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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Music Reinvented...

I wrote here yesterday about the RIAA and copyright issues.  While I may not agree with the RIAA and making everyone a copyright criminal I think that the music industry in general is working on some new ideas for replacing the old model of music distribution.

The most interesting one is the evolutionary progression of the "Rock Band" series of video games.

This started out in 2005 with the release of Guitar Hero.  Basically there was a plastic guitar-like controller with four plastic buttons on the neck and a little bar where you would normally strum the guitar.  The idea of the game was that as a song played little icons would slide into view on the screen telling you when to strum or press buttons on the neck - presumable in sequence and time with the song.  The closer you got to doing exactly what the sliding icons told you to do the better your score.

I have a friend who in my estimation is one of the best acoustic players I've seen - particularly in terms of accuracy and timing.  I was over at his house one day a few years back.  He had the game and said "check this out".  So we fooled around with the game for a couple of hours.  I didn't do well because I had never played it - surprisingly, neither did he.  This has stuck with me over the years...

I've also been watching how this whole genera of games has been changing the "Steal. Mix. MP3." music model pioneered by the iPod.  Like advertising sales at the big newspapers music sales in traditional venues are dropping at a double digit percentage rate.  However, video games continue to show growth.

What's interesting here is that music, through its association with video games, has found a whole new paid distribution model to compete with "Steal. Mix. MP3."

Heavy hitters like the Beatles and Bon Jovi have been signing up to have their music distributed via this model.

PS/3 sales have been increasing and Rock Band has helped contribute to that increase.

But the video game developers have not rested on their laurels, either.  Since the initial 5-button plastic guitar controller was first released there has been a steady development effort to make the "Rock Band" experience even more realistic.

Now, most of you at one point in your lives were probably subjected to music lessons.  Usually in grade school.  Like me you probably hated it.  On the other hand, as the controllers for these new games become more realistic the game becomes a venue to have little Junior spend hours playing.

You may object saying that its just a game and has little to do with actual music.

In the past you'd be right.  But "Rock Band 3" moves the playing experience to a whole new level - bringing in real or nearly real instruments.  Drums, keyboards, and even stringed guitars with amplifiers are becoming part of these games.  Guitars with built in MIDI controllers to drive synthesizers have been around for years.  This fusion with video games will make the cost of this type of instrument drop as the sales volumes for the games increase.

So not only is the video game market driving music sales, its now also pushing the integration of musical instruments into an electronic format.

So is there a corresponding increase in musical knowledge that goes with all this?  Or are we just creating and ever more elaborate version of air guitar or musical masturbation?

Sadly, it would seem that all of this is more the later.

Rock Band and its friends can teach you a number of things about music.  Rhythm in particular seems to be the biggest element learned.  But "learning rhythm" not quite the same as actually learning to, for example, drum.

The biggest problem is that the games are an abstraction of the music playing process.  Its very unlikely that anyone will quickly learn to play guitar like, say David Gilmore, from Rock Band.  The reason is that what makes him so good goes far beyond plucking a given string at the right time.  There's string bending, sustain, flexing the neck, picking style, timing with the rest of the band, and much, much more that your not going to learn from the game.

Which takes me back to my friend not doing well on the game.  He's a musician - not a video gamer.  He plays the instrument based on sound, not visual cues.  Can he become better at the game - of course.  But I think that's why he lost interest ultimately (now he plays Hockey online) - its just not like a real musical experience.

Its also important to realize that, even in Pro mode, the game is not going to give you any sort of realistic real-time feed back in a musical sense.  Playing with real musicians is daunting if you have not done it before.  They don't play like a game for the most part - its much more dynamic.

A player like David Gilmore doesn't just play his instrument.  He also listens to whatever else is going on around him so that his timing relative to the other sounds is correct.  This is probably my biggest dislike with the game (as well as my personal experience with it).  You need to play by ear, not by visual cue.

After you've play a number of years, for example, you can anticipate the motion and sound another player will make.  It becomes almost like telepathy.  You literally "feel" what the other players are doing as they do it.

(So to the developers out there of "Rock Band" - add a no-visuals mode that teaches listening skills - a training mode to teach listening to pitch - create a mode where its more important to have each controller played in sync with the others.)

Rock Band is creating an entirely new model for music distribution - a much better one than the RIAA suing people who share music online.

Is this all a good idea?  Will little Junior learn to be Neil Pert by playing Rock Band.


Will this stimulate interest in music and playing instruments, expose little Junior to music in a way that tedious and boring grade school music lessons will not?


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