I played music games for the pI’m 10 years old and I’ve been playing music for longer than that, and I’m fascinated by all the musicality you can learn from playing video games. The answer is: Some, and interestingly so.
I’m not in the camp of musicians who make fun of musical games for not really teaching music, because Guitar Hero, and. al are actually good for teaching some basic skills—and great for keeping people interested in swinging. No game will make someone a good musician, but it could start one on the way.
I’ve broken down the top three music video game franchises—Guitar Hero, rock band, and Black-smith-in terms of what they can teach you and what they can’t teach you.
Guitar Hero: Better Than Nothing
The original Guitar Hero games are the least effective games for teaching real music. On a real guitar, you play combinations of six strings on 22 or 24 frets. Guitar Hero controllers have the equivalent of one string and five frets. I haven’t done the math, but guitars have to be over a billion times more complex than controllers, so there’s not much transferable there.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything on how to play the guitar from Guitar Hero. Holding the frets with one hand while strumming with the other gives you a basic idea of the limb independence needed to play the guitar, and it can teach you rhythm, too. Through repetition, Guitar Hero can help you internalize rhythm in a way that practice alone won’t. (Unless you religiously use a metronome, and we all know no one does.)
group heroes, the Guitar Hero spin-off, includes a battery, and has the same basic pros and cons as Rock band’s drum appearance detailed below.
Rock Band: Getting a little closer to real music
Rock band’s musical instruments (guitars, keyboards, drums) offers more variety than Guitar Herothe unique instrument of, and the keyboard and drum controllers are many closer to their reality-global counterparts than guitar controllers.
The Rock band The Keyboard Controller is a two-octave keytar-style keyboard. In the highest “Pro Keys” difficulty, you play the notes of a song more or less, or as close as possible within the two-octave range. So you can actually learn the keyboard parts on this instrument if you put in the time, but there are some major caveats.
Fingering: Rock Band does nothing to teach you how to play keyboards effectively – there is no guide on which fingers to use when. This can lock you into bad music habits that will be hard to break later. It’s not that bad for me, but I’m only interested in banging riffs in a techno garage band, not playing “serious” music.
Low: One of the challenges of learning to play keyboards is to incorporate the left hand, the bass part, with the right. “Real” piano lessons include both hands almost as soon as you start playing to get you used to it, but Rock band does not do the left hand parts. Many real keyboard parts don’t either, to be fair.
Listen: Rock band does not allow you to hear what you are actually playing. You trigger the song’s music largely by pressing the keys, so the nuance is missing: hold down a note too long, Rock band won’t recognize it. Play some parts too loud and others too soft? It’s not going to be audible. Plus: it’s a game, so the rhythm “hit boxes” are forgiving: you can drag or lead the beat consistently and score points, without having a clue that you’re not playing on time.
In in terms of transferable skills, Rock band the drums are decent for beginners. The controller consists of four drum heads and a pedal that plays bass drum. It’s like playing the drums on an electronic kit because it is: you can convert a Rock Band kit into working electronic drum pads by soldering some wires together.
But does it teach you to play the drums? Type of. The main objective of beginning drummers is to develop your sense of rhythm, and Rock band will drill “playing in time” into your body memory better than not playing Rock band will be, although it still allows you to play carelessly.
These are the drum positive. here is the drum negatives.
Independence of members: Rock band drums require three members; real drums demand four. The game leaves out the foot you use to control your top hat. So it’s certainly useful, but not all you need.
Technical: Rock band (and group heroes) does not teach drum mechanics: hhow to hold the sticks, how to control their rebound, etc. This way, you could easily anchor bad habits that are hard to break and that you will have to unlearn later.
Listen: You really need to hear you when you play the drums. Before you play with other people, you need to be able to control your volume and intensity and you need to know when you’re playing out of time, even slightly, and Rock band won’t let you do either of them. It won’t teach you how to lock yourself in with a bass player, or how to drive the engine of a band. It won’t teach you how to move into your girlfriend’s apartment because you got kicked out of yours either, and real drummers need to know that.
Creativity: A friend of mine is a very good drummer, but he can’t play Rock band drums to save his life, as the concept of playing the “right” drum at the “right” time is antithetical to how he approaches his instrument. Rock band doesn’t have a setting for “I play awesome drums, but not the one you tell me I should play.” Instead, it penalizes you for any kind of creativity. More on that below.
You don’t need a game or lessons to learn how to play bass guitar because it’s so easy it’s a joke. (Shots fired, bassists!)
Rocksmith: More serious; more learning
from Ubisoft Black-smith, and just launched Blacksmith+ subscription service, straddling the line between “music lessons” and “game”. They contain interactive instructions and a few mini-games, but I’ll focus on the main game here.—gamified music instruction is a totally different thing from music games.
Black-smith the main game is basically Guitar Hero with a real guitar: you use any electric or bass guitar as your “controller”, and your scores are based on the precision of the guitar or bass parts of thousands of songs. ‘Cause you play a real guitar, Black-smith is way harder to control than Guitar Hero Where Rock band, but once you’ve spent hundreds of hours, you could play the real guitar part of “Satisfaction”.”
Globally, Black-smith is ideal for beginners. When you’re just starting out, playing the guitar is annoying— it is not a natural way to move the fingers, and the instrument is weird to hold. Fluidity (and calluses) only come through repetition, and Black-smith will gradually teach you how to shape your fingers into chords to play songs, how not to cut other strings, how to use a pick, and more. It will help you become comfortable with holding and using a guitar, and it all transfers directly to playing music for real. Type of.
Black-smith the main game won’t teach you any of the intricacies that separate good guitarists from bad – for that, you need to focus on how your technique affects your sound, which is hard to do when you’re also trying not to fail on a song in a video game.
That said, you can at least hear yourself playing guitar in Black-smith, although you can also hear the guitar from the recorded music tracks. It’s confusing until you get used to it and/or play around with the levels so you’re loud enough to hear over the “band”. Beginners probably wouldn’t make these adjustments, as it would make them worse.
Then there is the lag. I played Black-smith on a console (PC is supposed to be better), and found that hitting a note and hearing it milliseconds later made the game nearly unplayable. I fixed it by splitting my guitar signal so I could hear myself from my own amp and trigger the game, but that’s not something I would expect a beginner to even know they needed to do. I guess the newest guitarists give up in frustration or compensate for lag by hitting notes too early, probably without even knowing they are doing so. It’s not good for real-world gaming.
Creativity is the missing ingredient in all these games
For me, the fun part of playing music isn’t memorizing and repeating the notes and patterns that make up a song; it’s getting together and making weird noises with my friends in a garage. Music theory, practice and technique are just tools to make weird noises more interesting.
These games (especially Guitar Hero and Rock band) are made to simulate the feeling to make music with your friends, and they’re great for it. However, they are not really designed for teaching music and should not be expected. Players can pick up a few transferable skills along the way, but more importantly: There is a generation of young guitarists who were inspired to pick up real instruments after mastering guitar controllers, and perhaps that inspiration is the most important music lesson of all.
(In fact, “learning to play in time” is the most important music lesson of all.)