Felice Lugos's Blog
The Start of Something New
It’s time to redefine the way music is taught in classrooms. Video games might just be the way to do so.
High School Musical: Sing It!, for the PS2
You never forget your first time. Your first time receiving a present you loved so much you burst into tears, that is. For me, it was Christmas 2007. I was eight at the time and I had received the High School Musical: Sing It! karaoke game for the PlayStation 2 from our family friends, Uncle Jon and Auntie Hannah. Let it be said that at that point in my life, High School Musical and its first sequel were everything. On top of that, singing was my favorite thing to do. So a video game that combined the two was much too much for my eight year old heart to handle. I played that game to its last legs, scratching up that disc until our PS2 couldn’t load the game anymore.
Growing up, these were the only types of video games I ever had any vested interest in. I loved music, therefore, I loved music video games. Video games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, my beloved High School Musical: Sing It! and many more provided me with endless hours of fun and let me connect with music in ways I otherwise couldn’t. I didn’t know how to play guitar or drums, but I was provided a platform to seemingly do so in these video games. I couldn’t audition for American Idol, but for a song or two on with American Idol Karaoke Revolution, I could be a contestant on the show! These are not the only music video games out there. There are games like Rhythm Heaven, where you explore concepts of rhythm in challenging but fun minigames. There’s Electroplankton, an old Nintendo DS game where you play as fluorescent plankton that make beautiful, haunting, and perfectly unique scores of music.
I had a lot of experience in the music classroom growing up. I stopped when I reached college, but every school year since first grade, I had managed to sing in my schools’ choir. In my Junior and Senior year of high school, I was singing in three choirs, putting in at least two, up to four hours of singing a day. In December, my diet would basically consist of steaming cups of Throat Coat tea and Chloraseptic throat-numbing lozenges as my choir would do small group performances around four times a week on top of preparing for the Winter Choir Concert. It was brutal, but it was by far my favorite part of the holiday season.
In all of those years singing and learning how to sing, the classroom was very traditional. My music teachers and choir directors were brilliant, but very strict in the way they taught music. We learned the notes on the treble clef on sheets with staves. FACE in the spaces, Every Good Boy Does Fine on the lines. In high school, we learned singing techniques by listening to our choir director, Mr. A, demonstrate the technique, and writing down the term and definition in a table that stayed in our choir folders. Sight-reading, the difficult practice of being able to sing or play a piece of music straight away without practicing beforehand, was something I improved at but was never able to perfect. My choir-mates and I learned how to sing and how to sing well these ways, but it took years! Years of hours upon hours of rehearsing. There must be a way to expedite this.
Seth, me, and our friend Evan singing solos at our last choir concert together..
I want to propose something revolutionary. Okay, it’s not really revolutionary at all, but it’s something that isn’t being reached to its full potential.The music classroom, for the most part, has failed to move into the modern age. It has relied on the traditional practices I mentioned above, training students ears with only stiff sheet music as a visual aid. Video games are the way to bridge music education to the twenty-first century. Music video games are a diverse genre of games that can provide entertainment, as well as education. While some games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band may be more suited as a party games, they still provide students with the interest in music. In addition, rigorous rhythm-based games like Rhythm Heaven, or games with that provide Real-time Visual Feedback to singers like Karaoke Revolution have the potential to be used in educational settings - bringing the musical classroom to the digital age. I’m not saying that there should be a complete upheaval of the way music has been taught, but the supplement of video games to these music programs could be beneficial to the students in ways that the mainstream music education community has yet to see.
There are many researchers and music educators who believe that video games can be a boon to the music classroom -- there just aren’t enough to make a visible dent in the mainstream way music is being taught. Music programs in schools are being defunded all over the country. Although at the end of the day it’s the different hierarchies involved that control the funding of these programs, I’d wager that a major influence to this defunding crisis is due to children's’ disinterest in music. It’s not as if kids don’t like music, every kid likes music to some degree. It’s the acute dislike of learning music that has a big effect.
Not every child is suited to learn music in the traditional ways. I can confidently say that while I waxed poetic about my love of music and my years of experience learning it, the truth is that I never got far into learning music theory because I hated learning music theory. It’s confusing and difficult to learn for any pupil, but for a child who already isn’t as interested in music as their peers, I’m sure it seems like the most convoluted and boring thing on Earth. The days of collectively learning how to read music through playing the shrieking recorder have got to end. (I’m thinking that most parents who have gone through this will agree with me.)
In layman’s terms, when we talk about vocal pitch accuracy, we’re talking about being able to sing a certain note at its correct frequency -- its pitch. Singing flat means you’re singing just under the correct pitch, and singing sharp means singing just above the correct pitch. There are people out there, like my good friend Seth, who were naturally born with perfect pitch. Tell him a note to sing - say, G sharp - and he’ll be able to immediately sing the note perfectly at you because he has a miniature music elf playing the note for him on a puny piano inside his ear. Something like that. Obviously, I don’t know the exact science of it, but from what I’ve seen, you’re either born with perfect pitch or it’ll take years of training to even get close to having it. I digress.
Most of us (least of all me) do not have Seth’s ability to always sing on-key. In elementary music classrooms, children are generally taught to sing relatively accurately by listening to melodies and trying to repeat what they hear. In more advanced singing settings, it’s obviously a little more complicated than that. Feedback from instructors is more constructive and the music concepts are more advanced, but to be honest, the basic concept is the same. Listen and repeat, and if there’s sheet music, you follow the notes along the staff. Like I mentioned earlier, learning pitch accuracy is generally approached in this manner, and the learning curve can be steep for some people.
