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Every picture plays a score

Innovative music software and toys are turning primary children into composers fit to perform with the professionals, writes Kenny Mathieson

Finding ways to encourage children to express their musical creativity without mastering a musical instrument or acquiring any technical knowledge of music lies at the heart of the three-year international Toy Symphony project.

It was developed by the American composer and teacher Tod Machover and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It combines advanced educational thinking with innovative but easy-to-use technology to provide a means through which children can compose and play their own music.

The Toy Symphony experience is a combination of week-long workshops and a culminating concert performance by the children and professional musicians. The project had already been hosted in Berlin and Dublin prior to visiting Glasgow last week, where the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra got involved.

The pedagogical philosophy of the project builds on the work of cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget and other educators who believe that children learn best through an active process which involves them in hands-on interaction with objects and situations in their environment. The core of its educational component is a computer software application named Hyperscore, a graphics-based program which allows anyone to create music, regardless of knowledge or experience.

"Hyperscore is built on the model of a narrative, starting from a single line drawn on screen with a mouse or drawing tablet, and building up by selecting what we call motives (motifs), which are colour-coded musical elements encoded in the program," explains Mr Machover.

"It provides a visual, structured environment for learning without prior technical music knowledge, but a lot of that knowledge is built into the program.

"Changing the shape of that initial line opens up lots of possibilities for the music. Children can learn a great deal about how a piece of music is constructed, but in a way that is fun for them."

So, the shape of a drawn line is analysed to derive a pattern of harmonisation. The line is automatically fragmented and the child selects chords or melodic motives and layers them on to the line; the shape and position of each mark is interpreted for pitch, timbre and timing. The child can edit the work at any level and the software interprets all the graphics as a full composition.

"I'm totally in favour of children learning an instrument, but that is a long process and in the meantime they have no outlet for their enthusiasm and creativity," says Mr Machover. "I believe that if you create a situation where children are really stimulated and fall in love with something, the chances are much greater that they will have a genuine thirst to go on and really take it further."

Stuart MacRae, a young Scottish composer affiliated to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, worked with six children aged nine to 11 from Barrowfield Primary in Glasgow to create a piece of music for the Toy Symphony concert.

"Initially we got the children interested in the idea of a connection between a visual representation and the music they then heard, which is what Hyperscore is all about," he says.

"The first thing they wanted to do was draw pictures and make patterns, which sometimes work musically and sometimes not. I worked on getting them to consider whether things worked on the basis of what they heard when they played the music back through the computer, rather than focusing on the visual aspect.

"In terms of working with young children, Hyperscore has the advantage of looking great and you can start on a very basic level, but there is always another level that will make things more complex, so they can develop with it."

In workshops at Sacred Heart Primary, children worked with sophisticated music toys named beatbugs and shapers, which have been developed at the MIT Media Lab. With gestures and delicate touch, anyone can use them to create music or modify pre-composed musical lines.

Dalmarnock Primary worked on a children's chorus for the Toy Symphony performance.

Mr Machover sees Hyperscore as a readily available resource for schools. "Hyperscore is not only easy to download and use right now, but I think that will grow even more," he says. "The possibility exists for children to trade ideas with others in different cities, work with each other's pieces and so on.

"I think we will be developing this project on a long-term basis."

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