In the information age, it seems that one of the easiest ways to pick up a new skill is to download an app. And there’s an app for just about everything: language acquisition (Duolingo), online classes (Lynda or Udemy), brain training (Lumosity), even cognitive behavioral therapy (Woebot).
What sets these apps apart in terms of success is identifying how people interact with them and how they experience learning on a device as opposed to in a traditional classroom. For example, how would one learn music theory from a smartphone? According to Aviv Ben-Yehuda, creator of Big Ear Games, the answer lies in interactive gaming.
Ben-Yehuda saw an opportunity to teach basic music principles through gaming when he noticed a learning gap in his own classroom. “After 20 years of teaching, it was clear that there was a certain problem in my classes: these 18-20-year-old youngsters, who were really good musicians, still had a lot of problems feeling comfortable with improvisation,” he told musically.com. “It was clearly something to do with the way that we were teaching.”
Game-based learning in music education is a relatively new phenomenon. Evan Tobias, Assistant Professor of Music Education at Arizona State University, believes there is a tremendous opportunity to promote musical learning through gameplay.
Tobias identifies technology as a type of literacy that extends beyond static, print-based notions. In his chapter titled, “Let’s play! Learning music through video games and virtual worlds” (volume 2 of the Oxford Handbook of Musical Education), he writes, “Multiple forms of literacy take into account diverse forms of sensation, meaning, and representation. Thinking in terms of ‘literacies’ is key to realizing the full potential of video games in music programs.”
These new modalities presented an opportunity for Ben-Yehuda. At first, given the opportunity to write a book about his findings, he decided instead to develop Big Ear Games; he saw the chance for engagement by building on the technology and devices his students already owned.
In this case, Ben-Yehuda sought to teach children the building blocks for musical improvisation. In the app, an alien named Solo guides players through “musical puzzles,” where they can use sequencing to learn about notes and chord blocks while collecting instruments to both play songs and compose their own tunes. Ben-Yehuda says there are more games in the works, with varying levels of educational value.
“It’s super-important to have a balance between fun, and a very clear educational or skill-learning value,” says Ben-Yehuda. “With educational games, you often see teams that have their core very much in gaming, or in a strong educational background only. We think we have a good balance.” Currently, Big Ear Games uses in-app purchases, but Ben-Yehuda plans to move the program into subscription-based territory.
So far, Big Ear Games is picking up traction. Pianist Lang Lang’s International Music Foundation will be running a pilot program with 23,000 children in the US to test the app as part of its music-education curriculum.
While technology alone won’t develop kids into musicians, the synergy of gaming and music education certainly serves as a tool for engagement and reinforcement of basic music principles.