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Thomas J. West Music

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Theta Music Trainer

Free Online Music Ear Training Games

If you live in a culture that has an electronic gaming industry, you undoubtedly have been exposed to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. These extremely popular games have revealed to us a simple fact that teachers seem to have forgotten over the years - learning can be fun! Guitar Hero and Rock Band both train players to listen to the music and respond rhythmically by operating controls on replica instruments. One has only to type "Rock Band" into YouTube and you will see examples of children as young as 7 who have achieved playing technique on the Rock Band controller of virtuosic proportions. If those kids are willing to "play games" for hours on end, and the end result is that they're actually learning something at the same time, it's a win-win.

Educational gaming is a relatively new market, and the implications for the ways that young people learn are obvious. In like fashion, Theta Music Trainer provides a body of games that teach basic ear training skills in pitch, rhythm, harmony, and even mixing live audio. These games are engaging, entertaining, and really do get kids to listen closely in graduated levels of difficulty.

From Theta Trainer's basic description page: Keeping up a study of music theory or ear training can be difficult. Mastering the core skills requires disciplined practice and a huge amount of repetition. Music games provide the practice you need without becoming monotonous or academic. Games inject an element of variety and fun into your practice routine and help boost your motivation. Basic musicianship skills are often best developed by working away from your instrument initially, in short bursts of concentrated practice. The games on this site are perfect for developing these skills, and are designed to provide a total workout of your musical ear and mind with as little as 10-15 minutes per day of regular playing.

A Free Full Online Course In Fundamentals

Theta Music Trainer has a section of the site that provides detailed descriptions of all of the music theory concepts that are covered by their ear training games, including interactive examples students can listen to.

scales screenshot
Screenshot of the first melody section

The Melody section covers the following concepts:
  • Major scales
  • Natural minor scales
  • Melodic intervals (pitches played one at a time): Perfect, major, and minor intervals (including the diminished 5th)
  • Melodic Dictation
The Harmony section covers the following concepts:
  • Harmonic intervals (pitches played simultaneously)
  • Chords in all qualities: Triads, seventh chords, inversions, arpeggios
  • Chord progressions, including the seven triads built on the major scale and standard progressions
The Rhythm section is rather brief. It covers the concept of strong and weak beats in duple and triple meters, basic rhythmic notation, tied values, and then provides examples of various patterns that are then reinforced in the games.

The Sound section introduces students to the concept of mixing audio channels, a concept not normally covered in traditional music theory courses. Mixing relates directly to the musical concepts of timber, balance, blend, and orchestration.

Valuable Play-By-Ear Tips

Another instructional feature of Theta Music Trainer is the Play-by-ear tips section. Many of these concepts are pieces of advice that music teachers give to their students all the time. Sometimes, however, hearing the same suggestions coming from another party, especially someone students consider to be "an expert", can help the message sink in.

Sequential, Pedagogically Sound Games Students Will Enjoy

The games on Theta Music Trainer are the real strength of the site. On the free version, you can try the first three levels of all of the currently available games. Each game features an FAQ with directions on how to play and a "practice" mode where the students can work on the skills of each game in an untimed format. When the student thinks they're ready for the challenge, they can click on "play". Some of the games have a time limit, while others have a limited number of tries to complete the level. When you have a paid subscription, you can access any level in any order. Think a game is too easy? Skip ahead to level 10. Can't handle level 10? Back down to 6 and work your way up. Teachers can easily assign target levels for their students and check on their progress (more on this later).

Here is a basic overview of each of the games, with the skill they assess, the limiting factor of each, and my subjective opinion of each.

Paddle Pitch
Pitch recognition of scale degrees, both major and natural minor scales
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: 5 balls per game

Paddle Pitch is a take on the classic video game Breakout. The player moves the paddle by clicking on the screen on the appropriate scale degree. When the ball strikes a brick, it plays a pitch from the scale and bounces back down. The trick is, the ball disappears as soon as it hits the brick and doesn't reappear until just before it reaches the paddle, so the player really does have to focus in on just audiating the pitch and identifying its scale degree. The beginner levels give only the first several scale degrees at slower ball speeds. In order to complete a level, the player must successfully identify 40 pitches in 5 or less errors. Even with faster ball speeds at level 20, hanging in there for 40 pitches feels like quite a marathon.

