University of Iowa student building music education app

University of Iowa student Nicole Williams has developed the B Sharp app.

Nicole Williams insists there must be a better way to make music education widely accessible to everyone.

On scholarship at the University of Iowa by playing the pipe organ, she has noticed it’s common for music classes to be cut at the elementary and high school level. Oftentimes, they’re the first classes on the chopping block.

“I think it’s crazy,” she said during an initial meeting with other entrepreneurs in January. “I earn money playing music, doing something I absolutely adore, making other people happy and all these kids are not getting the same opportunities. I think it’s so unfair and it’s always the kids that need it most that aren’t getting access. I just want everyone to get the same opportunities I have now.”

To bridge those opportunity gaps, Ms. Williams is developing an app — called B Sharp — to level the playing field for those who can’t afford an instrument but are able to download an app. The key, she says, is to make learning music theory fun by modeling the app’s progression mechanic off of Duolingo, a leading language-learning app, through bite-sized lessons and gamification. Gamification is how Duolingo makes a difficult task like learning a language more fun by introducing a playful, competitive element.

Users will complete a module where the app teaches an important concept and then will quiz each user about what they just learned. And while the content is meant to loosely follow tried and true music theory textbooks, it’s meant to be “fun and not daunting.” Ms. Williams hopes B Sharp will eventually include in-app awards, streaks for using the app daily and virtual leaderboards to compare progress with friends and family.

“If you were to learn a language any other way, you’re opening a book and you’re studying, right?” she explained. ‘So I don’t see why we can’t apply the same gamification and fun aspects to the language of music.”

During Startup Week Iowa City last summer, she won by pitching a music app centered around practice but not music education.

But after getting accepted into the Builders + Backers program — an early-stage accelerator where promising entrepreneurs hone in on a problem and develop a solution to fix that problem — she realized she needed to change course with her app’s strategy.

“My solution was not matching up with the problem that I wanted to solve,” she said, then realizing she needed to create something with no startup cost to help those with no access to instruments or classes.

Builders + Backers — an early-stage accelerator where promising entrepreneurs hone in on a problem and develop a solution to fix that problem — helped her make the pivot, as well guide nearly a dozen other participants. In the case of Jelena Beideman, she hopes the newly-formed Her Tech Collaborative will be a positive space for women in tech.

But for Ms. Williams, she’s balancing an academic schedule with building a new business from the ground up. She hopes to release a beta version of the app no later than January 2023 and would like to partner with instrument rental companies in the future.

“Maybe if you go through the app, learn and put in the work, potentially you get a discount on an instrument,” she said. “Then not only are we providing the opportunity to learn music … you’re working towards owning something.”

She also thinks B Sharp will be of interest to adults, not just youth.

“I think the target person is just anyone who doesn’t have the funding or the time to commit to formal music lessons,” she said.