A digital approach to music may broaden range of interests

Use a computer mouse to create your own musical composition. Plop brightly colored shapes onto a timeline to create a melody. Trace a squiggle in the same color and the melody expands and develops, shifting up and down in pitch and volume. Feed the information into a notation program.

This is the gist of Hyperscore, a software program that intrduces children to music creativity and expression. Children in five Boston-area after-school programs have composed music as part of "Toy Symphony" (www.toysymphony.net).

Created by composer Tod Machover at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., the program includes activities with Beatbugs and Shapers - tools that create an array of rhythms and colors by squeezing a digitalized cloth ball or tapping on bug-like devices.

"The main idea ... is to provide an alternative way of starting children out in music by giving them as creative and invigorating an experience as possible," Mr. Machover says.

Designed to provide a direct and intuitive entree into the musicmaking process, the activities encourage children to explore different approaches and take charge of learning.

"The computer helps by creating an environment where it's easy to put [the smaller bits] together to make that large structure," says designer Mary Farbood.

Teacher Kevin Jennings says kids initially go wild with the program and simply create fanciful pictures. However, as they begin to fine tune, they not only hear, but watch, their pieces take shape.

In this way, children can appreciate textures and contours that they wouldn't normally confront before years of conventional study. Mr. Jennings calls it a holistic, creative approach to problem-solving and invention: "It also taps into the theory of constructionism - that the best way to build knowledge is to externalize the building process."

Claire Newton, technology director of the South Boston Boys and Girls Club, says her students have been teaching Hyperscore to one another. "What they take away is that they are creative beings," Ms. Newton says.

She adds that the approach broadens musical interests: "They're interacting with classical music and creating sounds they don't hear. It's expanding what they think of as music."

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