Is the pencil outdated in the 21st Century Music Classroom?

By Kevin Tuck, editor, Printable Music Theory Books


Manuscript Paper and Pencil

I’m constantly communicating with music teachers all over the world. Every day I get emails and communicate with teachers via forums and blogs, and I read lots of opinions on the current state of technology in teaching music.

A lot of questions recently have concerned iPads and tablets, and how they are going to affect how and what we teach. Should we be incorporating these new technologies into our teaching and learning environments, and what is the best way to do so?

Please don’t get me wrong here… I’m not saying that technology and in particular iPads are bad. In fact I’m an advocate for these things in the classroom, however today I’d like to talk specifically if they should be used for teaching music theory and notation.

Yes, computer software is very good these days for music notation, and you can do amazing things using an iPad.

But… today I’m going to ask the question… should we?

Just because you CAN do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD.

I grew up learning music theory using nothing more than a pencil and a theory book.

We had to manually learn how to draw notes clearly, learn how to draw a treble clef perfectly first time, every time. We had to learn how many beats went in a bar, and how to beam the notes together correctly.

There simply wasn’t technology that would place notes in the right place for you, that would check to see how many notes were in a bar, and that would place the notes nice and evenly with perfectly shaped heads and perfect length beams.

No… we had to learn how to do these things, and practice and practice until we got it right. We had to endure practice tests and drills over and over to make sure that we had it correct, then we would have to sit an exam to test our knowledge and skill level using nothing more than a pencil.

Now… think about a world where the student doesn’t have to worry about how many beats are in the bar… the computer has taken care of that for them. Think about a world where a student can’t draw a treble clef…. because they’ve never had to!

What are the implications if we grow a generation of musicians that never have had to learn these basic fundamental skills…. .because they’ve had them done for them by the computer?

People in my position are very fortunate – we have the skills, and now we can use the technological tools available to make it easier and quicker to create wonderfully presented music scores.

However, what about the next generation? How are they going to go when placed in the real world if they don’t have the fundamental understanding which is gained by lots of practice with the pencil?

Because we are too busy trying to incorporate the latest technologies in our classrooms and cut down on paper we give them a computer program to learn music theory: instead of making them practice using a pencil. What are the long term implications of this for these students?

That is why at our company we are NOT going to create a music theory product for iPad.

I believe that music theory can be taught using an interactive whiteboard, or perhaps an iPad in the hands of the teacher, but in the hands of the students should be only one piece of technology….. the pencil.

Once again, I want to reiterate that I am NOT saying that iPads and tablets are bad, and that they shouldn’t be used in teaching music.

We are in fact developing iPad textbooks to go along with our musicianship courses, but they are designed to be a reference text for reading, rather than a workbook for student completion.

I believe that having students do music theory homework or lesson work on an iPad or a computer of any description is a very bad idea, until such a time that they really know and understand what it is that they are doing.

However this is just my opinion:  I know that others probably have quite differing opinions on this, so please fill in the comment box at the bottom of this page to contribute to the discussion.

Interactive Music Theory Program



  • By Olivia Lucas Reply

    No, the pencil is not outdated and never should be. At an early learning stage children should learn to think things out for themselves and learn through trial and error. Besides, children, in general, get excited to learn how to write a treble or bass clef, etc. and to put pencil to paper when composing sessions take place. Later, much later, this knowledge and hands-on experience may be transported/converted to a technological device/apparatus.

    Just as a painter may use modern technology to create, I am guessing that painting with one´s hands and getting messy is far more challenging and exciting. The same applies in music composing/writing.

  • By Suzanne Newcomb Reply

    I had to laugh while reading this article, because I’m having a battle with my current freshman-level Music Fundamentals class about the use of pencils! I insist on using a pencil – they claim they haven’t used one in years. I guess they used pens in high school. I’m strict about it. I agree that it’s so important to learn how to notate music, and it takes practice, plain and simple. I pass out staff paper and require them to take music notes, which I write on the board. We’re learning, and there’s not a computer in the classroom, just lab pianos, thankfully!

  • By Sarah Littleton Reply

    I totally agree – pupils need to be able to be able to hand-write accurate music notation with a pencil and manuscript paper. So much of their understanding of music theory comes from having to complete paper and pencil exercises.

  • By John McDonald Reply


    I agree completely. While using theory and composition programs are a huge time saver to a musician; students of music must have the fundamental skills to create without technology. In the quest to have our students get smarter more quickly, we have abandoned taking the time needed to master the fundamental skills required in our art form.

