Every parent has heard the statistics. Children who play musical instruments do better in school. They get into better colleges and get better jobs. They learn self-discipline, gain self-confidence and are encouraged to express their creativity. So we all do what we think is best for our children's future. When the kids hit seven or eight years old, we drag them to piano lessons.
You remember piano lessons, don't you? The scales, the boring songs, the piano teacher's living room that smelled like mothballs and dusty sheet music. It's no wonder that you quit after two years. And it will be no surprise if your child does the same, unless he or she is truly inspired and excited by the act of making music.
The Piano Wizard is a video game designed to make the first stages of learning how to play the piano fun, exciting and even addictive. With the help of a simple computer game, children as young as three years can learn how to play an actual song within minutes. And as they play the game more and more, they'll learn how to read music without ever having to play a single scale.
The Piano Wizard requires a computer -- PC or Mac -- connected to an electronic MIDI keyboard. The structure of the game is a lot like the popular arcade game Dance Dance Revolution or the console sensations Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Objects scroll up or across the screen toward a color-coded keyboard. When the object hits a key on the screen, you press the key on your keyboard, playing a note. Hit all the keys at the right time and you're playing a song!
The Piano Wizard wasn't designed to replace conventional piano lessons. The goal of the game is to awaken children to the possibilities of music and give them the confidence to move to a real piano and more complex songs. It's the equivalent of musical training wheels [source: Piano Wizard Introduction].
So how do you get started with Piano Wizard? When is a kid old enough to play? And how does the learning system work? Read on to find out.
Getting Started with Piano Wizard
Piano Wizard is designed for ages 3 and older. It's helpful if your child is already familiar with the idea of video games and controllers and has developed some basic eye-hand coordination. Currently, Piano Wizard is only available as a computer game compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems. There is no console version for systems like the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. There is, however, a Fisher-Price product called the I Can Play piano that uses the Piano Wizard software and connects directly to a TV. We'll talk more about that later.
There are several different options for purchasing Piano Wizard. What you decide to purchase depends on your level of play (beginner or intermediate) and whether or not you already own a MIDI keyboard. Everything can be purchased from the Piano Wizard Online Store.
If you already have a MIDI keyboard and the cables to connect it to your computer, then all you need to use Piano Wizard is the software and the colored stickers that help you play the game. There are two different versions of the software: Easy Mode and Premier. The Easy Mode software contains 100 songs. The Premier software contains 200 songs, but includes the option of downloading unlimited MIDI songs from the WizardTunes subscription service. Easy Mode software costs $49.95 and Premier costs $119.95.
If you have a keyboard, but no connection cables, you can buy a package that includes the software (either version), MIDI connection cables and color-coded stickers.
If you don't already own a MIDI keyboard, then there are several different packages that include the software, a MIDI keyboard, connection cables and stickers. You can choose from a 49-key keyboard with full-size keys or a mini-keyboard with 37 keys (and a built-in USB connection cable). The most expensive package is the Premier software with the larger keyboard, connection cables and stickers for $199.95. The most affordable option is the Easy Mode software with the smaller keyboard for $99.95.
You can also buy any of the accessories (keyboards, connection cables, stickers) by themselves from the Piano Wizard Web site, although the packages are a much better deal. The 49-key keyboard, for example, costs $139.95 by itself.
Now that you have the right equipment, let's talk about the game play itself.
Playing Piano Wizard
The Piano Wizard system is based on a four-step process that takes you from an absolute beginner to reading real notes on a musical staff.
The most basic level of game play is based on objects and colors, not notes and keys. In this first stage, you start by placing the colored stickers on each key of your keyboard. In step one of the game, you'll see a representation of the same color-coded keyboard at the top of the screen.
When a song begins, color-coded objects such as circles, dinosaur eggs and stars will scroll from the bottom to the top of the screen. The color of the object corresponds with the color of the key to press. When the object reaches the top of the screen, it scrolls over one of the color-coded keys. Your goal as a player is to press the same key on your keyboard at the exact moment that the object passes over the on-screen key. When you press the right keys at the right time in the right sequence, you'll be playing a song.
