Review of MusicBox (Acorn version)

RISC User, May 1994

Chris Drage

Just now and again along comes a program which achieves its stated goal with the minimum of fuss or complications, and Topologika's Music Box is just that. This is not to imply that this little gem is overly simplistic; on the contrary I know many an adult would benefit from its charming attributes. The first plus is that Music Box addresses an area about which must rate as the least exploited in schools: that of integrating IT with music. Apart from composition and score writing programs, there are few programs available which enable children to manipulate musical sounds and rhythms, or construct and edit simple compositions, without demanding that they learn or read notation.

Not to be confused BBC B software of the same name from RESOURCE, Music Box comprises two discs, handbook, teacher's guide to classroom applications and photocoplable helpsheets and worksheets. This RISC OS compliant program has four distinct parts each addressing a different aspect of music. In the Sound Box children click on and listen to sounds at different pitches on a grid of notes. There are seven different instruments to play at any one time, from a range of 36 voices supplied. In the Chord Box they can make up chords from different instruments, and listen to the ways they can be used separately or in combination.

The Beat Box is a sort of drum machine in which children set up visual patterns by placing percussion sounds onto a beat line or by tapping the space bar. Once in place these can be edited to develop different rhythmic patterns. The last section, the Tune Box enables sounds to be placed on a grid representing the stave. Tunes can be edited and compositions printed out to be played, with real instruments if desired. In each of these four activities tunes can be saved and loaded. Speed (a metronome), pitch and key are under the teacher's control, and tools and functions can all be configured to suit children's needs. This last aspect really opens up Music box for children with special educational needs.

The Sound Box offers an ideal place in which to try out different sounds. By saving a small composition, children can then change any of the instruments to see how that effects the overall tune. It is also a useful performance instrument in its own right because of its immediate response. From the configure screen it can be 'tuned' to match other classroom instruments like the recorder. The way notes work in combination is a vital aspect of music and the Chord Box gives children the opportunity to experiment with chords (and discords!). In essence this activity works in much the same as the Sound Box: not only can any one of seven chords be created, but changing the position of certain notes can bring in variations like minor chords, sevenths etc. These too can be recorded and replayed as accompaniments for other classroom instruments.

Used in conjunction with the accompanying chord chart, guitar chord accompaniments in popular songbooks can form the basis of a multitude of variations. In the Beat Box each beat is divided into 12 divisions. There are two forms of input: an instrument can be dragged from the instrument icon bar and placed on the beat line, or you can actually tap the space bar/mouse button in order to place a beat on the line, although in practice accuracy is not guaranteed. By slowing the speed, placing beats becomes easier and some quite complex patterns can be set to be played repeatedly if required.

All the ideas explored in these three 'boxes, come together in the Tune Box. The teacher's notes suggest that the secret to success in this activity is to adopt a more structured approach using visual patterns of 'notes'. Interesting investigations into two or three-part harmonies can also made, and there are opportunities to investigate the relationships between mathematics and music.

Unlike Minerva's Keyboard Trainer, Music Box does not purport to teach children music but rather to provide a medium in which all manner of musical investigations can take place. Music presents a real problem for most primary teachers as it requires an actual talent on the teacher's part to achieve anything reasonable in terms of composition. Thankfully software like Music Box is limited only by the imagination, and is great fun to boot!