bandpass.
  • LFOs and their function: rate, destination and amount.

Lesson 5: Sequencing, whole notes and chords (Figured bass)

Let's start composing! Instead of the regular pencil and staff paper, we're going to draw in notes into a sequencer. You can think of the sequencer as an infinite blank piece of staff paper. During this lesson we will draw in a major chord and a minor chord, while paying attention to the semi-tones (intervals) in between the notes. As an exercise have the students draw in several major chords starting on different notes while paying attention to the number of semi tones in between the chord tones (major = 4 semi-tones, then 3 semi-tones - i.e. Figured Bass!). Mix and match major and minor.

Topics to cover:

  • Copy Pattern To Track
  • Whole notes
  • Draw tool
  • MIDI and MIDI Clips
  • Major & minor scale and chords

Project: Hip Hop Composition with drums and bass (drawing)

In our first project, we will utilize all of the instruments we've covered so far. We will create a drum track, then layer a synthesizer bass over it. After copying the loop out to 8 bars, we will create a fill with snares and a crash cymbal that happen every 4 bars. Then after we have our 4 bar loop, we will sequence a simple 2-bar phrase for a bass line that consists of 4 notes. The drum kit is provided to minimize the time spent looking for drum sounds.


  • Programming drums into step sequencer.
  • Drawing in notes and/or recording in parts.
  • Shortcuts to toggle Pencil tool.
  • Grid: Bars, Quarters, Eighths, Sixteenths.
  • Snap function
  • Choosing a bass sound.

Project: Hip Hop Composition with drums, bass and piano (recording)

It's very important to balance project based work with demonstrations and examples. You can choose to re-order these lessons any way you like. In this project we will play and record in a basic piano part over some programmed drums. First program the drums, so we have a beat to play to instead of just playing to a metronome. If a keyboard controller is not available, the student"s can play the on-screen keyboard built into many audio software programs. The on-screen keyboard provides a basic 1 octave keyboard and is a great learning tool. Again, the drum kit is provided to minimize time spent looking for drum sounds.


topics to Cover:

  • Recording
  • "Pre" (count in)
  • "Click" (Metronome)
  • On-screen keyboard and moving the octave up & down.
  • NN-XT sampler - Piano instrument.
  • Quantization
  • MIDI Clips
  • Magnification for easier editing/drawing

Project: Minecraft Sampling Project

During my contracted residency at A.P. Giannini Middle School, a lot of my students expressed enthusiasm for the video game Minecraft, so I downloaded the sound effects and music from the game and we used them as sound sources to create remixes and original compositions. When learning rhythm, it doesn't matter so much what the sound is as long as they're engaged and learning the rhythms - someone saying "Ta", banging on the desk, clapping, or in this case sound effects from a video game.

Topics to cover:

  • Loading sounds into Redrum from sample folder.
  • What is sampling?
  • What is Hz? What does A440 mean? How much is 440Hz?
  • NN-XT sampling - Looping sounds really fast to create tones (440 times a second).
  • Accents and flams.

Lesson 6: Recording Audio

This lesson will cover the basics of recording audio to a track with the built-in microphone or a computer with an audio interface connected. The students record anything such as themselves saying a phrase, sing, rap or have a text to speech voice say something. Once recorded they can experiment with time stretching the audio clip, applying effects and creating a melody from the sound source using an Auto Tune type instrument..

topics to Cover:

  • Selecting the audio input
  • Audio Tracks
  • Recording and pre-click
  • Insert Effects
  • Pitch adjuster for Auto Tune effect.
  • Scales (For locking to a certain scale).

Lesson 7: Loops and triggering sample chops

I usually save this lesson for the end because it's technically advanced. During this lesson we will sample our favorite songs, chop pieces of them into 16th notes, 8th notes or quarter notes. Then reorder, trigger them and record them to create a sound collage.

topics to cover:

  • Selecting the audio input
  • Recording with a pre-click
  • Samples on the keyboard
  • "Enable Loop Playback"
  • "Reset Device"
  • Rhythm, snap, and subdivisions

Composition Project

Make a beat using any combination of the following tools we have discussed so far. Use at least 4 instruments: must have at least one drum instrument, and at least 1 pitched instrument..

topics to cover:

  • Major and Minor chords
  • Intervals
  • Recording, playing and drawing parts
  • 3 methods of note input: programming, drawing, and recording
  • Choosing a tempo
  • Copying phrases
  • Quantization