Prof. Tod Machover has developed a group of high-tech music toys that makes it possible for kids to compose music like Mozart.
With software called Hyperscore, you can use a mouse to draw squiggly colored lines on a computer screen and then just listen to the results – and if you push a button, the computer prints out the notes as sheet music. The project was designed for 6 to 12-year-olds but anyone can try it.
Created by the 49-year-old composer and inventor, along with his team at MIT’s Media Lab, Toy Symphony is a worldwide music and performance project that is revolutionizing the way children learn about music.
“The great thing about Hyperscore is that it removes all the technical barriers,” Machover says, adding you don’t need to know how to read music. If you want to change keys, you don’t need to know about C or G major. You don’t need to know how to make a melody or the rules of harmony. Hyperscore will do it for you.
“Music is often badly taught,” Machover says. “The horrible thing is you spend years learning the technique on an instrument before you can actually play anything. Kids get discouraged. One of the great things about Hyperscore is that it teaches kids to make their own music first, and then to practice 20 years on the violin.”
Toy Symphony debuted last spring in Europe – in Dublin, Berlin, and Glasgow. This spring it opened in the U.S., and it’s headed for Japan this fall. To mark the debut, children across the globe climb on stage with world-class virtuosi, conductors, composers, and symphony orchestras. Then the kids and the pros collaborate, composing together.
“It’s not like a kiddie concert,” Machover says. “The BBC did a radio broadcast of a show in the U.K. and interviewed a lot of children after the concert. Most of them said, ‘My God, I can’t believe I’m actually able to compose music.’ It really empowers children, it’s visceral, and it’s fun.”
Machover says the professional musicians offer students technical know-how, knowledge of the repertoire, and how to perform. But kids bring the magic. “The children have the energy, enthusiasm, creativity, open-mindedness, and emotional expressiveness,” he says.
Now kids around the world are composing popular music, tangos, and jazz. And Machover says many children have composed pieces of great depth and character. “Some of the pieces are so memorable, I remember them as well as if they were my own,” he says.
How It Began
A decade ago, Machover developed a series of computer-interactive hyperinstruments, including a Hypercello for world virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma. Later, he began to think that if he could create instruments for world virtuosi, what if he also created instruments for the novice?
“I was still interested in building instruments for the Yo-Yo Mas of the world, but I began thinking the real trick was to build instruments for anyone,” he says, adding that it was in 1996 that he first imagined a symphony where kids could play with the pros.
“We had opened the Brain Opera at the Lincoln Center Festival. I had designed an orchestra of instruments for an adult audience. I didn’t design it for kids. I didn’t think of that.
“But as soon as we got in there, I saw little kids coming in droves, and they were finding all the secrets in all the instruments. They stayed for a long time without losing concentration, and they made great music and enjoyed themselves. It was a wonderful creative accident.”
The result was the Toy Symphony, which now consists of three high-tech music toys – Beat Bugs, a percussion instrument; Music Shapers, a music toy you squeeze; and Hyperscore, the software that makes it possible to compose your own music.
Machover is now running Hyperscore workshops in after school programs across Boston. He is also collaborating with educators in New York City Public Schools. “Toy Symphony is not just about making music, it’s about teaching, thinking, and working together,” says Machover, adding that he and his team are also working to develop a new pedagogical technique, a method for parents and teachers. And toy company Fisher-Price is now developing a version of Hyperscore that will be on the market this fall.
“If Mozart knew about this project,” Machover says, “I think he’d immediately understand that there is a powerful intuitive connection between the way music looks and the way it sounds, and that this is a really good way to start kids composing.”