May 16, 2003, Friday



By Laurel Graeber (NYT) 931 words

Where Music Is a Game

Many parents remember childhood music lessons as hard, painstaking work. But if Tod Machover has his way, their sons and daughters will have a more joyful experience. In Mr. Machover's vision, mastering the basics of music is literally child's play: it is done with toys.

Families can hear the results tomorrow night at the World Financial Center, where Mr. Machover will present "Toy Symphony," a program created with his digitized playthings. Many of the composers and performers are children, working with professionals like the members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. On Sunday a Toy Symphony Open House will offer the music toys, computer stations and a string quartet, allowing any young music lover to play -- and play.

"The whole idea is to put kids in a situation where they are immediately doing interesting musical things," said Mr. Machover, a professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They're composing, shaping music, improvising."

For the youngest, Mr. Machover and the M.I.T. Media Lab have devised Music Shapers. These fabric-covered balls each contain a computer chip and electrical sensors. "There's a seed of music inside that's programmed to grow when you squeeze the shaper," Mr. Machover explained. Beatbugs, unlike their living counterparts, like to be swatted. A child can smack a rhythm on the handheld bug's surface and hear it played back; he can tweak its "antennas" to vary the tempo and timbre. The bugs are also programmed so that the children can interact in a percussive jam session.

Finally, Mr. Machover has created Hyperscore, a computer program in which colorful teardrops, squiggles and lines are the elements of musical notation. Would-be Mozarts arrange them on a grid and play back the sound digitally; the results can be transcribed for a full orchestra. Some of the pieces at tomorrow's concert were composed this way by New York schoolchildren in workshops at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where Mr. Machover's inventions are in the National Design Triennial.

"One big dream of mine was to set up an environment where people who don't ordinarily collaborate could work together," Mr. Machover said. Tomorrow's program will include a piece of his, also called "Toy Symphony," with Shapers, Beatbugs, a children's chorus, a hyperviolin (it's digitally augmented) and, last but not least, the full orchestra.

If you can't make the events, don't worry. Fisher-Price will introduce the toys commercially in the fall, and you can download Hyperscore free at If you do, your child's next computer entertainment may not be playing a video game, but composing a concerto.

"Toy Symphony," tomorrow night at 7, and Open House, Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., in the Winter Garden, the World Financial Center, 220 Vesey Street, Lower Manhattan. Free. Information: (212) 945-0505.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company