Sunday, February 1, 2015

Note Blaster

My knowledge of the gaming world isn't comprehensive enough to tell whether this is an original idea or not. Actually, in a lot of ways I know it isn't. But I've been thinking about an idea for a game that could help teach people music.

The parts of the idea that I know are unoriginal have to do with games like Tetris, Asteroid, and Guitar Hero, where an object, shape, or musical note is falling at you and you have to blast it out of the way by hitting the right button, or positioning it just so.

There's also a game on my Android tablet where you try to play tunes by pressing the right key on a virtual piano just as a shape descending from the top of the screen reaches the keyboard. One problem with this melody game is that the keyboard on the touch-screen is so small that even a good pianist like yours truly has trouble hitting the right notes at the right time. Another trouble is that musicians like me who can read music are trained to respond to different visual stimuli than these dots or dashes descending from on high. It doesn't really seem to be a productive way to teach anyone about music.

I don't think Guitar Hero is much better. Even though the controller is bigger and easier to input, it isn't really anything like playing an actual instrument. All the game teaches you is to coordinate a cascade of lines and colors with a relatively simple pattern of finger movements. Someone could become an ace player on that platform without having a musical bone in his body.

I remember many years ago playing a typing tutor computer game that used an Asteroid-like format to build typing skills by dropping letters on you, which you could only blast out of the way by hitting the right key on the QWERTY keyboard. That was pretty cool. I think music-based video games should be nudged a little more in that direction.

An idea is now emerging in my mind out of the combined ooze of these memories. It's the basic outline of a game whose programmer's Birkenstocks I am not worthy to unbuckle. A multi-level game that could use a variety of animations to teach the basics of music, right up to intermediate music theory.

One requirement would be a computer controller that incorporates a range of piano keys, as well as keys for the letters A to G; the sharp, natural, and flat signs; treble, bass, and C-clef symbols; different note values such as half notes and eighth notes; and other keys whose need may become apparent as the levels progress.

Because different levels may require different input buttons, the ideal interface might actually be a touch-screen that lies flat on the table, perhaps with two or three octaves of piano-type keys besides. The game would also, naturally, include sound and might take input from the device's onboard microphone, but that would require programming to recognize sung notes and speech. While we're at it, let's include a little stylus pad to accept handwritten input, like drawing notes on a staff.

So, early levels could drill score-reading basics, like numbering the lines and spaces of the staff, identifying notes on the piano by touching its letter-name and staff position, identifying the notes on the staff by tapping its letter-name and piano key, seeing a note's letter-name and hitting the right piano key or tapping its location on a staff - beginning note-speller stuff.

The student-player might soon progress to identifying the clef when shown a note on the staff with a letter-name under it, tapping the place on the staff where a given note should be, identifying notes by rhythmic value, beating out simple rhythms, playing little tunes, maybe singing a bit of solfege. To balance comprehension with rote learning, at least some of the exercises will be randomly generated.

At a higher level, the exercises would drill correct identification of musical intervals, chords, scales and key signatures, successively requiring the player to enter the notes on the piano, the names of the intervals or whatever, their Roman numeral notation in harmonic analysis, and their position on the staff. Rhythmic and note-reading exercises could get more complex, and musical examples could progress to short pieces with full harmony.

There's really no limit to how high the levels could go. The exercises could end up including composition exercises, the solution of voice-leading and counterpoint problems, technique-building piano exercises, performance and analysis of significant pieces of music. It could end up being a tutor up to the level of advanced music theory, and with enough power behind it could include lessons in orchestral score reading, orchestration, sight-singing and ear-training, vocal and instrumental performance (again, using microphones to pick up the input), maybe even conducting.

And with all of this probably involving a continuously streaming interface between the user and a cloud-based database, big brother could probably keep an eye on rapidly developing talents and start fast-tracking them for a conservatory. Ha! That's insane! But I like it.