About two years ago, Miso Media CEO Aviv Grill received a phone call that changed the course of his three-person iPhone/iPad development company.
It was from the parents of co-founder/chief technology officer Ryan Tsukamoto. They were in Japan on vacation, but Tsukamoto was spending the entire time coding a new app that he had just devised while on the trip. "They called me asking if I could help get him out of the hotel lobby," Grill recalls.
But Tsukamoto wouldn't budge. He returned home with the framework for a music education app that combined polyphonic note-detection technology with "Guitar Hero"-like gameplay mechanics, in order to act as a sort of virtual music teacher. That kernel of an idea grew to become Miso Music, one of several new, instructional apps now collectively transforming the field of music education.
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Mobile apps are a critical platform for music discovery, distribution and marketing, making them a key driver of the music industry's future. But they're also a nascent field nurturing little in the way of education and training. Here are a few of the top schools making app development a focal point of curriculum.
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
The iPad, launched a year ago, has been followed by a deluge of apps designed as virtual representations of real instruments: Magic Piano, iBone, iCanDrum and Apple's own Garageband for iPad. The next step? Leveraging those devices' features to teach people how to play a genuine guitar or piano, rather than pretend to play a fake one.
According to music educators, the iPad's mix of touch-screen display, computer-grade processing power and lightweight portability could conceivably transform music education in a way not seen since the home videotape or personal computer.
"The iPad has tremendous potential for teaching music," says Gabriel Smith, founder/CEO of Legacy Learning Systems, a 13-person outfit based in Nashville that started creating video-based education programs in 2006. Last year it took its first stab at app development, teaming up with Gibson Guitar for the Gibson Learn & Master Guitar iPhone app, which won the best branded app honor at Billboard's 2010 Music App Awards. The iPad has "changed our focus in terms of the types of instruction products and concepts we're developing," Smith says. "It's caused us to really question what's the best way to teach music.
"Consider the Miso Music app. By functioning as a sort of virtual teacher, it offers an experience that's superior to other music instruction tools. Users learn to play along to songs licensed from Sony/ATV by replicating the tablature notes that scroll across the screen in real time. Stuck on a note? The scroll stops until it hears the user play the right one, then continues. The interface is similar to "Guitar Hero," except the technology recognizes the notes the user actually plays, rather than just the position of his or her fingers.Other features include a strobe tuner, automatically generated scale notations and a music theory section. Miso Music will ship with a handful of free songs, and users can buy additional ones priced between 99 cents and $3. Early demos of the app helped score the startup $600,000 in seed funding from a range of investors that included Google Ventures. The demos also won the People's Choice Award at last year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference and earned the company an invite to present the app at the upcoming NAMM conference. Miso Media has also added Justin Timberlake as an investor and adviser, with plans to have him help promote the app once it's released, which is expected to be soon.
But using the iPad as a music teacher isn't without its challenges or limitations. For starters, it's limited to certain instruments, particularly those with keyboards or strings. Forget wind instruments: While such apps as iBone or Ocarina may let users blow into the speaker to simulate a trombone or flute, they're unable to teach embrasure or proper fingering/positioning. String instruments aren't much easier. It's simple enough to replicate a set of strings on a touch screen, but more difficult to correct students who place their fingers on those strings improperly.
"There are a lot of variations," says Rick Peckham, assistant chairman of the guitar department at the Berklee College of Music. "The way Jimi Hendrix would play a chord would be different than the same chord played by John Lennon or B.B. King. It's more complex than a keyboard." But that's not to suggest there isn't any benefit. Peckham, who served as a consultant to Harmonix for the creation of its Pro mode in "Rock Band 3," says the iPad has great potential to make practice more fun and more productive.
"There's a lot of repetitive things we do that never seem to end that may be made more palatable," he says. "It lights up possibilities and makes productive practice more attractive to our students."
And if the iPad and tablets like it change the music education game the way these experts expect, it couldn't happen at a better time. State and local governments are under extraordinary pressure to enact budget cuts, with spending on education an easy target. According to Americans for the Arts, local and state funding for the arts fell 8% and 10%, respectively, last year from the year prior. The National Assn. for Music Education says less than half of U.S. students get a "credible" music education in school, and less than 12% of high school students participate in their schools' music programs. And it's far less costly to put iPads in students' hands than some instruments.
Already, a handful of schools nationwide are beginning to experiment with iPads as textbook replacements. Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa.-a small, Catholic liberal arts college-began handing out iPads and MacBooks to students last fall. The school board in Winthrop, Minn., bought 230 iPads for its schools earlier last year. And at Berklee, where students are already required to buy a MacBook Pro as part of their course materials, Peckham foresees a day when the iPad may become a similar requirement.
"These tablets are going to become more and more omnipresent," Peckham says. "And where there's a platform, developers will come up with productive things for people to use."
That's exactly what developers like Legacy Learning Systems and Miso Media have planned. It's impossible to predict how pervasive these new teaching systems will become, or how they'll affect the state of music education. But the phenomenon will be worth watching, as more tablets begin to flood the marketplace to compete with the iPad. Legacy's Smith says, "It's going to revolutionize what we're doing so dramatically, it's hard to conceptualize some of the things that are going to come out."