    Aimee Mann has said, “There’s a lot of music that sounds like it’s literally computer-generated, totally divorced from a guy sitting down at an instrument.” Unfortunately, this holds true for many modern compositions.


  • By Betty Bynum Reply

    I may be old-school, but good for you! We are creating generations of people who won’t know how to do ANYTHING if the internet or electricity goes down. Playing an “real” instrument and using a pencil are invaluable tools. And when I doodle–with a pencil or pen–I somehow find my paper full of treble clefs and 16th note smiley faces and quarter rest squiggleys!

  • By Elizabeth Franklin Reply

    Normally I would agree, but teaching students who have physical disabilities and are generally unable to hold and use a pencil, I feel there is a need for a program to enable them to access music theory.

  • By Maria Kay Reply

    I think children must learn to live in the society in which they were born. We were born with pencils and paper – this did not mean we had to use chalk and slate.

    I do not think it is important to the skill of music to be able to draw a perfect note or a clef. I do believe that it is important to be able to notate correctly and to place the beats correctly in a bar. Being able to read, write and perform music are the skills required and why not use the tools available.

    I think children are able to learn and understand music theory from interactive media the same as they would from a teacher.

    The same argument exists for music or language re the use of a pencil. If you can write using a computer why does a pencil give you greater understanding? It doesn’t. It is just maybe another skill which maybe is becoming obsolete – sadly I know, but maybe that is how it is?

  • By Jane Hartman Reply

    As a theory professor, I always have my students learn first with pencil and staff paper. I have them strive for good notation. After the first semester, we use computer programs for notation for some assignments. (usually the big ones) I think cursive should still be taught, as well, along with the idea of penmanship. It’s just common sense.

  • By Karen Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think that if students are not made to learn how to do it, they never will, and that skill will be lost to the new generation. It’s the easy way out to let your computer do all the counting for you. We, as teachers, need to teach the students what they need to write it themselves. They will easily take to the computer or ipad programs later and learn them on their own.

  • By david Loewenthal Reply

    I entirely agree with Kevin. One of the great advantages for a composer, arranger, jingles writer, songwriter or anyone else who might suddenly get a great musical idea is that a pencil (with rubber preferably) and one scrap of paper gives you all the technology you need to get that idea down. Technology should be a time saving medium for those who already know how to do things by hand.

  • By Wendy Jayson Reply

    I think that it makes sense for kids to use the technology in programs like “Note Flight”. They can see what works and what doesn’t and can observe the corrections before their eyes. For example, by using technology they can easily develop an understanding of what a measure in common time should look like, which direction the stems are supposed to go and they can easily learn how to notate more complex rhythms. These are just some examples of what they can do. I personally think that pencil and paper makes more sense after they have a chance to see it all done with technology. They could also use it to check their work after pencil and paper exercises!

  • By Korin taddei Reply

    I totally agree with you. I really think the brain retains more with a pencil and paper. And plus with all the very volatile governments today… Who can guarantee that the Internet will even be available next week… Or even electricity for that matter! 🙂

    Thank for all your great materials.


  • By heather lovell Reply

    I agree that the best way to learn music theory is by copying and that the pencil should never be outdated. i am proud to say that, due to a great teacher (who was elderly, arthritic and scarill strict!) I achieved the only perfect score of my educational history, in music or otherwise, 99 points out of 99 for my Grade 5 Theory, she made me correct adn recorrect myself til I was perfect!

  • By Carol Sharp Reply

    I could not agree more!!! Thank you for speaking out about this.

  • By Rosemarie Coleman Reply

    I totally agree. Children need to be able to think through
    and write notation before the automatics of notation programs. ‘Word’type programs can make you lazy. I find personally that a program that thinks for you doesn’t speed
    the process along. It’s a hindrance to creating ideas. (It might be a personal preference.) But, I prefer programs that speed the creation of the product ready for
    mass production/distribution.
    Artificial intelligence is fortunately not yet perfect.

  • By Christine Welham Reply

    I’m with you 100% – most students I have taught (from age 4 upwards) learn better by physically writing answers – especially on manuscript paper. My one gripe is that too often the size of the manuscript paper is too small for the dexterity of the child. Young children LIKE writing out notes and ‘music’ – we need to encourage them. Technology can come later. Remember the phrase ‘use it or lose it?’ – It applies to music too!
    Thanks for the Printable Music series – it’s just brilliant!

