May 21, 2003

With Gadgets and Fun, Toy Symphony Lures Kids. . .
Children and Music


New York

Tod Machover and I have something in common: We wanted our children to study music. I took the conventional route, beginning with piano lessons, and my daughters went along with it, more or less. Mr. Machover, a composer and professor of music and media at MIT's Media Lab, wanted something more creative. The resulting project, the three-year, $3 million Toy Symphony, recently had two weeks of workshops and a concert in New York, the final stop on its international tour.

Toy Symphony's toys, developed by the Media Lab's musician-computer whizzes, enable children to "make music" without having to learn notation or engage in the arduous physical and mental process required to play a musical instrument. Through computers, their users can explore musical concepts that are more sophisticated than their actual knowledge would otherwise permit. Music Shapers, soft cloth balls whose sounds are controlled by squeezing, and Beatbugs, which repeat and subtly alter rhythms that are tapped on them, are improvisatory performance instruments. With Hyperscore, a composition software program, the user creates color-coded musical motifs, draws them onto a grid, and plays the score back. If desired, the program will provide a variety of harmonies and modulations. With a little help from its MIT creators, this graphic "score" can be transcribed into conventional notation for acoustic instruments.

Mr. Machover insists that he does not see these creations as a substitute for traditional acoustic instruments. He is, after all, a cellist as well as a composer, and confesses to being tired of electronically generated sound. Rather, he says, the instruments are like musical training wheels for a world full of people intimidated by music and its virtuoso cult. Children in preschool are let loose with a wide range of art materials; kindergartners are encouraged to pursue their natural storytelling instincts in writing even though they cannot yet form letters clearly or spell. Why shouldn't they be able to do the same with music?

Even more critically, Mr. Machover has an acute sense of how the rigors of instrumental training can actually squelch innate musical creativity. He says, "I was 14 when I realized that my cello teacher was interpreting all my pieces for me, and that I wasn't really thinking about music at all. It was completely different from writing music. For most people, as you master the physicality of your instrument, you lose the sense of who you are, and of what music is."

Any parent who has coerced a child through the agonies of instrumental practice wonders if there isn't some other way. Children who seemed so creative, making up tunes at the piano and singing at five, become miserable and obstinate when faced with the endless repetition that it takes to make a decent sound and correctly string notes together to reproduce music written by someone else. Talent is useful only up to a point. Learning to play an instrument requires determination, and a tolerance for repetition that does not come naturally to most young children. So why not give those innate musical instincts an outlet that is not connected with a high level of motor skill? Mr. Machover says, "I value creativity over technicality. I would like to find a way to develop a discipline that trains the imagination."

Workshops with local children, held at the Cooper-Hewitt in advance of the free Toy Symphony concert at the World Financial Center Winter Garden, offered some insight into how well these forays into musical technology encourage creativity. (All the toys are on display as part of the National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt through January 2004.) Six children rehearsed their parts in two scores written for acoustic instruments and Shapers by Jean-Pascal Beintus and by Natasha Sinha (who is 12) and Hugo Solis, (an MIT graduate student). Though the children (ages six to eight) could control the duration and volume of their Shaper sounds, the sounds themselves were preprogrammed, and the children, who had to follow the conductor, got restless. Old Leopold Mozart's "Toy Symphony" -- the great-grandfather of this project and the namesake of the Machover work that ended the concert -- features an orchestra with toy drums, kazoos and whistles, and is more fun.

"Nerve," by Gil Weinberg, in which six older children tossed rhythms back and forth among networked Beatbugs, was more engaging and interactive, as was Hyperscore. Most of the seven-to-12-year-olds in the Hyperscore workshops are studying instruments. While several of the younger children simply drew pictures or wrote words, others picked up on the software's properties while Mr. Machover and Kevin Jennings, a Media Lab research fellow who is a trained teacher, coached them in judging how to give a piece direction, how long is too long for one idea to go on, and how to make an ending. For Mr. Jennings, Hyperscore is no substitute for a teacher. As he sees it, the program is "a way to have a conversation with a child."

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, performed four of those pieces at the Winter Garden concert. It was no doubt a huge boost for the children who wrote them, an instant gratification that may well urge them on to more compositional efforts. Yet I was more moved by a concert I attended earlier that day, when three orchestras of the Mannes College of Music's Preparatory Division, comprising 80 music students, aged about seven into their mid-teens, intently performed pieces by composers ranging from Leroy Anderson to Ravel. I wish all those kids were doing some kind of composition and improvisation as well, leavening their virtuosity with creativity. And kids may certainly find delving into technology more attractive than that hard slog on the instrument. But alas, there's still no short cut. Mr. Machover's daughters are taking instrumental lessons too.

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Software Tip: Hyperscore can be downloaded from and Fisher-Price is planning to release a commercial version of it soon.

Ms. Waleson last wrote for the Journal on Minnesota Opera's production of "The Handmaid's Tale."

Updated May 21, 2003 12:10 a.m.