Melodic Drops and Harmonic Balloons
Skills: Identifying intervals, played either one pitch at a time or simultaneously
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: 5 drops/balloons per game

Melodic Drops and Harmonic Balloons both test the players ability to identify all major, minor, perfect, and diminished two-pitch intervals. In Melodic Drops, two drops of water fall from the top of the screen. As they fall, the two pitches of the interval are played either ascending or descending. The player has to click on the correct label at the bottom of the screen to stop the drops. Harmonic Balloons is the same game, but the two pitches are played simultaneously, testing the player's ability to recognize the interval in a more harmonic context. The beginner levels start with only unison, octave, and perfect fifth, and the rate of descent is slow enough that the player gets about 8 repetitions of the interval before they lose that drop/balloon. At level 20, all intervals are engaged, and the rate of speed and frequency of new drops/balloons appearing is such that the player only gets to hear each interval twice and often has to listen to two different intervals at once!

Parrot Phrases
Skills: Melodic dictation
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: Countdown timer

Parrot Phrases is good ol' melodic dictation from your ear training undergraduate class. The C major scale is played at first to identify the key, then a series of pitches in various rhythms is played. There is a "replay" button for the player to hear the melodic fragment again. The player has to click the piano keys or the guitar fret board at the bottom of the screen to play the melody back. The game assesses the sequence of pitches only and does not assess the player's sense of rhythm. Level 1 tests the student on all 8 pitches of the C major scale, but only plays a sequence of 3 pitches with the 1st and 3rd pitches being the same. Level 20 plays a sequence of 9 pitches from either C major or A natural minor. I could handle that, but to finish the level, you have to nail 10 of them in 60 seconds!

Chord Locks
Skills: Major, minor, and seventh chords in root position and inversions
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: Countdown timer

In Chord Locks, the C major scale is first played to establish tonality. Then, the 3 pitches of a triad are played sequentially and then as a chord. The player has to adjust three tumblers on the screen to indicate the roman numeral, chord quality, and inversion, then turn the lock to see if it opens. When the each tumbler is adjusted, the corresponding root letter name and chord quality appears in the round display at the top of the screen. Level 1 begins with major and minor triads in root position in the key of C major at a timer of 80 seconds. Level 20 selects a random major key and includes triad and seventh chords in all inversions with a timer of 120 seconds. Challenging is an understatement.

Tone Trees
Skills: Chord and inversion identification on the piano keyboard and guitar fretboard
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: 5 chances

Tone Trees tests the player's ability to audiate triads and seventh chords and click the correct pitches on the keyboard or fretboard. Level 1 begins with tonic triads in all chord qualities. The chord is played sequentially from bottom up and then as a chord. The starting pitch is identified, and the player has to click all three pitches. At level 1, the player has 5 chances to correctly perform 6 tonic triad chords. At level 20, the player has 5 chances to perform 20 chords, including all qualities of triad and seventh chords in all their inversions. This was the first game on the site that I almost completed level 20 on the first try (and probably would have if my children weren't making a lot of distracting noise in the background!)

Phrase Fitter
Skills: Identifying chords by listening to an arpeggiated phrase
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: 5 rockets per game

In Phrase Fitter, you use the arrow keys to fly your rocket ship through several gates marked with the letter name of a chord's tonic pitch. The game plays for you an arpeggiated melodic phrase. You must determine what the tonic pitch of that phrase is and fly through the correct gate without crashing your ship into the sides. Level one contains ten I, IV, and V chord arpeggios that all begin with the tonic pitch. Level 20 contains 20 arpeggios covering all seven triads in both major and minor keys. The next arpeggio begins playing the instant you fly through the correct gate, so the beginning is masked by the "bling" reward sound effect - not unlike trying to comp a soloist on a gig by ear in a noisy club, and that level 20 rocket is FAST! Super challenging.

Speaker Chords
Skills: Identifying chord progressions by roman numeral
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: Countdown timer

In Speaker Chords, buttons below the speakers contain roman numerals for the most common chord qualities found in pop music, including a flat-7 chord. In level 1, the player has 40 seconds to identify 12 combinations of I, IV, and V chords in C major. The player has to click on the correct roman numeral while the chord is playing. You basically have to click on the correct chord the first time through the progression, or you will run out of time before you get all 12. At level 20, you have 180 seconds to identify any roman numeral chord in a randomly selected major or minor key. There are an insane number of chords to identify, and if you don't get the quality right the first time the chord plays, you have to wait until the progression repeats to get another shot at it. I found myself getting the right roman numeral but missing the dominant sevenths a lot. There definitely is a strong temptation to just start clicking wildly on this one!