  • By Renee Reply

    I totally agree with you. I teach K-8 grade and all of my students practice notation as part of their music class, sometimes with pencil and paper and sometimes with white board and dry erase markers. Regardless, they are writing!

  • By Catriona Turnbull Reply

    I heartily agree with your comments about students learning music theory with pencil and paper. I too am a strong advocate of technology in the classroom, but only to enhance my teaching, not as a substitute for fundamental skills. I liken it to the idea that we should no longer bother teaching spelling because of spell check (an idea supported by some!). I also believe strongly that students need to learn to compose without the aid of a computer. They need to be able to invent musical ideas, manipulate them, decipher them and write them down (with pencil and paper) before being launched on a program like Sibelius of Finale. We introduce Sibelius to our Year 6 students at the end of the year but as a publishing tool that they use to publish the song that they have composed (with pencil and paper) over a number of weeks.

  • By David Reply

    I once had a teacher who as an aid to learning the difficult corners in a piece of music used to make students write out the passages very neatly in a manuscript book. The theory being that it made you think about the passages you were writing. A great aid also in memorisation.

  • By Coralie Reply

    I completely agree. I am a teacher (no longer teaching in the classroom due to health) but, I also was taught music theory the ‘conventional’ way. Of course we can liven it up if we want to with images and cartoon characters but we don’t need to distract the student from the theory they are trying to assimilate. I think it is important though to teach it in context, listening to a piece of music that has the characteristics of the theory being taught. This didn’t happen for me and I think it would have helped, as I found theory much harder than practical once I got up in the grades. Music is a discipline that teaches young students to strive to be the best that they can be, especially if they sit exams and enter competitions. I am very conscientious in all I do (or at least I hope I am) and I attribute this characteristic solely to the nine years I spent as a high school students learning to play the piano and understand theory of music. It certainly didn’t come from my upbringing. So, no, we don’t want to ‘water it down’ when learning the basics by introducing technology that also requires the user to have skills in the use thereof. The great classical composers produced more music than anyone of modern times and the only tools they used were their astounding brains, quills and paper. What more can I say?

  • By Annette Reply

    Totally agree. We don’t teach kids to write using ipads, etc. They still use pencils to practise the alphabet and learn to write so why should learning music theory be any different?
    By all means use technology as ONE of the tools at their disposal but not as the only means by which students learn or we’ll breed a generation of students who can only produce something with a computer to do the work.

  • By Al Summers Reply

    Thank you Kevin: you make some great points.
    As a composer, using pencil and paper is still the best way I know to notate ideas, anywhere and at any time. It is often more convenient as a clear presentation method; we are free to notate as we see fit, rather than being limited by software programmer’s whim. It is also often quicker.
    As a tutor, I find that pupils really enjoy handwritten score, often commenting that they appreciate that it has been specially written for them.
    When they notate, musical vunderstanding seems to come faster when using pencil and paper than when they use notation software.
    My colleague and friend Ray Bradfield has put me on to your site, for which I’m very grateful.

  • By Ellen Reply

    Well, I’m going to take a risk and say that I disagree heartily. First of all, what is it that you are hoping to teach? Penmanship (for musicians)? Or music theory? And what world are you training these students to live in? The world of your past with tools that, while once all that was available, or the tools of the here-and-now: the tools they are growing up with and that many are carrying around in their pockets?

    I find it fascinating that we take something that everyone loves – and everyone loves music – and we make it into a class in academia that most hate. Here we are with a captive audience and some of the most sophisticated technological resources at our disposal – and, yes, they are carrying that technology around with them every moment of every day – and we are telling them, “You have to learn how to do this the way I learned it decades ago or else!”

    Unfortunately, many students choose the “or else” and we lose some of the most gifted, creative, musical minds to other endeavors because we are too proud of our traditions to move with them into the world they live in and that is their future.

    Reading this article saddens me, yet also spurs me to be and do more to provide my own students with an education that will serve them well in their future endeavors as artists, composers, performers, and teachers of the generations to come.

  • By Teresa Reply

    I don’t know if anything will every really replace the pencil and paper. There is something about it that can never be replicated in any other way. I have my students work in their theory books drawing notes, writing music, and understanding the basics of musical knowledge. To be able to know how to get your thoughts down on a musical staff is something most people want to do, yet realize it can be complicated. In many ways, I think using technology for this purpose can make it even more complicated. Now instead of using the eraser on the back of pencil to fix mistakes, we have to find a similar function on each device. Let’s keep it simple and stick to the basics.