This is the most basic lesson of Piano Wizard: pitch and timing. Pitch is the frequency of a sound as perceived by the ear. In music theory, we give names to each pitch: a, b, c, d, d-flat, f-sharp and so on. By playing Piano Wizard, you won't learn the names of notes, but you'll become familiar with the idea that different keys produce different pitches or sounds.
In the second step of Piano Wizard, the on-screen keyboard rotates to the left side of the screen. Now the objects scroll from right to left instead of from bottom to top. This is a little trickier to master, because the player's keyboard is still oriented horizontally, but the on-screen keyboard is vertical. But with this vertical orientation, the color-coded objects look more like real notes on a musical staff. In music notation, notes with a higher pitch are higher on the staff. Likewise, in this step of Piano Wizard, notes with a higher pitch are higher up on the screen. Whether the player realizes it or not, he or she's starting to learn the basics of reading music.
In the third step, the color-coded objects become musical notes on a real staff. Now the transition to reading music is almost complete. The color of the note is still its most important characteristic as far as the player is concerned. But he or she's also becoming comfortable with the look of musical notes on the staff in all of their variations and lengths -- whole notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sharps and flats.
In the fourth step, the colored stickers come off the keyboard and the on-screen notes change from color-coded to black. At this point, the student reads notes exactly how they would be written on a piece of sheet music. The only difference is that the notes continue to scroll across the screen.
Once a student has mastered step four, he or she's ready to start taking regular piano lessons or to continue with something called Piano Wizard Academy. We'll talk more about Piano Wizard Academy and more Piano Wizard products in the next section.
More Piano Wizard Products
The Piano Wizard Academy is sometimes called "step five" of the four-step Piano Wizard System. The Academy is a set of DVD lessons to help students make the transition from the game to a real piano. The Academy package comes with sheet music for either 20 or 50 DVD lessons and teaches more advanced piano-playing techniques like phrasing, dynamics and posture.
WizardTunes is an online service for downloading new MIDI songs to add to the Piano Wizard game. WizardTunes offers full MIDI arrangements of thousands of different songs across many musical genres: popular, classical, rock, country, religious, opera and children's. Songs include both right- and left-hand parts designed for more advanced students. WizardTunes only works with the Premier version of the Piano Wizard software.
There are different options for using WizardTunes. At the Bronze membership level, you only pay for each song that you download. The price of an individual song is $2.99. But there are discounts if you sign up for a monthly (Silver) or annual (Gold) subscription to WizardTunes. The Silver subscription charges $9.99 a month and allows up to five free downloads a month. Any downloads beyond the first five cost $.99 each. The Gold subscription is $59.99 a year and allows for 75 free downloads. Additional songs are also $.99 each.
Another related product is the I Can Play piano from Fisher-Price. The I Can Play piano is sold as a stand-alone keyboard that connects directly to a TV set. The piano comes with a game cartridge that includes eight Piano Wizard songs and two games. The game play is exactly the same as the Piano Wizard computer software. Students can choose from four different levels of play and whether they want to play with their right hand, left hand or both. You can also buy additional cartridges with more songs and games.
Fisher-Price also offers an I Can Play guitar that works like the I Can Play piano. There's a guitar-shaped controller that plugs straight into the TV and runs on cartridges loaded with the Piano Wizard songs. The Piano Wizard Web site says that a computer-based Guitar Wizard video game is currently in development.
For more information about Piano Wizard, electronic music and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Fisher-Price Tickles the Ivories with New Platform That Encourages Music Appreciation." Fisher-Price. Feb. 2, 2006. http://www.i-can-play-piano.info/release-pages/yahoo-tickles.htm
- Music Wizard Group. http://www.pianowizard.com
- "Piano Wizard Introduction." Allegro Multimedia. http://www.allegromultimedia.com/The_Theory_behind_the_lack_of_theory.htm