The Role of Music in Digital Storytelling and Education

Digital storytelling (DST) presents incredible new opportunities for the world of education. New media and DST tools have the potential to enhance education in all settings. Digital storytelling through mediums such as virtual reality, online experiences, games, music, podcasts etc. or a combination of these platforms, has the potential to change the way students learn at all levels, regardless of subject matter. In his book Digital storytelling in the classroom: New media pathways to literacy, learning, and creativity, Jason Ohler argues that digital stories with appropriate sound, music, and mixing technique, can have a deep impact on education (Ohler, 2008). Widespread access to new technology is poised to have a transformative effect on digital storytelling and education. Educational content in the form of digital stories will be created for these new platforms and present an important area of exploration for academics in the digital humanities. This paper will explore the role of sound and music in digital storytelling, and the important place music has in supporting digital stories. Through the lens of music and its impact on storytelling, I will argue that DST is key problematic of the digital humanities.

From an educational perspective, music can play a key role in studying the humanities at all levels. In her book Giving voice to democracy in music education: Diversity and social justice, Lisa C. Delorenzo looks at how music can be used in an educational setting to teach students about a subject like the Holocaust. The emotional impact of music can convey the feeling of many stories much better than words are able to. The feeling that music and sound create can also play a role in the way students remember a subject or story (Delorenzo, 2015). Digital stories with thoughtful sound design choices also have the potential to change a persons view on social and political subjects. In an educational setting, digital stories can be used to help shape students attitudes and values towards important social and political issues such as race, gender, religion and sexuality. Discussing the power of sound Ohler notes,

“In media literacy classes, we talk about strategies advertisers use “to pierce the neocortex,” that is, to grab listeners (or consumers) beneath their judgmental minds where they are often helpless to use critical thinking to evaluate what they’re experiencing. Music is the most powerful tool in their toolbox for achieving this (Ohler, 2008, 186).”

For example, Ohler states, “using the Jaws theme can make Bambi appear evil” (Ohler, 2008, 186). In a classroom setting, when discussing the theory of applying music in DST, Ohler suggests asking students “how does the music relate to the story?” Considering the power of music, it is important to be careful about the message you are trying to convey when making sound editing decisions in DST. Ohler notes the importance of making appropriate sound design choices which support the narrative in DST. Through thoughtful choices, sound can be an important emotional tool in effective digital storytelling, but it can also take away from a production when used incorrectly.

In addition, Ohler discusses the importance of well-produced audio in successful digital stories. If the audio of a story is unclear, it is makes it more difficult for students to understand, enjoy and learn from a digital story. Rules such as using music without lyrics when a narrative is present, and only using one dominant audio source at a time are basic grammatical guidelines that can help digital stories be successful even if the visuals are not great. When it comes to recording a narrative in a digital story, annunciation, tone of voice, and pace are the key elements to keep in mind. Whether you are experiencing a digital story, or creating a new one, it is important for the audio of the narrative to sound natural and clear (Ohler, 2008).

Digital storytelling can include a combination of multiple platforms and sensory experiences. For the digital humanities, it is interesting to consider the new ways technology and DST can impact how students in the future will experience subjects from history and politics, to important social topics like race, gender, religion and sexuality. In the study of DST, and the digital humanities in general, the potential for new, exploratory, and collaborative work is endless. For these reasons, digital storytelling has an opportunity to transform the way humanities subjects are taught, experienced and understood. Continued exploration in the digital humanities will give us a better understanding of the ways in which technology can be used to help us better understand ourselves.

The humanities are the study of human culture, and human beings have a natural inclination to pass culture on through stories. From a cultural perspective, DST holds the potential to shape our lives from a very young age. In a world where DST becomes ubiquitous, stories from all races, nationalities, religions and cultures will be preserved and easily accessed for educational purposes. In a global world, DST creates an interesting opportunity to close the gap between cultures through the sharing of knowledge. Moreover, access to digital content related to social justice issues and other political and social problems globally will change the way we see the world around us. For students at all levels, DST creates opportunities to learn about new topics, which in turn will result in more informed global citizens. Furthermore, considering music plays an important role in the cultures of societies around the world, the use of appropriate sound and music in digital stories will help them to become more effective and engaging tools for education.

