Review of MusicBox (Arc version)

Archimedes World, 1994

Alan Bennet

I’ve said it before and I'll say it again - good software is a godsend for those teachers who are terrified of teaching music to a class of Primary age children. For developers it’s a huge market, simply because the majority of teachers in our schools aren't music specialists. OK, some are more confident than others, but I’m willing to bet that most would welcome help from any direction.

Amongst the best music applications for this age group are Notate, from Longman Logotron and Compose World, from ESP. The latest product hoping to get a piece of the action is Music Box from Topologika. Designed by Marshal Anderson, one of the leading lights in educational software, it is described as a 'safe playing environment for musicians', which can be used to explore different aspects of music.

The two disks, two manuals and set of worksheets that make up the Music Box package come in a colourful yellow box. Disk one is protected on single user versions, a departure from Topologika's usual practice of free site licences. The application will work on a 1 Mb machine, but there won't be enough memory left to load a printer driver. Music Box is made up of four separate activities - Sound Box, Chord Box, Beat Box and Tune Box. They are all accessed by clicking on the appropriate option on the opening menu window and have a number of features in common. A set of tape deck controls enable you to record, playback and repeat any tunes that you create. Other buttons allow you to save and load work to disk, change the volume and exit back to the main menu. Also on hand is an adjustable metronome that helps you stay in time.

Pressing menu over an instrument brings up on enormous selection of additional sounds - each is represented by their own individual icons. However, only seven can be used at a time and are indicated on an instrument icon bar. The voices are stored on disk and take the form of standard sound modules, so if you wish, you can add any others that you may have. if you are feeling particularly clever, you can create new icons as well.

Boxes of tricks
Sound Box gives you the ability to play with sound. On the left hand side of the screen is a sound grid with seven columns - one for each voice. Wherever you click on the grid, you will hear a note. The further up you go, the higher the pitch. You can have greet fun if you hold down Select end move the mouse pointer all over the grid.

The Chord Box window has its own different set of columns which bear a close resemblance to a piano keyboard. An instrument can be assigned to each column end if you select more than one square, a chord, or group of notes played at exactly the same time, will be built up. A speaker icon at the bottom of each column allows you to listen to the finished chord and, once you've created a few different chords, you can then record your own chord sequence.

Tune Box presents us with another grid, only this time it's horizontal and scrolls from left to right. To create a tune, you simply select a voice and then click in a square. The pitch of each note varies according to how high you click on the grid, whereas the rhythm depends on the horizontal distance between notes. At the top of the grid is a toolbox that enables you to add or delete columns, empty the grid, move notes around, copy the composition further down the grid or play the tune in a loop.

Beat Box is a simple drum machine that has a similar feel to Tune Box. Instead of notes being on a grid, they are placed on a line. Each line has a number of subdivisions that represent the start of each bent and sounds can be put on individual beats or anywhere in between. More than one voice con be layered at any one position, which allows you to experiment with unusual combinations.

The configure item on the Icon Bar menu gives you the facility to change the set up of the program in a number of different ways. You can switch individual tools on or off, select the tuning note or change the scale from Chromatic to Pentatonic. There are also several options for each of the applications - these relate to things such as the number of rows in a column and so on.

The manuals are clearly written and easy to read. The Music Box in the Classroom has bags of ideas and places particular emphasis on the fun that can be had by exploring patterns on grids - a good way of showing children that musical starting points come in all shapes and sizes.

I'm rather fond of Music Box - it's nice and simple, but achieves what it sets out to do. It's like a well equipped music trolley containing loads of exotic instruments and for children the exploration of sound is like a journey of discovery - Music Box will certainly help them on their way...