Learning Music, Yawn-Free

Engaging ways to teach today's computer-savvy kids how to compose and play

The iPod generation isn't just listening to music differently. It's learning about it differently, too. These days, a kid's first introduction to making music is just as likely to come on the keys of a PC as on a piano. With inexpensive "edutainment" software, children can learn to appreciate, understand, and even write music. The best programs use animation and games to turn drab music theory into engaging fun.

An excellent example is the new Groovy Music series from Sibelius. The British company is known for its sophisticated composition and instruction software, but don't let Groovy's pro pedigree intimidate you. Groovy Music is a colorful and charming introduction to important musical concepts for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Each of the three Groovy programs ($69 apiece) is divided into two parts. The "Explore" section uses a variety of games to teach key ideas. In the first lesson, for example, to learn the difference between a trumpet and a piano, kids match melodies they hear to pictures of the instruments. Then, in the "Create" section, they use those instruments and scores of other beats and sounds to compose their own songs. As the music is played back, an animated character saunters across the screen to represent tempo and duration. Another screen displays the notes on a staff to introduce kids to reading music.

With Music Ace Deluxe from Harmonic Vision (about $50), your child gets 36 lessons beginning with a primer on the musical staff and moving through complex concepts such as harmony and time signatures. A cartoon conductor named "Maestro Max" delivers each lesson followed by games that test what has been taught.

Music Ace is popular with schools wanting to cover beginning theory. Deluxe, aimed at ages 8 and up, combines the best of the two previous versions, including a digital "Doodle Pad" for writing simple compositions. The only downside: Primitive graphics like smiling notes and bouncing balls might not engage kids used to sophisticated video games.

If you really want to grab kids' attention, throw out the lesson plans and let them play. The beauty of software for making and mixing digital music is that no skill is required. One popular program, GarageBand, part of Apple Computer's (AAPL ) $79 iLife suite, is now in many classrooms because it also allows students to see how musical sounds are combined to make songs.

But GarageBand works only on Macs, and it's loaded with advanced features. Fortunately, Sony (SNE ) just came out with a pair of fine kids' music creation programs for PCs: Super Duper Music Looper for ages 6 to 9 and Jam Trax for 11 and up (less than $20 each). Their clean designs make them a snap to master, but they otherwise work just like Sony's top-selling pro editing software, Acid Music Studio. Like Acid, they come with hundreds of loops, prerecorded musical riffs and beats played on a variety of instruments. To create a song, kids simply layer together loops, or plug a microphone, guitar, or keyboard into their PC. Once they've saved a song, they can export it to a portable music player or e-mail it.

Critics question the educational value of looping software, but a motivated kid can learn a lot just by controlling and visualizing sound for the first time. For parents, it beats listening to them bang on drums.

By Andrew Park

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