Sunday, September 24, 2006

Review: I Can Play Piano: Edutainment, or Video Game?

Fisher Price’s plug and play product “I can Play Piano” introduces children age 4-8 to the basics of reading notes and playing them on a keyboard. A color coded key electronic piano plugs directly into the RCA jacks of most tvs. Modelled after Piano Wizard software created by Allegro, “I Can Play Piano” is accompanied by a cartridge containing eight songs (ranging from childhood favorites like “Row Row Row Your Boat” to classics such as “Fur Elise.” Cartoonish static backdrops depict the song, and the shape of notes support the theme; for example, “Heart and Soul” shows a canoodling couple, and the notes are heart shaped.

Each song can be played at four levels. In the first, players match the colored shapes that scroll up from the bottom of the screen with the colored squares on the keyboard. In Level Two, the colored shapes scroll from right to left. In Level Three, the shapes become regular colored notes, and in Level Four, the colors disappear, leaving white notes for white keys and black notes for sharps and flats. Each song may be played in three modes: right hand, left hand, and both hands, and the keyboard can sound like five different instruments. The variety of play can keep a child occupied for hours, and the drive to best your score creates engagement in the sometimes tedious practice process that creates tension between parent and child.

Songs can be slowed down or speeded up. Timing is critical, because if you are off by a quarter beat, no sound emerges from the piano. Instead of allowing the player to hear and correct a missed note, only correct notes are played. There is no indication of how long each note should be played, and musical notations, such as rests, are not introduced.

The software is billed as being “Just like a video game,” because the software tracks the number of correct notes played, and displays the top score of the session and the current score. While the challenging feel, interactivity and intuitive interface are game-like, “I Can Play Piano” is simply good edutainment software for a generation of screen-addicted children. It has the added advantage of play without the TV connection, for practice or original composition, and can be battery operated.

A true video game style would not allow the player to move freely from level to level; there is no advancement reward for improved or perfect playing. Each song continues to the end, regardless of how well the player does (compared to a Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution, in which missed steps cause the player to “fail” and the song to end.

The mini-games consist of a “banger” game (accompaniment is provided, and 4 notes are recommended for an impromptu jam session) and a matching game (colored cars drive across the screen and the player presses the correspondingly colored key). There are no practices drills, listening exercises or quizzing to associate the notes with the colors.

After playing through all the songs on all the levels, I didn’t feel like I was associating the shape of the middle C note with the middle C on the keyboard; I was still reading the the letter on the note itself, or relying on memory to play the song as I knew it should sound. A fifth level, with no lettered notes, would elevate the stakes.

At present there are eight other game cartridges, five of which incorporate trademarked icons such as Dora the Explorer, Scooby Doo and Barbie. Advanced learners can go on to the Piano Wizard software. This is a solid start to musical theory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review.

Before reading the review, I visited the Piano Wizard website, and found little information of value. Your detailed description of how the software works is very helpful.