Tricking kids to play music on smartphones

Tricking kids to play music on smartphones

Tricking kids to play music on smartphones

When I was a toddler, my parents introduced me to music-making through a cheap plastic recorder. Later came a secondhand violin and the tireless efforts of my school’s choir teacher.

It was all fun,even if I found it so hard to learn violin the “traditional” way. All I could produce for ages was a horrid squeaking.

I’ve nevertheless loved music ever since, and happily my two children seem to have inherited the same passion. Nowadays there’s a technological trick for getting them to play music, one that gives them the different sounds that an orchestra of instruments can make: smartphones and tablets.

Hence my 2-year-old and 4-year-old are your part-time reviewers this week.

The first and obvious candidate is Apple’s $5 (Rs 278) GarageBand app for iPad and iPhone. It’s powerful and can deliver a rich musical output. You can also record your playing, and there are lessons for playing guitar and so on.

But it is complex and probably best suited to older children. My two toddlers do love the realistic drums section for the din they can create, but it takes a lot of supervision to keep them from activating a menu function they can’t operate themselves.

A simpler app you may like to try is the free iOS app Music Sparkles, which has a cartoony interface with big buttons for children’s fingers. The xylophone and drums section are free, but you must pay (through the app) to unlock an assortment of other instruments, including saxophone and pan pipes.

The cartoonish playable instruments sound good and there’s the option to have simple backing music from drums, piano and other instruments. There’s even a section that has interactive musical notation with voices singing the musical scale. If you are a musical expert you may doubt its educational value, but it’s definitely a fun way to introduce children to the idea of making music.

My one complaint is that it is easy (and tempting) for children to tap on the “locked” instruments that you have to buy before playing.

Simpler still is the $1 (Rs 55)  iPad and iPhone app Keys Kids Play, which is even more cartoony – backing tracks are activated by tapping on a picture of a sleeping animal, for example.  It’s very cute and my 2-year-old loved the animal aspect of it. Both children enjoyed the range of sounds they could make, and they adored the weird alien segment, where tapping on parts of a UFO activates a host of strange music sounds and percussive noises.

A more “proper” music app, aimed at older children, is Go Go Xylo (free on iOS), which centers on a tappable xylophone. This app has a couple of full tunes built in, along with vocals if you choose, and it highlights the musical notes and corresponding xylophone bars as the tunes play. If you can explain what’s going on, it’s a good way to get children used to the idea of written music.

 There’s also a beautifully animated segment of the app that has interactive instruments, like horns and a slide whistle. When the children tap on an instrument, they hear a sample of its sounds and the image moves – the saxophone’s horn bellows, cowbells wobble and the harp’s strings vibrate and emit stars. My younger son adored this bit.

Or if you want to teach your children about the different musical instruments that make up an orchestra, you may enjoy Meet the Orchestra ($2 or Rs 111 on iPad). A lot of attention went into its eye-pleasing graphics and it is also easy for children to navigate – my 4-year-old mastered it swiftly.

The app has two halves. The first teaches the name and sound of each instrument, including a short text history (which you’ll probably need to read out loud and simplify to suit the age of your children).

The second is a quiz section using simple games to reinforce what’s already been taught. You’ll probably enjoy it too. I learned surprising facts about pianos: I didn’t know that before 1709 pianos usually had just four octaves and that they have up to 10,000 moving parts inside. And it was delightful seeing my elder son learning to say “trombone.”

I’ve concentrated on iPad apps because I found the bigger screen a boon when it comes to children bashing at music apps, and the iPad still dominates the tablet market. But there are Android apps that offer similar experiences. Kids Musical Challenges is a great free app that, with a bit of adult supervision, teaches children about instruments and notation via simple “follow-me” games. There’s also a tablet version for Android devices.

Kids Piano Lite is a delightful ad-supported free app aimed at younger children that combines musical notation, playable touch-screen instruments, the musical scale and more. It has a song-playing mode, changeable skins (including a toddler-pleasing animals one), a “baby mode” that locks the usual Android control buttons, and a song mode to teach them tunes. There’s even a decent amount of content before you have to buy the more capable $2.49 (Rs 138)  full version.

Go, play music and have fun with your children! Assuming you’re happy to let them bash away at a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of electronics, that is.