What Super Mario Brothers Has to Do With Music Education

super mario brothers with music notes

super mario brothers with music notes

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Learning music is difficult. It takes time, patience and perspective. Learning an instrument at an advanced level takes years. Skills like critical listening or ear training take a long time to develop. In other words, being a good musician is tied to perseverance and trying again and again until you get to perfection.

In the world of education, there are different perspectives for styles of teaching. One of these perspectives argues that humans should be penalized for every mistake they make. This is where the concept of exams come from (of course) — the fear of “failure” is supposed to stimulate us to do better.

In his TedX Talk, former NASA engineer and current YouTuber Mark Rober argues the opposite.

Rober thinks that humans are able to learn more when there is no shame in failure and they actually improve when they are not penalized for trying. To test this hypothesis, he offered a test to his YouTube followers. The test is presented in the form of a game. If you win, you get some points. But if you do not win, a message is displayed. For a group of users, the message only says “Try again.” For another group of users, the message says “You lose 5 points. Try again.”

In other words, the first group is simply encouraged to play again and the second group is told that they are penalized for, well, trying.

In the aftermath of this test, Rober measured the data on how people behaved in either group. He found out that people in the first group, who are encouraged, are much more likely to try again compared to the second group, who are penalized. He says that the key is to reframe the learning process: It is not a failure, but part of the learning process.

It is okay that you make a mistake.

It is possible to extend this talk into the realm of music education. In fact, in music education there are many situations where one could make mistakes. I would even say that making mistakes is key to learning something really well in music.

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When you are practicing playing an instrument and you are reading sheet music, you will be making mistakes, as you should. It would be impossible to learn a piece of music properly without making mistakes. For instance, when you have 64 bars of sheet music in front of you, you will most likely not play it through in your first trial.

In fact, you probably should not aim for playing all at once: This is just setting yourself up to giving up — which I think is the real “failure.” If I told you that every time you would make a mistake, you would lose 5 points for that sheet music, you would probably lose motivation after a few tries.

However, if we try an approach of gamification, the results could be really different.  Going back to our 64-bar sheet music, let’s say I told you that you would get 5 points for every four bars that you play correctly. By dividing up the piece in small groups, not only would you reduce your workload into smaller chunks, but you are also creating a game in a way. For instance, you can start by playing the first four bars a few times, then bars 4-8. Then, go back to the beginning and play the first 8 bars.

Once you get comfortable with the first 8 bars, move on to bars 8-12, then 12-16 and then play the first 16 bars a few times. By using this technique, by the time you get to the 64th bar, you would have played all the other bars so many times that you will have learned the whole piece.

Granted, there will be mistakes — but learning is a process of repetition — just like playing Super Mario Brothers until you get the timing of each move right!

+ Read more on Flypaper: “4 Ways Electronic Music Can Be Used in Music Education.”

We can apply the same logic for learning music production on a digital audio workstation. If I gave you a 1,000-page booklet about the DAW, and asked you to produce a song after the first lesson chances are that you would be overwhelmed and discouraged. But, if I offered you a smaller task after each lesson, such as specific projects towards the goal of each lesson, then you might learn and advance even more on the heels of those small victories!

Let’s say after the first week you would create a new session to explore the interface, create some audio, and some MIDI tracks. Maybe after the second week, your task would be to record some MIDI tracks. After the third week, your task would be recording a small audio track, such as singing or clapping.

By using this approach, by the time you get to Lesson 12, you will be fully equipped to record your song as you would know most functions and how to use them. Moreover, you would have done so many mistakes with the comfort of knowing that it is totally okay to make mistakes! So, who cares!

Let’s take a different situation where I asked you to learn to play a fast song at the original speed of the recording. Chances are that you will not be able to play on the original tempo at your first trial. A way of gamifying this process would be to first learn how to play the song at the 50% of the original tempo. Then, 60%, then 75%, so on and so forth.

Gradually increasing your speed, you are not only bringing a new challenge to yourself as you advance, but you are also playing the song so many times that by the time you get to 100%, you already played it so many times that the coordination between your brain and your muscles would be fully established!

To sum up, these are three different scenarios where gamification in music education can help you advance forward. I think that failure is a discrepancy between expectation and reality. If you set the expectations too high, and you expect to play a piece on your first try perfectly, you are not going to make it. But, by using the process of gamification, not only you reduce your burden but you also create a natural pace of learning for yourself.

Learning takes time, effort and patience — so by using a process of gamification regularly, you will refine your own learning skills and advance forward; and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it!

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