Advancing musical traditions through technology

A man plays the accordion, while a woman stands next to him singing.

Think back to childhood and your first memories of song. Do you remember your parents sending you to sleep with a lullaby, or recall singing in chorus with other children in music class?

For project manager Pia Lang Holmen and team member Liv Anna Hagen, the joy of song started at an early age and carried on into adulthood. It is this joy that they wish to communicate and impart to children through TRALL, an app introducing 150 song gems to kindergartens and schools across Norway.

With TRALL, Pia and Liv Anna hope to build musical bridges.

Born out of necessity

"When I went to school, 100 years ago, I knew the same song as everybody else. We don't have the same repertoire anymore. So, I was standing in the classroom and I said, "Well, let's start with a song that everyone knows!" But there is no song that everyone knows anymore," says Liv Anna.

Originally, the app sprang out of a need to update the curriculum for the kindergarten education programme at OsloMet. The time had come to digitalise the songs taught to future kindergarten teachers—after all, students no longer knew how to read notes, and CDs were passé. So why not go one step further and create an app?

From teaching tool to treasure trove

Liv Anna and her colleague Siri Haukenes studied songs sung in kindergartens in the Oslo area, and found that the songs were old, and did not naturally stimulate children’s sense of musical diversity. Most of the songs stemmed from before 1960, and the remainder reflected individual staff choices.

The story of TRALL is one of evolution and love. The TRALL team quickly saw the potential of the app it was developing to expose children to a musical treasure trove. A treasure trove to be opened across the country.

Kindergartens are key for a lifetime of song

Pia underscores how vital kindergartens and music are; music plays an important role in childhood development and adult health, and it is in kindergarten that the foundation is laid for a lifelong appreciation of song.

"Singing has always been used as a means of coming together," Pia says, and adds that TRALL is "not only about a common repertoire and inclusion, but also about getting people to sing more. The repertoire is at risk of being lost, as is the tradition of singing together."

Building bridges between kindergartens and schools

Another challenge the TRALL team identified is the disconnect between music education in kindergartens and schools. In schools, "it's up to the teacher whether they get any music education at all, and they use their own repertoire. If they like "Yellow Submarine" they will teach "Yellow Submarine"," Pia explains. TRALL can help bridge that gap, as schools can build on its use in kindergartens.

Spanning musical, cultural, and generational divides

In addition to bridging educational levels, TRALL spans musical and cultural diversity. Old and traditional songs were given a new twist, to make them "as magical as possible," Liv Anna says. Songs have been collected from all over the country—inclusivity has been key.

Even though the TRALL team trusted its expertise, the public and musicians had to have a say in the songs chosen as well. And the musicians loved the concept; despite modest financial compensation, almost all signed on.

Liv Anna and Pia hasten to emphasise that the music is not fully representative of Norway, but the diversity of languages is impressive: Sami, Eritrean, Polish, Somali, Spanish, Kven, to name a handful. What is more, the repertoire will only grow in future editions of the app.

The TRALL team hopes that the app will also create a bridge both between schools and homes and between generations. Grandparents should recognise several of the older songs and hopefully engage with their grandchildren through them, while at the same time discovering new renditions.

State-of-the-art technology takes the stage

What makes TRALL special is the level of detail, backed by research, that has gone into its design. This is not your ordinary song playlist. The TRALL team has created a unique system to analyse all aspects of music—interpretation, pitch, speed—and used this data to inform the choices made with song selection. There is science behind each selection.

Artists were encouraged to interpret the music themselves, to put their "own musical footsteps to it," as Liv Anna puts it, but were given guidelines to follow to heighten the emotive aspect of the music. The right key had to be considered to suit children's voices and cues built into the music to indicate when to start singing. "Even the most experienced musicians have been advised by our editors on the way the music needs to build… so you get these emotions in music that support the singing experience," says Pia.

And it does not get more state-of-the-art than recording in the studios of NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, with Norwegian orchestras like NRK's Kringkastingsorkesteret and artists such as Sami singer Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen. The quality of the music is top notch, and a source of pride for the TRALL team.

A holistic experience

Yet TRALL is more than just sound and is best described as a holistic approach to a full musical experience. To bring the app to life, the TRALL team collaborates with designers from Bakken & Bæck, a company headquartered in Oslo. You can sing along with the karaoke function, and the app includes playful elements for children to explore different sounds, rhymes, and voice experiments.

Visual interpretation is layered onto the audio “to create unique experiences around each song,” Pia tells us. The holistic experience is further enhanced by the multitude of colours splashing across the screen: orange, lavender, egg-yolk yellow.

A labour of love

Liv Anna and Pia share a passion for music. Liv Anna studied musicology and is a trained singer who joined OsloMet as a lecturer after teaching music in schools. Pia is a pianist, has sung in choirs, and took her bachelor's degree in music, followed by a master's in science, technology, and society. She worked for 20 years with online safety and children's digital rights; TRALL was her chance to return to culture and music.

In other words, personal motivation and a love for music were driving forces in both women’s work on the app. This is reflected in the many long hours and evenings they dedicated to it, above and beyond the typical work week.

Pia describes listening to music as "almost a religious feeling. This is something that I want people to have, this amazing feeling of music. This is something that we are trying to do … it is very important for us to give children this magical experience of music."

The proof is in the pudding

The TRALL team looks forward to the spring when the app is beta-tested with up to 100 users from kindergartens, schools, and families. “The proof will be in the pudding,” Pia says; the uncertainty is both nerve-wracking and exciting. If all goes to plan, the app will launch towards the end of 2021 or in early 2022.

While funding and marketing pose challenges down the line, TRALL has already generated attention and accolade. The TRALL team won OsloMet's Innovation Award for 2020; the awarding committee cited it as a multidisciplinary project at the nexus between art, culture, technology, and pedagogy.

At the end of the day, the TRALL team hopes that both young and old alike will be left inspired and surprised by what they hear. "We hope to gather people around a common, diverse cultural heritage, with known and unknown songs from Norway and further afield," Pia summarizes.


Loading ...
Published: 13/04/2021
Last updated: 14/04/2021
Text: Sari C. Cunningham
Photo: Sonja Balci / OsloMet