Rhythm Puzzles
Skills: Identifying rhythm patterns in 2/4 time
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: Countdown timer

In level 1, the player has 30 seconds to drag six rhythm tiles into place as the tile beds are highlighted and a metronome with guitar notes is played. If the player doesn't get the correct tile in place within a second or so, the puzzle goes on to the next tile bed. You can use process of elimination to get the tiles you missed initially, but you're so busy listening intently to the rhythms that it is difficult to think logically at the same time. The level 1 rhythms consist of quarter and eighth note and rest patterns. Level 20 gives you 15 tiles to place in 80 seconds, the rhythms are insanely tricky, and the speed at which the next tile bed plays is very fast. You don't even get to see the tiles ahead of time before the timer starts! This is the only rhythm game on the site so far, and there is much more on the way for rhythm activities.

Channel Match
Skills: Identifying instrument timbres
Levels: 20
Limiting Factor: Countdown timer

In Channel Match, the player clicks on the name of the instrument you hear as the mixer channel is turned up. In level 1,the player has to correctly identify the sound of rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drum set 9 times in 50 seconds. At level 20, the mixing board contains 10 orchestral instruments for a film score. You have 120 seconds to identify 20 instruments. I found it difficult to distinguish which instrument sound was louder than the rest when the faders changed position, and because of the parts they were playing, you sometimes had the misfortune of having, for example, the crash cymbal part turned up when there were few if any crashes in the score.

The good folks at Theta Music are working on more games, including a game called Chord Spells in which you get a chord name and have to spell out the pitches found in that chord. There are also sight-singing and additional rhythmic dictation games in the works.

Tracking Your Students' Progress

One of the great features of Theta Music Trainer are the Training and Progress Reports. With one click, on Training Report, you can see your highest level achieved on every game and an overall rating at the top.

Training Report screen shot
               Screen shot of the Training Report

The Progress Report gives you similar data over time for all games played and each individual game as well:

Progress Report screen shot
Screen shot of the Progress Report

(a note for Americans: the dates displayed on the Progress Report are based on Japan Standard Time as the developers are located in Japan)

You can hover your mouse pointer over any point on the graph and see the the date, game name, and score of that data point. You can also click on any of the game categories on the left to get a graph of all games in that category or the data points for a specific game. This enables you to easily track your progress over time. This statistical feature can be helpful for the individual student, but it is an absolute necessity for any teacher who wants to use Theta Music Trainer as a hard-data assessment tool for their program. In these days of high-stakes testing, it is difficult for music teachers to create hard data on a subjective discipline such as music. These games can provide hard evidence that music students are actually improving their audiation skills and not just participating in a fun, social activity.

Discount Rates For Music Teachers

Theta Music Trainer offers discount rates for Studio Teachers. If you have private lessons students, you can sign up for a special monthly discount rate based on the number of students you enroll. Each student has their own account that they create themselves, or the teacher can have accounts pre-made for them. This is particularly helpful for students and parents who do not like to use their email address to create free online accounts. Once the studio account is established, teachers have access to their students' Training and Progress Reports through the teacher's login. This can be a fantastic way for private piano, guitar, and other music teachers to use the Music Trainer resources and assist the development of students' audiation skills.

Just The Beginning

Theta Music Trainer has new games in the works, new free music theory lessons planned, and much more. The site has been in development since late 2009, with the first online games launched in October of 2010. Up to this point Theta Music has been targeting individuals and studio music teachers in Japan and English-speaking countries as their market. I see a much wider market for the site however, and have already made suggestions to the folks behind the scenes on a pricing structure for public school music teachers. With the success of software-based programs such as Smart Music and web-based platforms such as NoteFlight in the public school market, Theta Music Trainer could easily become a valuable resource for music education programs in America and beyond. I will be following the development of Theta Music Trainer closely. I highly recommend that you follow my blog for updates on new developments of this online resource.

This review originally posted February 26, 2011

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