Some would argue that the answer to the question posed in this column’s title would be: “nothing good.”
For years there has been an ongoing debate about technology and its use in music education and music making. A lot of this concern has centered on the issue of the technology getting in the way of the teaching.
Many feel that technology actually harms the music education process since it could allow students to create music without actually knowing what they were doing. Other concerns often focused on how complicated technological applications are. Some teachers, many of whom did not grow up with music based technology, voiced concerns that were rooted in their own lack of knowledge about technology and how it could be a “teaching tool” for their benefit, just like a piano or a recording.
While many of these potential problems remain, the reality is that the technology freight train is rumbling down the tracks. The prevalence of music in our culture and the confluence of technology and music creates new opportunities to use new technology to engage and inspire students with a love of music.
No, I am not talking about MIDI… and I am not just referring to the obvious influence of Apple iTunes and iPods. That’s a whole other column.
I am talking about the confluence of gaming technology and music making.
A recent editorial in the magazine Game Informer was commenting on plethora of music games at the electronic trade show E3 and stated, “the music genre is not going anywhere soon, and I am excited to see all the new ways gaming is not only the expanding the market, but the way people look at entertainment.” I would suggest it might also influence the way people look at education and may have a profound impact on music education – more about that in a minute.
So what is driving all of this? The wildly successful Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II and the derivative games due out this fall, you guessed it, Guitar Hero III and the new competitor in the rock and roll game world RockBand. The interesting thing about these music-based games – aside from the facts that my editor at SBO Christian Wissmuller did some copywriting for Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II and that Wissmuller’s and associate editor Eliahu Sussman’s band, The Acro-brats, has songs in Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, and the forthcoming Rock Band – is that they are opening the door to the “experience” of music making to a broader audience. In fact, the editorial referenced above goes on to say, “there is nothing quite like experiencing music the way you can with these two games. It has truly changed the face of music forever. I can’t listen to an album without wishing I could play along.”
And there, my friends, is the hook. Once bitten, people catch the music-making bug and will yearn for something more.
Now, I recognize that our editor friend at Game Informer is not really making music… he is just mashing the guitar buttons to the rhythm of the guitar part. Kind of like Dance, Dance Revolution meets Guns n Roses (look it up if you never heard of them!).
But this is about to change.
Upping the Ante
In September, gaming software behemoth Ubisoft launched the first title that actually bridges gaming and music making with a title called Jam Sessions™. Jam Sessions is a groundbreaking music experience that transforms the Nintendo DS™ system (a hand held game console) into a portable guitar. Players literally strum the guitar via the Touch Screen and select chords with the Control Pad. Unlike Guitar Hero, the user has to decide the chords to play using up strokes and down strokes on a guitar “string” that also are dynamically sensitive based on the power of the stroke. You can learn or play along with a song in the programs library, create your own song and chord sequence, record the song in the program and then record the audio into another program on your computer. There is a tutorial program and even an ear-training module to help the player understand chord progressions and relationships.
Once you get beyond the first “gee whiz” factor of playing guitar on a handheld game system the real promise is around song writing. What better way to craft a new song than to have a device that will allow you to experiment and then record your work right on a small handheld device?
With more than 60 million Nintendo DS units in the hands of the under 18 crowd the chance to using a gaming title to entice them into the wonderful world of music making has tremendous potential. This new title allows the music educator to connect with the student using technology the students are very comfortable with. In essence, we are meeting the students where they are comfortable.
I tested this idea by going into my daughter’s 7th grade songwriting class. After just one period all of the students (a mix of music and non-music students) were playing the Green Day song When I come Around, learned this song’s form, understood the chord progression, and started to create their own songs following a similar structure. After the first week the teacher was telling me how the students were really engaged by the program. She went on to say they would be redesigning their songwriting curriculum because of the way the software greatly expanded what they could do in the class. Sounds like a winner to me!
Utilizing this New Recruitment Tool
I bring this to your attention because the confluence of music, game theory, and gaming technology is creating a whole new way for people to engage with music. Games are becoming more educational. Education products will begin to adapt game influenced interfaces. Game systems will be new platforms for real music making experiences allowing for the pre-conditioning of a new generation of students to want to become active music makers.
We are at the very beginning of this trend. Jam Sessions is just the first product to jump the divide. Not that the divide has been breached… other products are soon to follow. What these new, yet to be developed, products are capable of doing will only be bound the imagination of the software and hardware designers. And that could be good news for us.
So, how many of you have tried Guitar Hero? How many of you have a Nintendo DS? How about your children?
The opportunity is here. The music, gaming, technology freight train is roaring down the tracks. Are you ready for it?