Have a Piece of Sonic Pi!

Code Music with Sonic Pi

Code Music with Sonic Pi software on your Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi


I’m taking an online graduate course in Creativity offered by the State University of Buffalo (SUNY) for my M.S. degree (two more courses to go!).  This is the same university that many Coetail students are doing their M.S. through.  The Course is CRS 530 “Creative Teaching and Learning in Formal & Informal Settings”.

This week’s assignment is to share about creativity resources— programs and technologies.

This blogpost will discuss the technology “Raspberry Pi” with the “Sonic Pi” program for teaching and learning music, that can be used with the Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi Technology

The Raspberry Pi, for the uninitiated, is that metal contraption in the second picture, above.  It’s the size of your hand.  The rows of pins do make me think of a bed of nails but it isn’t a torture device.  It’s a tool for creativity.

The Raspberry Pi was developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to assist children in learning computer programming skills.  It is an affordable computer for all ($5 to $35 US for each one) and one of the intents for the Raspberry Pi is that it would be used in developing-countries because it is so affordable.   The “Pi” is not another computer-screened device for children.  It is primarily for physical computing, which means for making physical objects and then “programming” them to be interactive or to do work for you.

For example, one of the future projects in our household is to build a bird’s house, outfit it with a camera and the Pi.  The Pi will be programmed to take a photograph when a sensor detects movement in the birdhouse.  We can also program it to tweet out a photograph each time it takes a photo!   See the project here.

Coding & Creativity Venn Diagram

Coding & Creativity Venn Diagram


Programming for Creativity

I gave a workshop at the ECIS Ed Tech Conference in Munich, Germany in 2015 about teaching computer programming to students and how programming is a way of expressing creativity.  I found a list of traits of creativity and critical thinking and I created this Venn diagram to show how computer programming develops both things.  I am not a computer programming.  I’m a school teacher who has done enough reading and playing with it that I feel that I can get students started in these creative exercises and I think a start is all they need!

I don’t know how accurate this Venn diagram is, because I organized the traits myself based on the little I know about computer programming but this is how I see “coding” teaching creativity and critical-thinking.

They say that Coding is a “super power” and opens up so many more possibilities when creating.  Coding definitely “levels up” the high-level thinking skills used in whatever project you are creating.   Making your creations interactive is only one possibility.

Raspberry Pi is a computer.    So, it’s applications are as numerous as any other computer for every academic or leisure field that you can think of.  It will connect to the internet.  There is software like Minecraft, Scratch, Python for the Raspberry Pi.  More and more software and peripherals are being developed for the Pi, as time goes on.  There is an astounding amount already, considering the Pi was only invented in 2012.

Sonic Pi in a case

Sonic Pi in a case with a SD card


There are a myriad of free resources created by the Raspberry Pi Foundation under three categories:  Teach, Learn, Make.  There is a free online magazine called Mag Pi.  There are a zillion books teaching uses for Raspberry Pi.

They also offer contests periodically.  One of the most memorable was Astro Pi when students vied for the opportunity to send their Raspberry Pi to the International Space Station to run experiments in space!   What an opportunity for creativity!  The Torrance Incubation Model  for Creative Teaching and Learning  (the focus of my SUNY course) would say, “break through and expand the boundaries!”

The Pi Academy is free professional development for teachers who want to learn how to use it in the classroom. There is also a teacher certification program.

Sonic Pi Program for Teaching & Learning Music

The program that I want to discuss that uses the technology, Raspberry Pi, is not as out of this world as Astro Pi, but it is a game-changer for musicians who don’t think they can code; or coders who don’t think they are musicians!

Sonic Pi is free, open-sourced software that you can put on your Raspberry Pi, Mac OS X,  Windows or Linux computer.  It was first developed for the Raspberry Pi.

“Sonic Pi was specifically designed for and built in collaboration with teachers for use in the classroom”— Sam Aaron (inventor of Sonic Pi)

Sonic Pi was developed at Cambridge University to allow people to code “on the fly” and compose music.  It turns the Raspberry Pi into a performance instrument, as you type in the Ruby computer language in real-time to create the sounds.  They call it “Live Coding”.

Sonic Pi is an intersection of the disciplines of computer programming, music, and physics.  In order to create the sounds you want, you code it. When you code, you are manipulate variables from physics in the code to change and tweak the sounds.

Here.  A video is worth ten thousand words.  In this youtube, the inventor of Sonic Pi (Sam Aaron) live codes a DJ set:



(Click the above to be taken to the Youtube.)

So, Sonic Pi allows coders to become musicians.  Computer programmers are manipulating elements of music (pitch, rhythm, harmony, tempo, beat etc.) as they code.  Sonic Pi allows musicians to become coders as musicians make the connection between elements of music to how it is expressed in code.

Both are physics scientists understanding and manipulating the properties of sound (waves, reverb etc.)

Sonic Pi is being used in UK schools in music classes as a way of addressing the new computing requirements from kindergarten to graduation that were made mandatory in 2014.   The UK is trying to secure a future for its country by making computer science compulsory from kindergarten to graduation.  Here are schemes of work (a curriculum program) for Sonic Pi in the classroom.

The strong points of Sonic Pi as a tool for creativity is that the music you create can be very open-ended.  Yes, you can re-create famous songs from classical music using Sonic Pi, but you can also compose original songs without having a lot of musical background.  This is because is it a synthesizer and you can create, manipulate very abstract sounds with it and young people like the sounds. Think of Electronic Dance Music.   Even though it is abstract music,  it has the same elements of music as traditional music (duration, rhythm, structure, melody, instrumentation, texture/tone, harmony).  It is still music.



(Click the above to be taken to youtube to hear Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV532)

Here are assessment guidelines for Sonic Pi that you can assess for:

  • liveness (how much code was changed on the fly or not)
  • not fluent (disjointed, stilted)/fluent (flowing, ambitious)
  • neat/messy
  • ambitious (adventurous)/unambitious (unadventurous)
  • risk free/risk laden
  • technically skillful/unskillful
  • simple (brief, limited)/complex (detailed, elegant).

There is a lot of room with Sonic Pi to compose music successfully with all these possible assessment criteria.  There are definitely more opportunities to compose successfuly than with a traditional instrument like a piano or violin!

SonicPi ChezVivian3

Creativity: Digital Music Opportunities


If computer programming is the “super power” for the 21st Century and a skill that students will need for all sorts of future careers, then the Raspberry Pi is a very affordable and well-resourced piece of technology for schools.

You don’t often think of coders, musicians, and physicists being the same sort of people, but Sonic Pi brings these three worlds together—opening up the creative potential for the three groups to do new things.

Sonic Pi supports engagement in sciences because infusing arts in anything makes it more fun!

The Raspberry Pi is cheap ($5 – $35 US).  Sonic Pi is a FREE download.   If you want to “break through and expand the boundaries!” as the Torrance Incubation Model  for Creative Teaching and Learning gives, as one of its creativity skills, here are two very significant resources to do it!

Coding with Sonic Pi

Coding with Sonic Pi

Sonic Pi Conference in Cambridge UK

I attended a Sonic Pi workshop and conference in Cambridge UK

About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home chezvivian.coetail.com curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
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