Ten minutes. Four or five kids (or adults). Make a song. Go.

That’s the idea behind the Youth Music Box, developed by Silent Studios and Chris O’Shea. (Our friend Chris you may recall from various interactive projects and the blog pixelsumo; he sends this project our way.) The software is build in openFrameworks, the C++-based creative coding environment for artists.

With keys, drums, and yes, even a scratching DJ-style interface, the music box brings together kids for quick music making, inspired by the phenomenon of musical games. The experience is guided by genre, with some effort to make sure whatever they do sounds good, but it’s extraordinary how effective it is at conveying the experience of the successful jam. It’s a bit of a confidence builder, in other words, for a group musical experience, perhaps more so than those ear-splitting, cheap plastic recorder consorts I recall from my youth.

And oh yeah, those kids look super cute once they get rocking out. (See video below.)

Youth Music Box Experience from Silent Studios | Resonate on Vimeo.

All of this raises some fascinating questions, and not always with the answers you might expect. In a normal musical ensemble, you begin sounding like crap, amp up difficulty, and eventually sound something like this – at least as far as coherence goes, assuming you’re not aiming for experimental free jazz. But with the addition of technology, whether musical games or the presets on our favorite synths or the quantization and beat-synced loops of our sequencers, it goes something in reverse. You start out sounding like this, pull apart the mechanisms that make you sound a certain way, and eventually find your way to your own personal approach. (And at some point, you get some of the readers on this site, writing code to produce their own sounds and musical structures line by line.) In fact, one could imagine scaling difficulty of even this particular setup, gradually adding greater musical freedom and taking away the “training wheels” of all the rules-based restrictions that make the results sound a particular way.

Skeptical about the connection of music-based games and actual music making? Think again – even as music education unravels worldwide, games are actually encouraging real music. That revelation was the impetus of the music box project:

Research commissioned by Youth Music found that up to 2.5 million young people in the UK – or 1 million aged between 12 and 18 – have been inspired to progress into ‘real’ music-making because they have played music-based console games.

You got it – they hit those plastic buttons, got inspired, got bored, then decided to go to the real thing. And otherwise, they might have remained passive musical consumers: the game was a gateway drug. Of course, that means that any such interactive experience has to stand up to polished Guitar Hero and Rock Band-style games. But anyone who believes the music games genre has peaked and is on its way out may be dead wrong on many, many levels. On the contrary, this may only be getting started – and the real growth could come in music beyond the realm of games, as people graduate to the unlimited set of possible music experiences.

Chris sends lots more documentation of this project, if you’d like to learn more:

by silent studios and me for uk charity youth music to get kids turned on to music
http://www.vimeo.com/6210259

watch some bbc coverage here
http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/newsid_8160000/newsid_8168800/8168881.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8154449.stm

Ed.: The video at top doesn’t play outside the UK, because we don’t pay BBC license fees. What, all those Doctor Who videos I bought in the 80s and 90s didn’t make up for it?

here is a press release from roland. the box is ‘powered by roland’
http://www.audioprointernational.com/news/1329/Roland-unveils-Music-Box-for-Youth-Music

some launch pics
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelsumo/sets/72157621466657993/

making of pics
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixelsumo/sets/72157621404410234/

this goes into some of the ideas and details about the musical kit
http://musicispower.youthmusic.org.uk/blog/24/youthmusicboxlaunchesatlondonssouthbankcentre/

on the website there is a very simplified flash version you can try out on a mini timeline, just click play online :)

its quite funny to read these comments on it
http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2009/07/youth-music-box-democratizes-music-creation.html

And yes, you can try this yourself and play online! The official site:

http://musicispower.youthmusic.org.uk/youth_music_box/

The production company:

http://www.silentstudios.co.uk/

And Chris’ own site:

http://www.chrisoshea.org/

Roland is involved, and donated an E-09 Interactive Music Arranger to give kids some toys to explore.

And yes, I did notice a certain kindred spirit in the form of Moldover’s Octamasher. The underlying technology and its results are different, but to me what’s most interesting isn’t the superficial similarity of these projects, but the fact that they array the instruments in a circle. Computer production often simply orients a single person to a screen – not so ideal for collaboration. And even Rock Band and Guitar Hero, like an onstage band, line up artists for a (now nonexitent) audience. Perhaps the circle is about to make a comeback as music restores its social aspect.

Curious to hear other thoughts on these projects as they evolve.

  • Joe

    I have to wonder what the other figures say, about how many of these kids actually have the persistence and perseverance to learn an instrument, versus how many give up because they thought it would be a lot easier after playing the games. Sadly, I bet these numbers are pretty darn high too.

    Of course, It would be nice if these people did at least become enlightened music consumers, but again, I wonder how many of them will stagnate at the Beatles and Aerosmith, being the prevalent Rock Band/Guitar Hero artist options…

    Unfortunately, I see this on the same level of "inspiration" as karaoke. While it may introduce a new passing fancy, it will ultimately further endanger music as an artform by watering it down, and giving people a false impression that playing an instrument is easy. That devalues all of us who can play in the marketplace.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Actually, I want to address that in another article… but a few comments, just to challenge some of these questions (and I think they're not by any means black and white) -

    1. Some musical experiences *are* easy. That's always been the case, across cultures and history.

    2. If we value something being hard, we'll have to expect that some people will give up — and otherwise will be still *more* satisfied, because it's hard.

