Music Instruction System
Of the few computer-based music teaching systems available, Xanadu's Musicom - distributed by Roland - is one of the most versatile. David Ellis finds out if it's cheap enough to tempt fund-starved schools.
Roland's MUSICOM is a sophisticated computer-based music education system. What does it offer tutors and students that conventional teaching methods can't, and is it cheap enough for Britain's fund-starved schools?
AT ODD TIMES in the past - and under its previous title, of course - this magazine has taken a look at the role of computers in music education.
Reviews have covered the comprehensive (but expensive) range of Micro Music programs from Temporal Acuity Products, written for the Apple II computer, which utilise a low-quality DAC board to output sound, and the higher quality Music Tutor package for Passport Designs' Soundchaser system.
Other features have explored type-in Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) programs for the BBC Micro, including a number of simple pitch training programs from the author's own book, Creative Sound on the BBC Microcomputer.
And E&MM's pages also kept readers up-to-date with the activities of such organisations as TIME (Technology in Music Education), which seemed to promise much for establishing some sort of quality standard and curriculum for computer-assisted music education. But sad to say, what once looked to be a growth area for imaginative music teachers turned software writers, seems to have lapsed into inactivity over the last year or so.
What might give a boost to this flagging spirit is the new GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam system. Although the GCSE doesn't actually label CAL as the saviour of secondary education (it certainly isn't), the exam system does reflect the notion that what children really need are practical skills acquired through experience and investigation, rather than from pure book work and formal classroom teaching. And the right sort of CAL is an excellent way of guiding students through new or difficult knowledge areas - music included.
However, the arrival of a new curriculum inevitably means that finances are likely to be tight until the precise direction of the GCSE music course has been mapped out with certainty. So, although there may be a lot of enthusiasm to equip school music departments with the necessary equipment for students to explore every facet of contemporary music, putting that enthusiasm into practice is likely to be an uphill struggle.
Faced with this crossroads of changing systems and financial constraints, the MUSICOM system would hardly seem to have come at the most auspicious time. Conceived as a complete music instruction system, MUSICOM was put together by a team of teachers and programmers in Israel, under the aegis of a company called Xanadu International, and distributed by Roland UK. The computer used (the IBM PC) in this system is a little out on a limb from those normally encountered in education in either the UK (the BBC Micro and RML machines) or the USA (the Apple II and Macintosh).
For their part, Roland must be hoping that the advent of the Amstrad PC1512 and a rush of cheap IBM PC compatibles will change the balance of computing power in education. Personally, I don't see that happening to a huge extent. It's true that there's a switch away from the BBC Micro (and rightly so), but it's to the Atari ST, not to the IBM PC. And in music education, the situation is further complicated by Yamaha's CX5M, which, despite being hampered by the truly awful MSX standard, has become a popular addition to music departments by virtue of its effectiveness as a compositional tool - and its fairly low selling price.
AS THE IBM PC itself is limited to a feeble monophonic beep, the sound output for the MUSICOM system is arrived at by the addition of a MIDI interface (Roland's MPU401) and some sort of MIDI keyboard (preferably one that's velocity-sensitive). In addition, a card has to be plugged into one of the IBM PC's slots to connect the micro with the MPU401. Although Roland make their own IBM PC card for the MPU401, the MUSICOM system requires the use of a special card (the Xanadu IFM-PC) that adds on a so-called "pitch and rhythm detector" circuit. This takes the input from a microphone, inwardly digests it, and then sends extracted pitches in the general direction of the MUSICOM software.
But whereas the MPU401 retails for £219, the Xanadu IFM-PC card sells for a mildly ridiculous £660. So, even without any software, computer, or MIDI keyboard, the basic MUSICOM hardware already costs more than twice as much as the entry level Amstrad PC 1512 - or a quartet of secondhand synths that could be used to form the basis of a school synth band.
Luckily, the MUSICOM system doesn't seem to be too fussy about what sort of IBM PC it uses, and any compatible should do fine. What it does require is the Colour Graphics Adaptor card for the graphics display (the equivalent of which is already built into the Amstrad PC 1512) and a colour monitor. At a conservative estimate, a standard IBM PC compatible thus equipped for colour, with a couple of disk drives, will add on a further £1200 to the bill. And should you go for the Big Blue original, that figure will read more like £2200. Don't tell me I didn't warn you...
One final hardware feature that's worth noting is that after booting-up the IBM PC with the MS-DOS operating system disk, and then inserting one of MUSICOM's course disks, the IFM-PC card imprints a serial number on the disk. This means that those disks and that interface card are wedded together for life. So, if you're a music department that's lucky enough to be able to afford a number of IBM PCs and sets of Xanadu hardware, you still have to buy duplicate sets of software for each machine. A nasty copy protection trick.
XANADU ORGANISE their music course into a number of blocks, each of which is available separately in beautifully presented ring-bound form, with the disks slotted into pockets at the back of the manual. But beautiful presentation usually costs an arm and a leg, and the MUSICOM packages are no exception to the rule. For the record, here are the various courses and their prices:
Course A1 - Ear Training and Sight Singing (£386).
