PCS symbols for composing music

This resource is designed to enable students who face communication difficulties to issue clear instructions when composing music using a music software sequencing programme like Garageband or Audacity (you can find download instructions at the bottom)

This method of composing involves the gradual building up of an arrangement using several tracks and there are countless decisions to be made by the student in terms of arrangement, dynamics and effects. The sheets also act as a clear visual framework for the person supporting the student. The students I piloted these resources with (ref: ‘Composing Soundtracks for Films’ unit from our Introduction to Music course) also faced physically disabling barriers and so required the support of an adult to action each instruction. There are not many music software sequencing programmes that are currently accessible for disabled musicians to control independently. Equally, these resources could be useful for students who face communication difficulties but can independently use software programmes.

The resource consists of two downloadable sheets which use PCS symbols, a collection of standardized picture symbols used commonly in special education settings for communication with students who are strong visual learners. One sheet is designed for students who use a VOCA (Voice Output Communication Aid), the other for text-to-speech communication aids like Lightwriters. Both sheets have 15 symbols: for composing e.g. “delete sound”, “add effect” and also for expressing opinions e.g. “don’t like”, “changed my mind”.

To use with VOCA users: Speech and Language staff (or often Teaching Assistants) can prepare and upload a page for VOCA users which matches the symbols on the sheet.

To use with text-to-speech communication aids like Lightwriters: students only have to input one letter or number at a time to issue an instruction e.g. D = “delete sound”

As with any communication system, it will take time for both the students and supporting staff member to get used to the different symbols, to understand how the music programme works/ looks like on the screen and to build up speed. The list of symbols here is by definition not exhaustive and you could easily create your own versions, tailored to the composing activity you are doing and your students’ needs.

To download the Lightwriter example symbols sheet click here

To download the VOCA example symbols sheet click here