There is, however, a light at the end of this not-tunnel. Numerous studies over the past few decades have been done on digital programs that have helped people with their pitch accuracy when singing. Now, these programs are not video games per se -- they were specifically made for the purpose of helping singers hone in on their accuracy skills. Computer programs SINGAD, WinSingad, and Sing&See were used in three different studies, respectively, and all participants improved in their pitch accuracy. The most astounding thing was that these studies were done with people of different ages and singing abilities, and these programs were all used over different lengths of time -- the shortest of these being a few weeks.
The secret to these programs being so beneficial is a little something something called real-time visual feedback. These programs show a “contour” of the singer’s pitch on the screen as they sing, with the contour moving higher up on the screen as the singer sings a higher pitch, and vice-versa with lower pitches. This contour moves in real-time with the singer. This is a stark difference than the stagnant notes on sheet music that will never give any indication to the singer that they are hitting the correct note. This real-time visual feedback is practical gold mine for those whose ears may not be as well-trained as others nor possess a natural gift for singing.
This real-time visual feedback is present in basically all singing video games. Games like High School Musical: Sing It! and Karaoke Revolution to name a couple . A study done by the Department of Music at Ole Miss showed that a group of 32 undergraduate students who were not singers were able to improve pitch accuracy by singing songs on the PS2’s Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore for a measly ten minutes. Ten minutes! It would sound too good to be true, except it can’t be because this game uses the real-time visual feedback just like the designated computer singing programs did.
A screen of gameplay in Karaoke Revolution depicting real-time visual feedback.
So if the key to a faster way of learning how to sing well is in these easily accessible video games, then why aren’t classrooms using them more? It’s probably the stigma in the general population against video games being anything but brain-rotting and time wasting. Parents and the media are especially concerned that video games will harm children in unimaginable ways. This simply isn’t true. Moreover, the music content in these games is not in line with a lot of the standard music education curricula. These standards usually push a more classical type of music that not everyone enjoys.
But come on. These games are fun, they’ve been proven to improve singing ability, and they contain a wide variety of music that people of all ages flock to. I mean, I would’ve had a blast learning how to sing in elementary school with the HSM game, and who knows, I might have been more advanced in my singing techniques by now. The fact that more music genres are encompassed in these games provides an inclusivity that is otherwise missing in traditional music learning and a way in for more people to become interested in music.
Needless to say, these games should be used in conjunction with standard methods of teaching. Studies have shown that these singing tools are the most effective when extra constructive feedback is given by an instructor after the fact. When I contacted my old choir director for his thoughts on this topic, Mr. A told me that “this technology SOUNDS great, but relies on time, experience, and training.” He has never used digital programs like this before, but knows of colleagues who have and he didn’t have anything particularly negative to say about it. Video games can prove to be a new and exciting tool in the music classroom, but there are music skills that computers simply cannot teach.
To speak on the power of video games in influencing kids to be interested in music, I turn to a study titled “The Nirvana Effect: Tapping Video Games to Mediate Music Learning and Interest” done at Indiana University, Bloomington. Here they worked with kids at the local Boys and Girls club for around nine months, playing the video game Rock Band with them a few times a week in Rock Band Club and then testing them on traditional music skills. They wanted to see if there was a relationship between the number of Rock Band sessions played with the scores the children received on these simple tests. The results were extremely interesting. They found that the kids had better grasps on different rhythmic concepts, like metric hierarchy and metric subdivision (music theory terms that I’m sure were invented to intimidate me). They had an understanding of instrumentation, the way it feels to hold and possibly play an instrument, and the children improved on the traditional music tests even if they never received formal teaching on those concepts.
To top it all off, playing this game piqued the interest in music of numerous kids. Something that is lacking in today’s music education scene. Again, I am flabbergasted as to why these games aren’t being used in the classroom by now. This study was done in 2011. Maybe seven years isn’t enough time for a momentous movement to occur, but I honestly don’t feel as if this is that momentous. It’s taking something that was previously specialized in entertainment and using it for the betterment of children in schools all around. Call it being resourceful, if you want.
Kids Participating in the Rock Band Club
One last, fun tidbit. Guitar Hero, in a study done at Brigham Young University, was shown to have increased the self-esteem in those with low self-esteem, as well as provide them with the motivation to play real instruments. The study noted how Guitar Hero is adept at putting players who have “fantasy-seeking” tendencies, in this state of fantasy where they are a talented musician, a performer for the ages. This boosted a player’s self-esteem. To quote Gary Marcus in a piece he wrote about why people want to play Guitar Hero and Rock Band: “When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards; when I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don’t hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!” Seems… poetic, almost. Maybe just to me.
Okay. I just spat out a bunch of scientific studies that have evidence to show that video games and computer programs can and should be used in the music learning environment like I would like. I hated that I used the word flabbergasted to verbalize how I feel but well, I am flabbergasted. It’s 2018, and three decades ago, seven year-old children were able to improve their singing skills in the matter of weeks using SINGAD. Why shouldn’t my eight year old brother, a third grader and future singer/actor/scientist/videogamedeveloper (his goals, not mine), be able to hone in his singing abilities like that? I sound like such a “stage sister,” but I mean it. Why shouldn’t students have wide access to ways that will speed up their process of learning music? The answer to that question remains disappointingly unanswered.
There’s a beautiful and diverse world of music video games whose potentials remain untapped. By extension, there is a beautiful and diverse world of people whose potentials in music remain untapped. The old ways of music education have got to be mended. It’s about time for the start of something new.