Course B1 - Keyboard Fundamentals (£424).
Course C2/C3/C3A - Concepts in Two-Part Writing/ Triad Structure/Triad Structure (supplementary) (£534).
Course P1 - Rapid Piano (£415).
Course J1 - Jazz for the Keyboard (£360).
"The jazz software allows you to record your own version of apiece, reading from chord symbols and a bassline, and then compare this with the original."
The Ear Training and Sight Singing course makes particular use of the pitch detector, and requires the student to sing into a microphone whatever notes are displayed on-screen. To avoid the system glitching when attempting to detect pitches, this has to be done fairly deliberately and in strict tempo with a computer-generated metronome. This involves some acclimatisation, but the real-time display of notes and durations as they're sung is certainly informative, and definitely more valuable to the student than a rap over the knuckles from an irascible piano teacher.
One thoughtful feature is that the software asks you to sing your highest and lowest notes in order to determine your singing range before commencing the exercises proper. A neat touch.
The pitch detector also copes with the input from most instrumental sources (flute, violin, and trumpet, for instance), so students with no pretence at singing ability can also be catered for by this program. In fact, Xanadu have it in mind to produce programs specifically designed as tutors for particular instruments.
Keyboard Fundamentals comprises a set of four disks, and is designed to teach basic keyboard skills to children at (roughly) primary school level. It covers music notation, simple melody and rhythm, and playing notes on the keyboard. Undeniably worthy, but the course does seem a little on the dull side, especially bearing in mind the age of the children that are likely to be using it.
I'd have thought that, at this early stage of music education, the computer should be exploited to the full, with touches of arcade games graphics and sound effects to add some spice to the whole business.
The austere titles of Concepts in Two-Part Writing and Triad Structure continue the academic flavour of MUSICOM. Again, all good stuff in terms of presentation and depth of content, but these aren't the sort of programs to shove under the average musically-inclined student's nose unless they're really set on wading through the Associated Board exams or passing 'A'-level Music.
Fortunately, MUSICOM comes nearer to clearing the academic cobwebs in its Rapid Piano and Jazz for the Keyboard courses. Rapid Piano covers about a year's study of basic keyboard skills, including using the hands, turning the thumb, fingering scales, and playing arpeggios. This is done with style, tact, and the infinite patience that should be part and parcel of any decent CAL system.
Better still is the two-disk Jazz for the Keyboard package. Divided into rhythm and harmony sections, the course starts off by (re)orienting the student to the delights of triadic harmony. Once this has been accomplished, you're then invited to explore the strange, new world of seventh chords. From there, you move on to using those chords in open-voiced harmony, with sample basslines derived from Thelonius Monk and other jazz luminaries.
The software also allows you to record your own version of a piece, reading from chord symbols and a bassline, and then compare this with the original. Add the rhythm side, which teaches syncopation and off-beat accents among other things, and you've got an excellent package that does a lot more than just teach music. Highly recommendable, and the best value of all the MUSICOM courses.
With so much material to choose from, the above run-down on MUSICOM's contents is inevitably skimpy. If you're seriously interested in the system, you'd do well to book an appointment with Alistair Jones at Roland (see address below), who'll take you through its workings in detail.
THERE'S NO doubt the MUSICOM system is superbly presented - both on the screen and in the manual. And although many teachers (and most students, I guess) will turn their noses up at the overly academic slant of the theoretical courses, MUSICOM gets through a huge amount of inevitable musical tedium efficiently and with a good deal of imagination.
But the course that stands out (for me, at least - I'd give anything to be a competent jazz pianist) is the Jazz course, which is not only fun, but actually leaves you with the feeling that you've acquired useful musical skills.
The biggest problem with this system is the choice of micro - for the UK market, anyway. A version for the Atari ST would seem to make a lot more sense for the UK and general European market, and that micro has the major advantage over the IBM PC of a built-in MIDI interface.
And as I've already intimated, MUSICOM isn't cheap by today's standards. True, buying an IBM PC used to cost thousands, and software companies could get away with charging hundreds for their products. But with the advent of IBM PC compatibles, and especially the Amstrad PC 1512 (no, I don't have shares in Amstrad - though I wish I did), the more streetwise software houses have seen the sense in lowering their prices to fit in with the change of fortunes in the hardware industry.
So as things stand, Xanadu are in exactly the same position as many publishers of business software for the IBM PC. Those that cut their prices will reap the benefit of a whole new market; those that hang on may simply sink without a trace, or be swallowed up by software pirates or copycats.
I think MUSICOM is worth saving from that fate. The fact that Roland are prepared to consider educational discounts certainly goes some way towards easing the pressure on the pocket, and it'll be interesting to see what path Xanadu themselves decide to take - both price-wise and micro-wise.
Review by David Ellis
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