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.

The Hook
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?

3 Responses

  1. Hi my name is Ben de Ayora
    and I’m a marketing consultant at Warner Bros. Records.
    I just wanted to touch base with you and see if I could get a proper e mail contact so I can reach somebody directly for possible business developments. Your site is great and I really feel like we could work together on some upcoming projects that I have coming my way. If you could just reply to the e-mail address I listed I would greatly appreciate it.
    I look forward to hearing back from you soon.
    Ben de Ayora
    Marketing Consultant/New Media
    Warner Bros. Records
    O) 818.953.3757
    C) 909.518.4166

  2. Gaming elements in an educational product essentially aim to makes music fun for beginners. They’re great for the more visually inclined students, helping them to understand and grasp musical elements using visual cues.
    In the Chair is a multi-award winning music technology company delivering platforms for online musical performance and participation.
    In the Chair’s technology provides its products with the ability to listen to a musical performance, on a real analogue instrument, and make real time judgments on pitch, tone, timing, duration and dynamics.
    The first product incorporating In the Chair technology is StarPlay – music education software that lets you practice by performing with professional musicians, bands and orchestras. Students hear the other musicians as they watch the video and play along. StarPlay listens to the performance and helps students perfect the piece with feedback as they play.
    In the Chair also has rock guitar and karaoke products in development.

  3. I’ve been an advocate of the utilization of computer technology in music education for years.
    This all sounds good, but there ARE a few problems.
    First, as a culture we’re already buried up to our necks in media that create the impression that ALL “music” consists of guitar, bass and drums, and that any other instrument (or musical form in which it might be used) is peripheral, “old-school,” “egghead,” or in some other way marginalized–not “mainstream,” therefore not “important.” I realize that Nintendo and the other gaming companies wish to produce that which will sell. They ARE, however, contributing to a problem rather than a solution, at least if we’d like to interest students in something beyond the pedestrian, and possibly spark an interest in “weirdo” instrument choices, like, say, oboe, or violoncello, or…you get the idea.
    The second problem is that all of the toys described above produce tone using .wavs and sample loops–the user is able to create noises that sound “professional” without any understanding of the personal investment in time and sweat(and finger blisters/callouses, if we’re talking about the guitar) it takes to MAKE those sounds without benefit of a canned tone source. Hopefully the bubble won’t burst when the student picks up a real instrument and finds that simply producing a sound (even a bad one) requires actual WORK. A LOT of work.
    It’s great to spark interest in music–that’s a good thing. It’s also, if you look at it another way, pretty cool that a group of 7th graders was able, in less than an hour, to learn the form and chord progression of a Green Day song, and to create similar new material within minutes. Hopefully this will eventually fire off some new light bulbs–such as the realization that what Green Day did wasn’t difficult for a 7th grader, with no musical training, to accomplish. Whatever we can do to dispel the notion that selling a million albums doesn’t make one a “creative genius” (the “big lie” the conglomerates, through their glossy magazines and flashy videos, spend millions trying to perpetuate) is worthwhile. If 7th graders can do it, probably so can 5th graders–when we can get down to the 3rd grade perhaps our culture will wake up and see that the six minutes of training necessary to understand the construction of these tunes doesn’t really justify the billions the industry sucks out of the economy (and away from support of music composed by people who actually had to learn something in order to create it).
    The REAL trick would be to keep the student interested long enough to realize that engrossing music is all around us (it’s just off-camera, and therefore non-existent as far as most kids know) and that there’s more to art than 4-chord vamps accompanying simplistic rhymes about adolescent boy-girl relationships.
    Show me a video game that can open the eyes of youngsters to the real depth and richness of music–that’s when I’ll be impressed. It’s cerainly POSSIBLE. But until investors see the payoff in large-scale marketing of substantial, thoughtful music, I doubt it will happen. Instead, our landfills will be littered with “Guitar Hero III” interfaces that have been replaced with the newer, glossier models that require even LESS effort or intelligence to operate.
    Jimi Hendrix didn’t tap a yes/no toggle switch to make the noises he made. He had to make those sounds with his hands, in real time, and he had to earn those chops. He didn’t just trigger a recording–he WAS the recording.

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