The group’s toys, such as Beatbugs, introduce children to music in a way that also encourages collaboration. According to Gil Weinberg, the graduate student who wrote the Beatbug software, technology often makes musical collaborations unnecessary and can isolate artists. “I was thinking, how can I use technology to reinvent this aspect of playing in a group, and actually enhance it,” he says. The players take turns entering rhythmic patterns by hitting their Beatbugs’ shells; they can change the pitch or rhythm of the patterns by bending the antennae. When a player has assembled the patterns into a complete piece, he or she hits the Beatbug once more, which sends the piece to the computer and on to another player, who can adjust the existing piece or add a new rhythm. The hardest part about designing the Beatbugs, Weinberg says, was figuring out how the computer would help organize the music-making process while still giving children room to be creative. The group seems to have found the happy medium. During workshops held prior to each performance of the Toy Symphony, children learned to manipulate rhythm in increasingly subtle and pointed ways, and how to listen to and follow other players.
But in addition to toy instruments, Machover wanted to build a tool that would allow children to compose music without having to understand musical notation. Hyperscore, designed by graduate students Mary Farbood and Egon Pasztor, SM ‘02, is a musical sketchpad that allows users to create simple, short melodies out of teardrop-shaped “notes.” Moving a note up or down with a mouse changes its pitch, and its size determines its duration. Each motif is assigned a different color, enabling the user to draw a composition. Hyperscore’s “harmonization” feature smooths out clashing notes by making sure that most of the composer’s notes follow a sequence of chords. Hyperscore, now available free on the Toy Symphony Web site, impressed Fisher-Price enough that it has started a collaboration with Machover’s group to commercialize some of the Music Toys, the first of which should be available by the end of the year.
The April concert featured several Hyperscore pieces, written by kids at the workshops, that had been transcribed as traditional scores and were played by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Farbood says that when the group started its European tour, this was the most stressful part of the project for her. “The kids had to actually write a decent piece of music in one week to be played by an orchestra, and that scared me. I thought, Wow, lots of bad things could happen, but it turned out well. The kids had fun, they wrote their pieces, and it worked.” Judging from the smiles on the kids’ faces and the applause of the full-house audience, it seems they would agree.