Dr Rebecca Dewey is a British Science Association Media Fellow, funded by University of Nottingham


This morning at the British Science Festival, the audience were treated to some classical music. It wasn’t just for enjoyment, but was to demonstrate a new orchestral music app called Syncphonia, launched by researchers at the University of Sussex. A collaborative effort between researchers from several disciplines, Syncphonia has been designed to allow more schoolchildren to take advantage of the experience of playing music in a group.

Head of Music Professor Ed Hughes has interests in music education, specifically in helping children to perform music together as part of a group. When watching a school orchestra, he observed “that some children were having a fantastic time but some were struggling. They couldn’t keep up with the notes because the experience was so new to them. Music can give a huge benefit but these benefits are diminished when the players are stressed. We want people to enjoy playing the music more.”

Cellist and Research Fellow in Music, Dr Alice Eldridge described their unusual approach to the design of the app: “We didn’t want to limit the potential for the students to be involved in the design process. We co-designed the app with the students to allow them to influence the way it turned out.”

The researchers visited a school orchestra club over 5 weeks and took a new version of the app along each time. The students used the app and gave the research team their feedback. Dr Chris Kiefer, Lecturer in Music Technology, explained: “There’s no time in a rehearsal to learn how it works, so the app has to be intuitive to use. It was an iterative design process. All children had input, expressed their interests and dislikes.”

The final version involves the use of two separate apps; one for the conductor and one for the performers. The conductor can see the full score and choose which piece of music the students see in their app. They are responsible for starting the performance by tapping a beat on the screen to set the correct pace. Each performer selects their instrument and is shown just the music they need to play - performers can also choose the difficulty of their music according to their skill level. As the piece is played, they see the current bar highlighted in green, and as each note is played, a grey bar is displayed above it. The performers’ screens are synchronised and controlled by the conductor so students don’t have to waste time finding the right place in the music: there’s no paper flying around and no need to turn pages. This then frees up the conductor to support individual orchestra members who are struggling.

Dr Kiefer emphasised the importance of flexibility: “There is always the option to simplify the music. If you want, you can colour code the notes or replace them with penguins!”

Following the five-week trial, initial findings suggest that the app removed barriers to learning and participation. For example, more children kept playing during rehearsal and did not give up due to losing their place in the music, and both the students and conductor reported that they could learn more complicated, or longer pieces without needing breaks, which are often disruptive.

Dr Eldridge is confident that students will be able to transfer their new skills to paper music, as the apps mean children “will have more freedom to look away from the music as you know you won’t lose your place when you look back”. Anecdotal evidence is highly promising, with one child saying, “I’m going to be more confident using paper music now” after trying the app.

The team are offering the app to local schools for free as part of a 12-month trial, and giving them a chance to develop it. The developers are currently working with pieces that are out of copyright, but their plan is to generate a library of scores for people to use that will be expanded as time goes on.

The team also have plans to make the app compatible with other technologies: “the app uses MIDI information, so you will be able to synthesise missing parts. People will be able to load in their own arrangements of music scores using software such as Sibelius. There is an element of flexibility.” Although the current focus has been on classical music, the designers are interested in expanding it to a whole variety of music styles.