From an academic perspective, DST is a ground-breaking way of presenting, experiencing and collaborating on academic work. Furthermore, DST affords the ability for academics to “mash-up” the work of others through combining and curating sources and presenting them in exciting new ways. Moreover, considering the number of different mediums you can use to create a digital story, the creation of effective educational content will often require collaboration. For academics, it is integral to note that the variances in presentation DST affords, often creates projects that stray far away from the traditional research paper. The number of potential mediums you can use in DST can also create a more accessible learning experience for people with different learning styles. From this perspective, I feel it is an extremely exciting time in the history of academics. Today, digital pay walls restrict access to academic research online. However, in an age of ubiquitous Internet access, we now have the potential to create and share digital stories with anybody. However, the academic community must make it a priority to create affordable material, which is also intellectually accessible to a non-academic audience. DST has the potential to democratize the spread of information in the idealist way we have always purported the Internet to be capable of. Because a DST project has the potential to capture our attention in ways a traditional research paper cannot, digital stories will enable us to present and experience academic (and non-academic) work in ways we never could before. A mix of audio and visual elements in a digital story can evoke a very different reaction than academic writing. For these reasons it is important for the academic community to embrace the shift to digital, and usher in a new era of academic expectations in terms of presentation and style for the delivery of projects.

From the perspective of practitioners exploring the use of music and sound in digital storytelling, it is interesting to consider the role of curation, “remixing”, and other editing techniques. Practitioners today have the opportunity to combine academic sources with non-academic sources (i.e. music), which hold the potential to create more impactful and engaging digital experiences. The intended target audience and message of a story plays an important role in determining creative decision-making, and the ultimate format of delivery. Practitioners of digital storytelling are also responsible for making key decisions considering the underlying message or theme of a production. On the other hand, practitioners in the field of DST are also teachers and professors. For students studying the humanities, it is important for teachers and professors to discuss media literacy. In the digital age we are constantly bombarded by sounds and visual messages. DST is an emerging form of presenting information and messages, but for students it is first essential to understand the language and theory governing the world of media. Once armed with the literacy to understand the messages they are taking in, students will be more likely to develop the understanding, skills, and desire to create their own digital experiences. Today, it is essential for practitioners of the humanities at all levels, to provide students with an understanding of the ‘grammar’ of digital storytelling. An understanding of this theory will enable students to decipher and synthesize the complex messages in DST, and potentially give them the skills to become practitioners themselves.

From the perspective of a public audience, the revolutionary changes DST brings to the study of the humanities presents a major opportunity for the spread of knowledge. However, people must first be given the tools to understand the messages they are hearing and seeing. The study of the digital humanities is essential for the continued proliferation of digital literacy. Students of the digital humanities can go on to become practitioners (DST creators and teachers), which can later help educate public audiences or other future students. It is key to both the progress of academics, and economic success for the public to increase their level of digital literacy. Through the study of the digital humanities and DST tools, raising the level of digital literacy in a country like Canada can become a reality.

In his piece Gaming the Humanities, Patrick Jagoda states:

“Digital games represent a unique form around which to organize transdisciplinary thought, with its host of pitfalls, challenges, and possibilities. The promise of this form is especially, though not exclusively, evident in critical, learning-oriented, and art games (Jagoda, 2014, 197).”

Digital games present both an important area of, and learning tool for, the study of DST. In Gamining the Humanities, Jagoda later describes “The Source,” a DST example that combined storytelling, games and new media to look at “social and emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility with youth on the South Side of Chicago (Jagoda, 2014).” Exploring similar themes, Lisa C. Delorenzo looks at the ways in which music can be used as a tool to increase our social awareness and push towards positive transformation in these areas of society. Although Jagoda’s piece does not discuss the music and sound design in “The Source”, it is important to note that choosing an appropriate soundtrack for learning oriented games, can play a defining role in their impact.

In sum, I believe that digital storytelling is a key problematic of the digital humanities, the humanities and culture. The potential role DST can play in the world of education (at all levels) is an exciting prospect. Considering how much access we have to digital content, and the different types of experiences available to cater to people of different learning styles, I believe we a reaching a ‘renaissance’ in the world of academics. In a global context, the potential to access, share and collaborate on DST projects relating to important social issues has the potential to help democratize information in ways we have never seen. However, looking at the topic of DST from a practitioner’s perspective, it is important to recognize the different levels of social, political, and media literacy in both student and public audiences. Both Jason Ohler and Lisa C. Delorenzo give us a look at the ways in which music can be used to enhance digital storytelling. Though we do not know about the soundtrack of “The Source,” it is an example of how digital storytelling can be used as an educational tool to enhance both awareness and understanding of social and political topics. As an educational tool DST, and particularly the role of sound in productions presents an important area of study for the future of the digital humanities.


DeLorenzo, Lisa C. Giving Voice to Democracy in Music Education: Diversity and Social Justice. Print.

Jagoda, P. (2014). Gaming the Humanities. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 25(1), 189-215.

Ohler, Jason. Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2008. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s