Broccoli Features

If you let a kid control their diet, there’s going to be a whole lot of candy in it. Who could blame them? Candy is delicious. But every adult knows that candy doesn’t provide much long-term benefit. In fact, too much of it can hurt you. That’s why parents everywhere tell children that before they can have dessert, they need to finish their broccoli.

When kids play with our app, MusiQuest, making notes is like eating candy. Every note is a tasty little morsel of color and sound. Kids love the immediacy of being able to create notes and hear them played back in real time, and with good reason – creating music is a thrilling process, and one that beginners often can’t access. But as kids continue composing and making more and more notes, their songs start to get bloated. Even though the musical system behind MusiQuest helps kids avoid dissonant intervals and misaligned rhythms, there comes a point in a composition when adding more notes makes it worse, not better. Kids’ compositions often suffer from the tendency to pass this point, and add too much. Instead of creating simple, logical arrangements like a professional might, they end up creating walls of sound.

A typical “wall of sound” composition in Sketch-a-Song. Every beat is a cacophony of sound.

A typical “wall of sound” composition in Sketch-a-Song. Every beat is a cacophony of sound.

A popular song shown in MusiQuest’s block notation. Simplicity and space sound good.

A popular song shown in MusiQuest’s block notation. Simplicity and space sound good.

In order to build software that helps kids make better music, we have to be like the parents who offer their kids dessert only after finishing their broccoli. We need to create “Broccoli Features” that help guide kids to make the correct long-term decision, even if it doesn’t initially taste as sweet.

We are currently developing a new feature in MusiQuest called Instrument Roles which we hope will do just that. In our first app, Sketch-a-Song, kids could use as many instruments as they wanted at any time. Now, they will have five specific instrument roles to fill. Five simultaneous instruments may not seem like very many, but consider how much a skilled composer can do with just four:

Composers create rich, complex music with a small number of instruments by giving each one a part that fills a specific role and contributes to a cohesive whole. Our Instrument Roles do more than limit the number of simultaneous instruments – they help kids think about their songs from the perspective of an arranger. Each role has a specific function: melody, harmony, chord, bass, or drums. In early tests, we’ve had a lot of success teaching these concepts, and using Instrument Roles has helped kids create music that they are proud of.

It’s not a coincidence that all of the classical, folk, and popular songs we’ve arranged in MusiQuest naturally fit into the Instrument Role structure. Composers and arrangers generally think about music in terms of linear parts that fit roles like these. This kind of thinking may not be natural to beginners, but it’s a time-tested way to make good-sounding music, and a great way to enhance anyone’s understanding and appreciation for the art of composition.

When we ask kids what we should change to make MusiQuest better, one of the most common requests we get is for more instruments. They think they want more candy. They'll get there, but first they need a little broccoli.