In short… it’s a blast, highly recommended for those who understand music theory. For everyone else… it has a very steep learning curve.
Here’s the skinny. I love video games and I love to play music. Harmonic’s Rock Band series blends the two together in a creative way. In their previous installments, music was placed on the side-lines for the sake of button-mashing goodness. They left me thinking, pretty fun but nothing like the real thing.
Being a musician and a piano teacher has always pointed me towards the, “just take real drum/guitar/singing lessons” school of thought. Notwithstanding, the drums and vocals in the first two games were pretty close to the real thing. Even if you can sing the right notes however, taking voice lessons will teach you the proper way to shape the note. Sounding like a real singer is much harder then it seems.
The Drums were pretty much legit though, yet you only learned how to play them. Why the rhythms worked out has yet to be explained (perhaps they do a better job of this in Rock Band 3). This alone gives music teachers the edge over Harmonics toy drum set.
Rock Band 1 and 2 are fun games for non-musicians to enjoy the feel of an instrument, but they aren’t the real thing.
Harmonics has since stepped it up with the recently release of Rock Band 3 for Xbox 360, Wii, and Play Station 3. Here you have the option to learn from a real guitar…
…and a real two-octave keytar.
I’ll be talking about the keytar here.
First off its a well-done design. The keys are the exact size of real piano keys. They aren’t weighted to mimic the heavy touch of a real piano, yet they feel very natural to me, comparable to the soft touch of an organ.
I played three songs: Imagine by the Beatles, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, and Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band. All were played on the highest difficulty setting, pro-keys, expert.
Harmonics has spent a lot of time working out the actual notes of the songs, and it shows. I was more than impressed with the result. All the notes are legit, or rather as legit as a double-octave keyboard can be. The hardest song I played, Bohemian Rhapsody was indeed a trying ordeal. I think I only hit about 10 or 20 % of the notes, yet I found myself wanting to play the song over and over until I got it right. Knowing chord structures and fingering has helped me greatly in accomplishing this.
After playing the simpler tune of Imagine I went over to a piano and played it note for note, just as Rock Band 3 had taught me. My favorite song to play was Fly Like an Eagle. It showed me a few things about rock organ technique that I had always wondered about. Keep in mind that Rock Band 3 does not teach you proper notation. It has evolved with its own. I found it surprisingly easy to pick up, yet it was a bit lacking on detail. You learn what to play without knowing why you play it.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole section dedicated to tutorials concerning music theory. I did one of them which helped you play the various pentatonic scales. It didn’t tell you what a pentatonic scale was (its a five note scale used in Chinese music and black spirituals) but it did show you how to play them. There were others I didn’t have time to play through. Read the comment below by Brian to get a better impression of that. All of you wanting to learn how to play the piano should spend some time in the tutorials.
This is a huge step forward in learning the musical nuances of why things work the way they do. I applaud Harmonics’ gumption for teaching this.
All in all, in the 30 minutes I was able to play it, Rock Band 3’s keytar was a very rewarding experience. I’ll even go so far as to call it a pretty good supplement if you can’t afford a piano teacher, and, if you only wish to learn rock band songs. There were no Beethoven or Mozart sonata’s here (It’s not called Classical Band after all). I would be curious to see if someone who hasn’t taken piano lessons can learn to play this way. I think that with some of the easier songs such as Imagine they might. Of course who knows what the future holds in this new era of gaming. Perhaps someone will surprise me.
For those who find the pro-keys on expert daunting, they have an easy, normal, medium, and hard setting which I didn’t have time to play with. Theoretically you can work your way up to the real music keys found in the expert setting I played. For those who could care less about learning how to really play a piano, switch off the pro-keys and have yourselves a rocking good time. There it plays much like the Rock Band 1 and 2 guitars.
I don’t own a PS3 or a 360 (I’m a PC sort of guy). Rock Band 3 gave me a strong desire to go out and get one. If I do, I’ll be sure to put a more substantial review of this interesting piece of gaming equipment. Harmonics has me intrigued and, dare I say, hooked on the prospect of learning how to play an instrument through a video game.
On another note: are piano teachers in trouble of losing their jobs? Give it a few years and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone designed a game system around learning to play the piano, even classical piano.
I don’t think such a system would ever replace piano teachers though. Teachers will always have one thing these gaming systems lack. Tutorials can only take you so far before you get stumped. The ability for a teacher to answer questions is a paramount part of the student’s learning process. Likewise, many teachers ask their students questions that lead them towards the right way to play a note. This is one of the best ways for students to learn the hows and the whys of music theory and performance.
Speaking of which… check out a new blog page of mine: Five Minute Piano lessons