How do you get to Carnegie Hall? "Practice, practice, practice." The punch line hasn't changed over the years, but the way many musicians practice has: They've gone digital. Hopeful maestros of all ages and skill levels who own a multimedia personal computer can use software to learn, or brush up on, the fundamentals of music. The programs teach everything from strumming the guitar to playing the piano.
What's more, if you're a performer who is already deft at hammering out tunes, a number of programs let you compose, record, and edit your own works, then print out the masterpieces to share with fellow band members or the local choir. These programs are like musical versions of word processors, but they're typically harder to master.
The PC has emerged as a terrific music-making machine, thanks to a standard known as musical instrument digital interface (MIDI). Created in 1983, MIDI transforms musical sounds into data your computer can comprehend. State-of-the-art sound cards have built-in MIDI capabilities, so you can hook up an electronic keyboard or other MIDI-compatible devices with a special cable. Moreover, MIDI files of complete works can be downloaded from CD-ROM libraries, the MIDI/Music forum on CompuServe, or from the Internet. "The computer lets you be an entire band all by yourself," says Greg Hendershott, chairman of Cakewalk Music Software in Watertown, Mass., which produces a variety of programs for composing and printing out music.
When you tickle the ivories--um, plastics--on a MIDI keyboard, the PC can tell which notes you played (or misplayed), and how long, hard, or softly you pressed the keys. Short of rapping your knuckles, software can provide immediate feedback and track your progress, keeping you from moving to another lesson, for instance, until you have successfully completed the one you're on. But for all the videos, pictures, and diagrams a program might use to show off proper posture, the computer cannot force you to play with the correct technique.
And so it was that yours truly--all too many years removed from my days as a high-school clarinetist--set about trying to produce something resembling music on a keyboard. I tried the latest incarnation of the Piano Discovery System from Jump! Music, which had its origins earlier this decade as the Miracle Piano Teaching System from Software Toolworks. In those days, students could use the Miracle with their Nintendo system. The new version, which comes with a 49-key MIDI keyboard (or is sold separately as a software-only product), is greatly enhanced. True to its roots, however, it combines splendid graphics with arcade-style distractions to teach piano.
"POLITE APPLAUSE." For example, in the Discovery Island Arcade, students must play the correct notes on the keyboard to shoot down ducks flying across a musical staff. Jump! claims that you'll be playing Beethoven's Ode To Joy in just 15 minutes. That was the case with me, even though my performance was spotty at best. Consider the "reviews" I got following my debut in the Performance Hall: "Polite applause greeted the mundane interpretation.... The audience was disappointed by the lack of precision." I did only slightly better on a return engagement: "Workmanlike... The mistakes were so noticeable they detracted from the audience's enjoyment." Then, finally: "So close, yet so far. The audience eagerly awaits the next attempt...."
Discovering Keyboards from Voyetra Technologies also uses fancy graphics and a game room to make music lessons palatable. The engaging $80 program offers a brief history of keyboards, and provides basic theory lessons and video instruction. For $299, the product is being bundled with the Yamaha PSR220 portable keyboard.
SOUR NOTE. Both Midisoft Play Piano and Musicware Piano are solid instructional programs. Musicware Piano is carved up into three comprehensive courses, each containing more than 250 interactive lessons. In the early stages of the first course, you'll learn piano fingering, time signatures, quarter, half, and whole notes, and so on. Much later, you can graduate to playing with syncopation. In one simple rhythm exercise, I was asked to play along with a metronome. A blue line on the screen displayed the ideal length that a note should be played. A green line indicated how long I actually played the sequence. Fortunately, the lines were pretty much identical. One sour note: Musicware Piano was more difficult to set up than some competitors, and the program caused my PC to crash a few times.
Play Piano from Midisoft includes more than 400 lessons, using selections ranging from The Itsy-Bitsy Spider to The Flight of the Bumblebee. Each lesson is divided into a "demo" (watch a pro play), "learn" (theory lessons that correspond to the tune you have chosen), and "practice" (the freedom to play on your own). If you're stuck at any point, Midisoft will recommend other passages to try. Play Piano is sold separately for $80, or for $300 in a bundle with a keyboard and Midisoft Studio, a program that lets you record your works, add digital audio and other MIDI tracks, then print out the results.
If your musical sensibilities bring you closer to Dylan than to Debussy, there are several guitar teaching programs from Play Music, eMedia, Lyrrus, and other companies. I examined Classic Rock Guitar, Volume 1, from Ubi Soft. The multimedia program employs animated characters and videos to help you learn eight songs, from Jimi Hendrix' Hey Joe to Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry. Unlike the piano programs, you cannot hook the guitar directly to your computer, so the PC cannot determine whether you're strumming the proper notes and chords. Once you've chosen a song, you can click on different buttons to hear the piece in its entirety, break down its chords, or try your hand at different exercises. As a complete neophyte on the guitar, however, I wanted more hand-holding to get me started on the path to stardom.
MUSICAL MOUSE. Music Lessons from MiBAC Music Software (Music Instruction By A Computer) is more generic--aimed at people who want to learn about music theory. The interactive program includes 11 drills (note names, circles of fifths), each of which can be practiced in treble, bass, or alto clef. You can use your mouse to manipulate an on-screen keyboard or use your own MIDI version to tackle the drills. But the program's humdrum graphics may turn off would-be music makers who are accustomed to multimedia sizzle.
There's plenty cool about a new software program called Hotz Trax, from Hotz Corp., which transforms your computer into a musical instrument in its own right. Aimed at the nonmusician, the program houses a database of chord and scale combinations. You don't need a separate MIDI instrument, although you can certainly use one. Instead, you can jam away on a PC keyboard or move your mouse to play any of 128 different musical instruments that are represented in the software. You are backed up by accompaniment, and it is impossible to hit a faulty note. An introductory version of the $50 program can be downloaded for free from Hotz's site on the World Wide Web (http://www.hotz.com).
No matter how you arrive at your (sure-to-be) epic symphony, you can print out the score for all to see. Among the best music-notation software programs are Cakewalk Home Studio and Passport MusicTime Deluxe from Passport Designs. Both of these programs let you listen to your compositions, make orchestral changes, then spit out the sheet music. Based on my arrangements, I think I'll hang on to my day job.