If you’ve set foot within a Best Buy recently, or have teenagers at home, then you’re probably aware of Guitar Hero, a hot-selling series of video games (number 3 comes out Fall 07) that uses a unique guitar-shaped controller to let people live out their air guitar fantasies while strumming and working the guitar’s “frets” in time to popular rock music on screen. While the Guitar Hero games don’t really teach you how to play an instrument (there are only five fret buttons, and there’s only one bar to strum instead of many strings) the game proves that many millions of people like to pretend they know how to play. Harmonix, the game developers behind the highly addictive games, have inspired some other programmers out in the open source world to create a game that actually DOES teach the person playing how to play a real instrument: Piano Hero!
UPDATE: Activision, the gaming studio that owns the rights to Guitar Hero, has asked the developer of Piano Hero to not infringe upon their copyright, so the game has been renamed to Synthesia and is now available on Macs and PCs.
Created by Nicholas Piegdon, Synthesia is a completely free open-source program for PCs and MACs that will work with any MIDI music file. That means all of those wonderful lo-fi MIDI files you’ve been hanging on to since the late 90s can finally be put back to use. Simply plugin any USB or other computer-compatible piano keyboard, open up that old Knight Rider Theme you have, and start jamming. Every note is visualized as a falling block. Once that block reaches the keyboard at the bottom of the screen, that’s the key you should press. The length of the notes are even visualized through the length of the blocks. Unfortunately, I don’t have a keyboard compatible with any computer I own, but the game will keep score, reward you for successful notes in a row, and may very well teach you to play a particular song, if not the piano as a whole.
While many teachers might look at this and think “oh, what a cute toy”, I can imagine an elementary music teacher using this as a way to engage students that may find music class boring or uninteresting. Or better yet, a secondary music teacher could use this free program as an assessment tool for a keyboarding class. Students could practice pieces by using the visual blocks as a reminder of where their fingers should be headed (something that many new piano students forget). The music teacher in my building already uses an electronic keyboard that can record songs to the MIDI format, so he could record a song, then give the file to a student to have them practice at home. Or, any teacher could have themselves a good old fashioned piano-jam during some reward time and/or one of the many “throw away days” that take place just before break or when many students are absent.
Download Synthesia at Sourceforge.net