Morton Subotnik's Playing Music by Viva Media is like a game made about a children's television show. Its cute, its simple, there are silly characters, and adults will buy it because it whispers the promise of being "educational". In this game children are presented with the opportunity to add "expression" to classical music pieces by adding different tempo, volume, speed, and emphasis changes. These versions are then able to be "performed" by one of three different characters, who all play a little bit differently. There are also some little mini games that are supposed to explain about different elements of expression in music.
As a long-time musician, I looked forward to this game with enthusiasm. I've been playing the viola for almost ten years, the piano for six, and singing for three. After all this time I still cannot put words to the rush I feel when playing with an orchestra, the feeling of absolute exhilaration I get when climbing through a thundering crescendo or the quiet melancholy felt during a chair solo. Sadly, I haven't done much music making with groups lately, so I was eager to see if this game was my quick ticket back into that musical high.
While Morton Subotniks' Playing Music does have a few somewhat interesting elements to it, its not what I expected it to be. First of all, you do not create music in this game. The player is given the choice of choosing from among several famous composers and their music in order to pick a piece that they like. This music has no additions to it other than the notes, plain and simple. No forte, no piano, no ritards, etc. The player then goes through and adds in all of these elements until the piece meets their satisfaction. Then, the piece is performed in front of an audience by one of three animal performers.
Not much else exists in this game besides the element of changing existing pieces. Mini-games about identifying concepts like "loud-soft-loud" also exist, but I found them confusing. It could be that I learned all this stuff the old-fashioned way, through rote and through flashcards, and therefore don't immediately grasp that big dot, little dot, big dot, means the same as forte, piano, forte.
To its credit, the game did have one thing that held me captivated, and those were the videos of concert pianist Frederick Chiu included in the game. Simply put, this guy is good. He succeeds in teaching about musical expression by doing it, and very well. This is something the rest of the game can only imitate.
In conclusion, this game feels like a PBS kid's special on music making. It does have some elements that are educational, but kids who don't get it or aren't interested in the first place might have a hard time sitting still long enough to figure out what things like decrescendo mean. And download Frederick Chiu. He is great.
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