By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: May 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Child prodigies are rare in any artistic pursuit, but new music composition software is making it easier for parents and teachers to raise a little Beethoven.
Sibelius, a well-known maker of software that's used by musicians as well as composers on Hollywood films like Casino Royale, last week released the latest in a line of music software designed for children ages five to 11. With a game-like design and graphics, the software teaches children the basics of instruments, music theory, notation and composition, and then lets them create their own songs by dragging and dropping musically infused shapes, instruments, characters or animations.
It's so easy that a kindergartner can compose a song, say educators, and that's something they believe will go far to make music aficionados of kids. That shift could have ripple effects on an already transformed music industry thanks to the digital age. Instead of downloading pirated music, more kids may begin to create their own sounds, educators say.
"Students are able to do things now that were all but impossible before except for the truly gifted and talented, which is to compose their own music," said Sandi MacLeod, coordinator for the Vermont MIDI Project, a 12-year-old music composition project involving more than 7,000 students grades two to 12 from 40 schools in the state that use Sibelius and its kids software, Groovy.
In the past, aspiring composers typically had to master an instrument, play it and then listen to the sounds before they wrote down the notes for a composition. Now a range of software, such as Apple's Garageband, free on a Macintosh computer, lets anyone listen to instruments digitally, futz around with composition, and play back the sounds and melodies.
"As we provide kids with more tools, I think we're going to see more students interested in creating their own music," said MacLeod, who also teaches music education at the University of Vermont. "This is good for two reasons. It makes them better consumers and producers of music; they know what they're going to listen to and perform; and it gets them thinking about copyright issues. Instead of stealing things from other people, they can go out and create their own music to use."
In a traditional classroom setting, teaching music notation can be on the dry side, too, educators say. This growing genre of musical education software aims to change that. Groovy software, for example, uses themed virtual environments with characters that kids can personalize and has a game-like reward system. But it's also based on core music curriculum from the National Association for Music Education Standards.
"Most salient is that you're connecting the home lives of students, many of whom are comfortable in the computer environment, by using a vehicle like technology to teach any subject with great graphics, sounds and user friendliness," said James Frankel, a professor of music at Columbia University's Teachers College.
The schools in Vermont rely largely on Sibelius software, but teachers in the project started using Sibelius' first children's program, Groovy Shapes for kids ages five to seven, when it was released this time last year. Months later, Sibelius issued Groovy Jungle, a more sophisticated program for children ages seven to nine that incorporates more instruments, sounds and a jungle theme. And this week, the company launched Groovy City, an urban-themed program for ages nine to 11 that lets kids compose hip hop and rap songs. The software sells for $69 on the company's Web site and in some Apple stores.
According to London-based Sibelius, thousands of primary schools across the United States and the United Kingdom are using Groovy software.
"In our research, elementary school teachers were crying out for a product that didn't exist, so we created Groovy," said Jeremy Silver, managing director at Sibelius, which was bought by Avid Technology in August 2006.
Still, adoption in schools may be slow, given that many U.S. schools have limited computing resources necessary to outfit classrooms with music software. Sibelius' Silver said that one answer to that problem is built into the software so that the program can be used on a teacher's central computer and projected onto a digital whiteboard from the front of the class. Kids can compose that way, he said.
Certainly, music educators list other titles of music software for the younger set, including MakeMusic, which lets kids draw on a blank canvas and the software plays what they draw. But what makes Groovy different than most other kids' programs is that it incorporates the notation expertise of Sibelius. Kids can write a piece of music in the graphical interface, and then click a key to see how the music is written in notes.
The Groovy software will render any malformed composition so it sounds good. It also lets kids manipulate a wide range of instruments such as trumpets, steel drums or a vibraphone, to create original scores, however.
Other software, such as Fruity Loops, let kids compose with premade loops of music. And Apple's Garageband, of course, is used by older kids and adults to compose music, but it doesn't teach users the theory and notation behind the music.
"It involves some critical thinking because it includes notation. Students can see what that music looks like, unlike the shapes that walk by in the graphical interface. It's the perfect software to bridge the gap between a fun game-like experience into a more traditional notation and music education," Frankel said. "It will hopefully inspire them to compose in the traditional way."
Odile Steel, principal at St. Anselm School, a Catholic K-8 school in San Anselmo, Calif., said she bought the software for her campus and installed it in the after-school computer lab and the kindergarten center so that kids can experiment with music composition. And she's been encouraged by the response.
"Some of the older kids are working with teachers to use it to write a simple piece of music to go with a poem or book report," Steel said.
At the end of a recent rainy day, her kindergartners were energized by learning about new instrument sounds and creating music, according to Steel.
"They were so into it. It was the end of a long day, when they can't concentrate, and that didn't stop them. They kept saying, 'Come listen to my piece of music.' The thing that's wonderful about it is that little ones can take no instruction and use it," Steel said.
MacLeod, who teaches aspiring music educators at the University of Vermont, said the software even inspires some jealousy among her college students.
"I often hear college kids say: 'I wish I had this kind of software when I was young.'"Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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