    3. I'm not convinced that Rock Band and the like do make experiences easier. For instance, it can actually be harder to read complex rhythms in the on-screen feedback because of the absence of bar notation, and vocal notation can be ambiguous.

    4. Consider that a lot of what is indeed watered-down about the game music experience has more to do with the nature of recording than even these games, per se.

  • http://www.digitalfunfair.co.uk gavspav

    Collaborative Play is such a positive life affirming thing is it's musical value so important? Seems like a really positive use of technology to me.

    Some of my favourite music is simple (actually some of my favourite music is terrible!) but I still enjoy it.

    And loads of people enjoy karaoke! But its not killing music (well it often is exactly this! but its no threat to music)

    Reminds me of reading art critic Brian Sewell quoted in todays paper about the fact thet Bristol City Council are letting citizens vote on whether graffiti should be kept or scrubbed – he said you shouldn't let people who know nothing about art decide such matters! The streets would be filled with 'random decoration'

    Soundtrack for the video doesn't seem to bear much relation to the visuals though. Have to try and check it out in the flesh, if I can pass for youth

  • Chris Bakos

    This is about making music as much as pushing a button on an MP3 player is about making music or as much as playing rock band is about making music. There is so much leading going on that the people who are "involved" in the process are essentially being played by the computer running the show. Sure, some musical experiences are easy (singing, basic rhythm) and the satisfaction derived from the music box experiences is valid, but it should in no way be confused with making music.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Actually, I'm a bit confused about the exact relationship of the interaction and the music. Chris is traveling, but I'll try to find that out. I think what you're seeing in the video is just that the sound and image are not in sync, so that obscures the relationship.

    @Chris: I'm inclined to agree, but then, is practicing a scale making music? Is doing a simple rhythm exercise? Where do you draw the line?

    Anyway, it seems to me the flipside implied by the study is that people play these games, and indeed determine that they want *more* — that is, they reach the same conclusion you do. It may not be making music, but it's somehow encouraging people to make music. Maybe it's simply broadening the experience around music – in the same way that pushing a button on an MP3 player can.

  • Damon

    This plants a seed.

  • http://507projex.com rtn

    They should have real musicians on this vid!

    (ToT)

  • dyscode

    The singlemindeded view on 'music' in some comments of some 'musicians' here is truly revealing…

    but this snobism is not uncommen, as the

    the GlitchMob video hosted by CMD, sadly shows:
    http://createdigitalmusic.com/2009/04/23/glitch-m

    CMD quote:

    <cite>Most importantly, this video includes this poetic diatribe by An Angry Man, which I will transcribe here in the hope that someone puts it on a t-shirt for us:

    Nobody is playing an instrument.

    You have technicians here, making noise – are you taping this?

    No one is a musician.

    They’re not artists because nobody can play the guitar. </cite>

    See the connection?

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  • http://www.myspace.com/tooltablist Mudo

    Tooltablist (Free Creative Human using tools for express himself)

    If you learn your tool, then you could "play" it.

    About easy learning and plays:

    Play is the best basic form for learn and music is a representation of our most deep being.

    Structure is only another tool, not most important thanks tech advances… not despreciable neither.

    It is so simple: Live, let live and enjoy living (if you could).

    All could be enhanced except satisfaction.

    Just my2cents.

  • piezo

    Pushing a button on an MP3 player is about making music.

  • Cort3x

    I'm SO tired of videos like this not having the actual audio – you know, the noises that are made in the video? – synched up with the visual action.

    What do I get from watching this video? Nothing, really, I have no idea what the thing does, other than you can apparently make lights appear.

  • http://www.charlesmartin.com.au Charles

    I think this is a cool thing. Not only from a technology point of view, but in terms of education.

    As a private instrument teacher, I think that music educators have a huge challenge to compete with the fun of guitar hero etc for our student's attention.

    The conclusion I have come to is that kids get hooked in when they're playing music in a group and they feel like they're making a significant contribution to a sound that they enjoy.

    When a group of children comes in to their first concert band rehearsal with *no* experience and our great brass teacher helps them play C, D and E together so that they can play a song, they all really enjoy it! The parameters of that kind of performance are also extremely restrictive so that the kids can begin to participate as soon as possible.

    *But* this particular installation has a totally different purpose than giving children a whole musical education. The idea is that it has to be meaningful for the children in only one session with no practice. As others have said it "plants the seed" by giving the kids an opportunity to play with those interfaces (keyboard, turntable, electronic drums) and the idea of creating different sounds. Play — as in child's play!

    Even though I had a "normal" music education (piano from 6-16 and percussion and drums since then) I have some very strong memories of experiences similar to this, like messing around with a synthesiser in a music shop or seeing a percussion concert, where I was blown away by a great sound giving me a little bit of inspiration to keep pursuing music.

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