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Music and rhythm games: A classically-trained Pianist's perspective

3:10 PM on 11.15.2008 // SWE3tMadness

[Editor's note: SWE3tMadness adds to the music and rhythm game debate with this piece on how the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have improved her skills on a real instrument. -- CTZ]

This was originally supposed to be a simple comment left in response to naia-the-gamer’s article on Wii Music and how well it functions as a tool for music education. However, after typing a few paragraphs, I figured this would be better suited as a whole blog article, not just to address Wii Music, but music/rhythm games in general.

My experience with music has been largely ordinary. When I was about six or seven, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons because I really wanted to be a famous rock star (what kid doesn’t?) and they figured that’d be the best place to start. After a few weeks, I realized that it was a lot more work than what I thought and especially hated music theory. So my lessons mostly consisted of practicing a few songs over and over again until I could play them reasonably well. Simple enough, and other than learning key signatures and musical notation, that’s what I went through for about eleven years.

More after the jump.

Now I can sightread pretty much anything you put in front of me, but I can’t play by ear or improvise worth anything. Seeing other people who taught themselves how to play an instrument shows the exact opposite result -- they can improvise and play by ear, but can’t read sheet music at all. This has led me to the conclusion that a good musical education has to involve three things: learning musical notation, musical theory, and genuine interest in the material from the student.

I very much agree with Naia on that while Wii Music can serve to generate interest in music for younger kids, it can’t supplant the experience of actually playing music.

But when reading the comments after the article, I was struck by how many people immediately took the faults with Wii Music and immediately jumped over to Guitar Hero and Rock Band, saying, “Oh, this is why these games suck too!”

No, they don't, actually.

The major difference between GH/RB and Wii Music is that the former two never claimed to be anything other than a game. Naia’s article merely meant to point out the problems with Wii Music as an educational tool, not with all music and rhythm games in general. Look at that picture above: does that look like a group of people actively engaged in learning the intricacies of music performance? No, they're just messing around and having fun. While I’m an avid musician, I recognize that GH and RB will not automatically make me a better musician, just like playing Resident Evil won’t actually teach me how to properly handle a firearm.

"Don't try this at home, kids. I'm a professional."

However, just like Naia pointed out a few possible uses for Wii Music as an education tool despite its flaws (recognizing pitch and tempo), GH/RB have unintentionally shown a couple benefits to me as a pianist. After playing Expert guitar for about a year now, I have much greater hand and finger strength, especially for my left hand, which was my weakest one before. It’s also helped me with hand independence and reading sheet music faster. If GH does help you play an instrument, I think its benefits are more suited to piano/keyboard, not guitar, ironically. Drums are the same way, and since the peripherals are closer analogues to actual drum kits, the skills transfer easier (learning how to follow colored spots on screen won’t teach you how to improvise your own beats, though).

This is true for pretty much all music games, and even videogames themselves in general. Remember the Resident Evil metaphor I used up above? While it is no replacement for real-life experience, I’ve noticed that playing games has really helped my vision recognition and hand-eye coordination.

So while music and rhythm games on their own can’t teach you how to play an instrument or give you any musical talent that isn’t there in the first place, they can certainly help generate interest in the next generation of kids, and maybe even help them practice certain drills and more physical aspects of playing music. Those games have their place, but with the technology used right now, my baby grand piano isn’t going anywhere.

Unless, you know, I can play it while it's on fire. Because that would be pretty fucking awesome.

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