Skills for a Song

With renewed focus on core subject areas and preparation for standardized tests, time-pressed schools may be tempted to give their music programs short shrift. Yet research indicates that music listening and performance enhance brain development and general academic achievement. The three programs reviewed here help schools keep music on the program by promoting music education and appreciation through humorous, interactive songs and games, with emphasis on the development of aural discrimination skills. In addition, they challenge students to improve critical thinking skills, recognition of patterns, and aural and visual memory.

While there are plenty of software products that teach how to play specific instruments, for this review we chose to focus on programs that emphasize music fundamentals while enhancing core skills. Marketed as supplements for traditional music education programs, MusiCan's first CD and Harmonic Vision's Music Ace/Music Ace 2 both offer progress tracking systems, teacher's guides, and printed exercises for students. Meanwhile, Music Games International's Mozart's Magic Flute: The Music Game is intended to be a fun introduction to classical music; though less overtly classroom oriented, it stimulates improved aural discrimination, memory, and critical thinking skills.

MusiCan 1

In MusiCan's first CD, kindergarten students complete 15 activities that encourage the development of such basic music skills as active listening, rhythmic awareness, and pitch recognition. The program also introduces the first five notes of the diatonic scale using their solfege names (you can earmark MusiCan as the only program here to teach solfege, an invaluable technique for music reading).

In all lessons, the user hears a song, story, or explanation of concepts, then is encouraged to click on icons to complete phrases or tap out rhythms with the keyboard.

MusiCan's greatest strengths are its lovely songs and cheerful animation. Easily sung and beautifully written, the songs relate to everyday experiences: "Hear the Whistle of the Wind," "John Is Five Today," and my favorite, "Tidy Up the Kitchen." The linear format is appropriate for the age group targeted, lending to easy navigation. And the use of the keyboard for selected exercises nicely facilitates internalization of rhythm and promotes coordination.

Despite its strengths, the program has some flaws that might inhibit large-classroom use. Compared to other products for this audience, spoken prompts are minimal and sometimes vague. For example, in some song completion exercises students are cued with "I'm going to sing the song again, just click on the picture"; the additions of "correct picture to complete each phrase" would be less confusing. Similarly, instructions and test cues are given only once, which becomes a problem when students are distracted or simultaneously click on objects to produce other sounds (which is possible and tempting; however, users should learn to compensate for this weakness after several episodes).

Given these drawbacks, MusiCan is best for individuals and small classrooms-anywhere students ostensibly have less distraction and more assistance from adults. In that environment, this engaging first module should build students' appreciation for and internal connection with music. And the inclusion of a songbook and audio CD is a real plus for teachers wishing to build on the strength of MusiCan's melodies away from the computer.

Music Ace/Music Ace 2
(Harmonic Vision)

The Music Ace series nicely complements traditional music education by providing paired lessons and games that improve music reading and ear training skills. Using a grand staff and piano keyboard, Maestro Max and his Singing Notes encourage Music Ace users to master basic principles of music notation (the staves, key signatures and accidentals, pitch and interval recognition, and the relationship between written pitch and the keyboard). Music Ace 2 follows the same format, reviewing and expanding on Music Ace's lessons and introducing the three clefs, time signatures, tempo markings, rhythmic notation and discrimination, melody, and harmony. Independent of the lessons, a Music Doodle Pad gives students a compositional toolbox to adapt tunes or to write and hear their own music performed by sampled instruments.

Music Ace offers users great control over their experience. They can adjust the volume of narration separately from the music, and elect to receive information via text balloons, voice instructions, or both. Most importantly, teachers can calibrate latency, the delay in synchronization of animation and graphics. The importance of this calibration mechanism can't be overemphasized, as timing is a crucial aspect of good musicianship.

Overall, Music Ace and Music Ace 2 are excellently designed. Some students may find the programs' template staid or dated, but the stable, relatively simple interface functions beautifully and allows users to focus on learning new concepts, not new formats, as they progress. While the sound sampling could be improved (aside from the piano, the synthesized instruments sound quite similar), these programs are a practical, enjoyable supplement for ear training and music theory instruction in the classroom, private music studio, and home; preliterate users, with supervision, will enjoy them too.

Mozart's Magic Flute: The Music Game
(Music Games International)

MGI employs exquisite watercolor animation, superb sampling, and a delightful sense of humor in the second title of its Interactive Classics series, which gives a warm introduction through sound and text to Mozart's life, his music, and the instruments for which he wrote. As period scenes unfold to the overture of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, the user meets his alter-ego for the game, young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or "Wolfie," as he prepares for bed and a morning concert. During the night, Wolfie enters a dream which loosely parallels the opera: the Queen of the Night has stolen the sun, and Papageno, her bird catcher, encourages Wolfie to successfully complete three trials in order to save the world from darkness.

The games and riddles Wolfie must solve are intended to be pure fun, yet they also provide wonderful challenges to the user's auditory discrimination and critical thinking skills. Musical Jigsaw Puzzles require students to correctly identify orchestral instruments by sound and sight, either individually or in small chamber combinations. The Truly Twisted Musical Riddles involve matching brief musical phrases with one of a number of scrambled samples; as the game progresses, overlapping ranges, larger ensembles, or heavier scrambling increase the challenge. Accompanying stories educate players about Mozart's life and music with details that make it easy to relate to the composer. Throughout, simple textual and visual cues provide continuous feedback, and game conditions are clearly stated through Papageno's spoken directions.

As promised, Mozart's Magic Flute: The Music Game is fun for people of all ages. While playing, users will sharpen their spatial awareness and discrimination of timbre, rhythm, and melody. The musical and historical material is presented with wit and style, and the training will add depth to users' experience of live music. While not developed toward formal music education per se, this game certainly augments instruction and would be a great treat for a job well done or "just because" in educational and home settings.

Robin Garner holds degrees in both music therapy and social work.

Product Music Ace & Music Ace 2 MusiCan 1 Mozart's Magic Flute: The Music Game Company Harmonic Vision
(800) 474-0903 MusiCan
(805) 489-9057 Music Games International
(877) 877-1369 Platform Mac/Win CD Mac/Win CD Windows 98 or higher CD Price $79.95 each; lab pack and network configurations available $99; five-user and school licenses available $19.95 Age Group 8 and up 4 and up 4 and up Notable Features Intuitive navigation with clear instructions; detailed lessons in ear training and music theory; games and Music Doodle Pad reinforce skills in the context of play Accompanying audio CD and songbook; suggested interdisciplinary lesson plans; students can print certificates when they complete lessons Straightforward navigation with clear directions; includes some music history as well as aural discrimination activities Strengths Excellent design; fun graphics; automatically adjusts lessons to users skill level while playing (using performance as feedback); ability to alter settings, including latency calibration Outstanding solfege and song completion components; engaging characters and graphics; lovely songs Fantastic watercolor animation; superb sampling of voices and instruments facilitate the transference of learned skills to live music experiences Limitations The repetitive templates are effective but may become staid over time Minimal or unspecific prompts may impede use without close supervision As a game rather than a progressive learning tool, students may tire of the activities after completing the advanced option Bottom Line A highly refined product and a gem for ear training and music theory instruction in the home, classroom, or private music studio; useful for preliterate learners with supervision A fun, if pricey, introduction to basic music principles; best for individuals and small classes for whom assistance is readily available A positive, fun, well-designed game and terrific introduction to Mozart and classical music for all ages