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Music Ed on the Web

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Think back to your childhood. Remember those simple days of elementary school when your teacher would hand you a piece of paper, some watercolors, crayons or markers and say, “Draw a picture.” A blank canvas sat in front of you  ready to fill with whatever you wanted. Your teacher didn’t hover over you and say, “Practice two-dimensional design,” or enforce any other strict guidelines. It was purely your own time to express individual creativity. Even if the end result was a bunch of scribbles, that was okay. It did not have to be a masterpiece.

What if formal music lessons for children were taught with this same type of mentality?

While this may seem like an outrageous concept to some, one software research scientist and a group of musicians decided to give it a try.

In 2010, Dr. Walter Scacchi, senior research scientist at the UC Irvine Institute for Software Research, attended a game developer conference in San Francisco. A musician from the San Francisco Symphony approached him and asked if he would be interested in developing new ideas for a game to engage young people in classical music. Scacchi agreed to collaborate with them and soon began working on what would turn into an ambitious three-year project.

Scacchi and other members from the San Francisco Symphony soon started the design and concepts for a website geared toward children ages 8-13 to explore music. The symphony already had a website for this purpose, but they wanted to create an updated that would serve more children, regardless of their resources or where they lived, and provide even more of a comprehensive music education. After years of hard work and extensive research, the website went live in late February 2014.

When users first enter, they can start playing the games and exploring right away. There are no usernames or accounts to set up, and the entire site is completely free. These two components make the website extremely accessible — no child or family is turned away because of cost, and children can easily use the website at a school or public library if they do not have access to a computer at home. This is all part of the symphony’s mission to expand music education and make it accessible for all.

The website is divided into six different learning modules with the titles of “Discover,” “Listen,” “Play,” “Perform,” “Conduct” and “Compose.”

In the “Listen,” section, users can hear a huge selection of orchestral music selections, all of which are recorded by the San Francisco Symphony. Under each audio sample is a description of the instruments used in the song, and how different features in the music can evoke certain emotions. Once the children have a better idea of the function and background, they can play a few games that incorporate lessons on rhythm and timing, or about perceived emotions and moods of songs.

Users can also go to the “Perform” module, where they can see what it’s like to play thirteen different instruments from the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion families. Different cartoon animals play each instrument, and children can “play” each instrument by clicking on notes and emulating different musical gestures with their mouse (such as a cellist controlling a bow). This module helps students explore different instruments without incurring the costs of an actual musical instrument. For example, a student may be interested in playing the trumpet, but may have no idea what that actually entails. The family could then spend a lot of money on renting or buying an instrument, only to have the child lose interest and give up shortly after starting. If children are given the chance to explore different instruments like this, they can test out and see what they are interested in before fully committing to an instrument.

Additionally, students can learn about musical notation in the “Compose” section, where they can create their own songs while learning about note values, time signatures, dynamics and much more. This is a fun and interactive way for students to learn about these musical foundations, rather than the traditional way of memorizing different rules and definitions.

Scacchi hopes that this non-traditional way of learning about orchestral music will encourage more children to get involved with music and stick with the instrument. The content of the website aligns with the National Music Education Standards, which stresses ideas such as being able to read and notate music, or knowing how to improvise melodies, variations and accompaniments. Because this website supports this national curriculum, Scacchi would love it if the website could be used as a beginning learning tool in schools or at different music conservatories.

But above all, this website supports the philosophy that the beginning stages of music education should be similar to that of free-form drawing or painting  that children should be given the opportunity to explore and create however they choose, while learning essential fundamentals at the same time.

“[Formal music lessons] teach you about the mechanics of the content, rather than the experience,” Scacchi said.

“If you had music lessons as a young person, they don’t teach you how to make music — they teach you how to perform music that somebody else has already made. So your music lesson formally stresses how to master an instrument, not learning like you could with watercolors, where you could just start making stuff right away. One might counter that by saying, ‘Well, you’re not creating a masterpiece that you’ll revel the rest of your life.’ Why should we expect kids to have to create things that conform to an adult aesthetic?”

With an updated website and unique philosophy at hand, the UC Irvine Institute for Software Research and the San Francisco Symphony are one step closer to painting a new picture of music education for all.