BOSTON — Introducing children to the wonders of music and music composition via computer software is surely not the most efficient or rewarding pathway. Even in our age of advanced technology, you can't beat the sound and feel of an acoustic instrument working its magic through the pluck of a string, a burst of breath, or the striking of a key or mallet.
What computers can offer aspiring young musicians, however, is a chance for different arenas of creativity, with new sounds and varied methods of construction. Computers also offer a chance for creative play that is not based on the ability to read music or play an instrument.
Several music software programs are geared especially to children, and though each has its flaws, each also offers something unique. The most comprehensive is Juilliard Music Adventure by Theatrix. As the title implies, the program houses its information in an adventure game - inside a castle, where a villainous little gnome named Gnoise has created musical havoc. The object of each adventure is to solve a number of musical puzzles, collect a series of keys (with faithful helper Fiddler), and open the throne room door where the queen is locked up.
The puzzles and games, which are set on three levels of difficulty, are based on the traditions and standard compositional tools of the classical music world, centering on the fundamentals of rhythm and melody. They are not based on reading music (and one has to wonder why not, given the Juilliard connection) but on a more visual and intuitive system of notation. Players are asked to recognize, rearrange, and create phrases by moving around tiles with "notes" on a grid. They match configurations of up/down for melody, long/short for rhythm.
The whole game, however, assumes an interest and an ear for music (you won't get far otherwise), and these hard-to-read tiles can actually be quite confusing, even with aid from informative sidebar scrolls that help keep players on task.
Even the most intrepid adult may find the game complicated and tedious. It is a clever program, however, and there are a lot of engaging aspects. Younger kids may enjoy wandering around the castle, though they won't get much out of the actual games. More advanced musicians can skip the game entirely and go straight to the compositional tools to create their own pieces, which can by played by a variety of synthesized instruments.
(Disappointingly, the only acoustic music in the whole program seems to be the introduction, which features a snippet of Mahler's Symphony No. 5.)
In the end, the best advice is that given by the good queen herself - "practice, experiment, play."
From an entirely different angle, the nifty SimTunes (Maxis Kids) provides an audio/visual adventure with the aid of music "Bugz" that move about the screen and set off sound as they intersect with colors and patterns that the player creates.
"SimTunes" is geared as a creative outlet for those with little or no musical talent. It is a way to play and doodle with sounds by making a musical picture. With the aid of a variety of artistic materials, players can create a veritable visual explosion. When set in motion by the pathways of the Bugz, who have their own programmable variables of instrumentation, fascinating compositions can come to life. The program features an impressive range of elements, but the concept is quite simple, easy enough for a three-year-old but engaging for most adults. You may not learn anything particularly applicable to real life, but it is engaging and fun.
Somewhere in the middle is Voyager's Making Music, designed by composer Morton Subotnick. This clever and relatively friendly program takes the idea of painting with music a step further, making it almost as easy to write and listen to music as creating a picture on a graphics program.
On the main composition board, children can create colorful compositions using a variety of instrument sounds in a wide arrangement of pitches and rhythms with easily intuited graphic patterns of high/low, long/short. With the "Melody Maker," kids can get more control by setting up little birds as specific notes on a graph of telephone wires. "Building Blocks" offers the opportunity to doodle with melodic bits of familiar tunes to create new tunes. "Mix and Match" is fun section in which kids can sample a variety of melodic and rhythmic combinations using different instrument sounds. It also has a series of listening and comparing games that even very young children can enjoy. There's a lot of information and possibility here without being too complicated.
One of the best programs for developing musical memory and listening skills is not really a music program at all but Edmark's lively Thinking Things, the award-winning programs for developing thinking skills (Collection 1 is for ages 4 to 8, Collection 2 is for ages 6 to 12). Part of each program features the characters of Oranga Banga and Tooney Loon in a variety of delightful listening games that help develop skills as well as creativity. Kids are challenged to repeat musical sequences, pick out patterns in basic rhythmic notation, and create their own tunes.
From an entirely different approach, and one geared for adults as well as older children, Music for Dummies (IDG Books) offers a series of CDs suitable for computer or stereo that give a brief introduction to various aspects of classical music, whether it is a specific composer, an era, or an instrument. They are moderately interactive, but offer some valuable information and solid musical examples with background history and cursory analysis.
Software may not be the best way to enlarge your child's musical world, but it's certainly a valid approach that can offer a unique path to opening young ears, eyes, and minds.