The thing about controllers
Ramping up

Rock Band University


Few games have the staying power of Rock Band. With a steady stream of DLC, hugely addictive "I know I can do better than that, dammit" gameplay; fabulous co-op play ideal for parties; perfectly scaled levels of difficulty; and the easy imaginative leap it enables from 'guy with plastic guitar in living room' to 'mega rock star in arena' - it may be the most perfectly designed and executed game of this generation.

But as the years pass I'm finding another less obvious attraction in Rock Band: it's an amazingly effective teacher. I don't simply mean that it contains a solid tutorial or that it encourages you to improve your skills as a player. It does those things, of course, and its methods are worth considering for those of us who teach for a living.

What draws me lately to Rock Band is its facility for teaching music appreciation and even basic music theory. I can't begin to describe how much I've grown in my understanding of what's going on musically behind a talented musician's performance. Clearly, a gap exists between what a real guitarist is doing on strings and what I'm doing pressing buttons; but that gap narrows a bit when you're singing or playing bass, and it nearly closes when you're playing drums. With cymbals attached and freestyle mode enabled, playing drums in Rock Band 2 gets you very close to the real thing. In fact, maybe it is the real thing.

If you're genuinely interested to learn what Keith Moon was all about as a drummer, a very good start would be to download the early The Who tracks for Rock Band and study his parts. It's one thing to opine that Moon was a master of the fill; it's quite another to analyze his technique on screen, slow it down, practice it, and compare what he's doing to other drummers. Rock Band can't show you how he played, but it's very good at showing you what he played and encouraging you to learn by doing, not just observing.

It's quite possible (and, no small feat, fun) to learn basic elements of music theory like rhythm, harmony, melody, and structure in Rock Band. This 'learning' occurs mostly through osmosis, with the player unaware it's even happening - which many of us would suggest is the very best kind of learning. I'm not suggesting we're breeding the next generation of great composers via Rock Band, but at a certain level, the game insists on a kind of technical mastery that plugs into some useful knowledge of music.

I recently put this theory to the test with a music teacher colleague of mine who's not a gamer and had never played Rock Band or Guitar Hero. We isolated one musical characteristic: syncopation. I loaded up Steely Dan's "Bodhisattva," and put him on bass while I played guitar. I asked him if it was possible for a student to learn something meaningful about syncopation by studying and playing this song. I chose "Bodhisattva because it's all about syncopation...and I'm a Steely Dan freak.

After a few minutes of learning the buttons (musicians learn this stuff fast), his eyes lit up and a big grin emerged on his face. "Can it be harder? Can I play what I'm hearing?" I had underestimated his ability, and he was disturbed by the disconnect between what he was playing and what he was hearing, so I bumped the difficulty up to Hard. "Oh! OK. I can't handle this! But I see what's happening. Very clever. Very clever."

Afterward we discussed what the game was doing in terms of presentation, and he was especially taken by the scrolling fretboard and the clear horizontal lines indicating the beats. Here it was possible to see the syncopation and compare what's happening on bass to what's happening on lead guitar. He loved the idea that a student could feel, see, and hear the syncopation occurring in context with other supporting parts. He also liked that the game gave him feedback when he made mistakes, and he appreciated being able to hear the song without bass if he stopped playing (we used No Fail mode). My bottom line question: is anything pedagogically useful happening here? His answer: "Absolutely."

I'm scratching the surface here, and I'm sure many other teacher-types have already exploited Rock Band and Guitar Hero's possibilities for teaching and learning. What I find more interesting at the moment is how this game has enhanced my own understanding and appreciation of music, almost without me realizing it. And this makes me wonder about other people's experiences.

Beating "Painkiller" on Expert is a cool accomplishment (and impossible for some of us), but have you actually learned anything useful by playing these games? If so, I'd love to hear about it.