  • By Tresa Reply

    First, I absolutely love receiving my notifications from FUN MUSIC Co. Thank you, for the great ideas you publish and send to all of us.

    Now, with regard to using a pencil or technology. Why can’t we have both? We all know how unreliable and crippling it is when our technological devices fail.
    As a private piano and voice teacher, I use as much technology as I am able to afford and have the ability
    to use. However, when my studio computer caught a bug this summer and went DOWN THREE TIMES, taking all connected devices with it, on teaching days, I was ever so glad I had the old school methods of teaching. Real books, pianos, and writing implements.

    To me, using the pencil and paper teaches more than just drawing the basics and scoring our music. There is something to be said for the ‘art’ of drawing and creating an original by hand. There is an unseen personal development deep within that takes place that cannot dissipate into thin air or cyber space. The mispelled words and unskilled shakey lines my son used as he completed some of those elementary theory books at an early age are more than priceless to me. But the skills he learned are helping him to thrive in his field of graphics today. With all of his technical devices at hand, he can still draw an amazing image with just a pencil and paper.
    I think of another example like email for letter writing. I used to have 50 pen to paper friends when I was younger. Receiving a handwritten letter was a gift from the sender. Email is a terrific way to communicate and I do not want to give that up, but if I no longer had access to a computer or device in which to send one, I still know how to write a letter with my various pens and ink. Just because a faster, so called more efficient means of doing something comes along, doesn’t always mean we have to allow the former to become obsolete. I often think about our culture today and how the modern conveniences of dishwashers, microwaves, etc., were invented to make living easier and more efficient while giving us more time and yet I hear time and time again “I DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO PRACTICE” followed by a long list of activities the family engaged in separately throughout the week; this all from a 2ND GRADER!

    Yes, hooray for our tech devices and ways of learning, utilize them when possible, but remember they too are vunerable and susceptible to viruses and other glitches such as power failures. When they are down, they are down. A pencil only fails when the lead breaks, but can be back in action with a hand held sharpener.

  • By stidmama Reply

    I agree with you from many angles, one is that technology can fail and both students and teachers need to be able to pick up a piece of paper and a writing tool and still do the work. The more important one is based on developmental needs and current research in how the brain works — humans are designed to use their hands to manipulate their environments and our brains develop more and stronger connections when learning in multiple ways. As a literacy teacher I know that asking students to write by hand as well as read reinforces the learning by creating additional pathways in the brain, pathways that are different from those created by keyboarding or using dictation software. I know that when students don’t take the time to learn how to form letters or numerals correctly they can struggle to interpret what they see! Also, because working by hand forces one to slow down it allows for more thoughtful work, and learning that is retained. While for some students the use of keyboard and mouse (or stylus and tablet) is liberating, as for people with physical impairments, for most of us it makes more sense to learn the traditional way first and then move to the newer technologies.

  • By Kevin Alexander Reply

    I agree with your blog in many ways. First, I believe in teaching students the basics of music notation with pencil and note paper is important. They are able to get the feel of how the notes are written and it then becomes more personal to them. Second, I work at school that does not have the monetary resources to have a Smartboard or the necessary equipment to achieve a technologically advanced lesson. I still have VCR tapes..We just do not have a rich budget for the students. I do my best and I think back to my days in chalkboard, vcr, basic instruments, and all the great songs we sang..yup music was still fun without the I-pod, I-pad, or Smartboard.

  • By Melissa Reply

    Math teachers do not let the students use a calculator on every problem because the students need to learn all of the aspects and not let the computer correct all the mistakes. Or in our case put the stems on the right side or the dots, key signatures, time signatures, and bar lines in the right place.

  • By Judy Volk Reply

    I feel the same as you that pencils and paper should be used in learning and writing of music. My children in class love learning the musical alphabet,clefs, notes, time signatures, etc. I teach the theory so that they can all learn how to read the written music and the words as they fit in our written songs. I think the children of today need to start with the pencil and paper and be encouraged in their learning of the basic rudiments of music. Then it becomes easier to apply what they first learned as they continue to advance in their music classes. Being introduced to all the various instruments is very exciting to learn and experience as well.

  • By John Reply

    Spending time learning how to notate music by hand is a waste of time and just a way music teachers get more money out of the student for little work. It is now 2014 and pencils are next to useless and rarely used. Learning harmony is far more important than learning how to use a pencil. All these die-hard traditionalists within the music world really hold evolution back and just simply get in the way. So yes, the pencil is outdated. Instead, there should be more audio engineering and production.

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