Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Music video takes us back to the future

OK, so I’ve been on a toot about excessive screen time and video escapism.

Now I’m here to say that things are not all bad on the ubiquitous screens.

The other night my son, Evan, who has learned to graciously tolerate my rants about excessive screen time, had us over to his house to check out his latest video game.

He thought we might like it.

He introduced us to it by handing Diane and me toy guitars while Julie, his wife, settled in behind a set of small drums and he grasped a mike, at the ready to sing karaoke style.

We were about to be introduced to “Rock Band.” Or to be more exact, we were about to simulate a rock band with a major boost from the video game.

On the big flat screen attached to an X-Box, images of notes from a chosen tune paraded toward us. When they hit a kind of musical finish line, we “played” them by fingering a fret and thumbing a kind of strum lever on our guitars. In essence, we held guitar shaped musical controllers in our hands. If we hit the right fret and strummed on the beat, the advancing note bars would visually explode. Julie’s drumming and Evan’s singing were similarly directed and monitored on the screen. Meanwhile, the computer program kept score of our success rate, which would be revealed at the end of the song/game.

There are a lot of variables and settings (beginner, intermediate, expert etc.), in the manner of video games, but at its core, this was just flat-out, non-competitive, musical fun.

Sure, the music, most of it no more than 20 years old, wasn’t exactly what I would choose. If I have a guitar in my hand, I want the notes coming at me to be from a Herb Ellis or Joe Pass rendition of “Satin Doll” or “Straight No Chaser.”

But patience, jazz fans. “Rock Band” is certain to spin off a “Jazz Band.” This has the makings of a “cross-over” game — one that is about as far away from maiming and murdering as you can get.

We’re talking music here.

Not that performing to “Rock Band” is the same as actually playing an instrument. But it is simulated musicianship. Close enough on short notice. You start swaying and gyrating as you get into a stripped-down performance of even an unfamiliar tune.

Call it an amateur’s groove.

I predict great things for “Rock Band,” its rival, “Guitar Hero” and other musical video games no doubt in the works as you read this.

A piano sits in our living room, unplayed for the most part. It is an artifact from a time when friends and family gathered around and made music together. Way back then, the only music was the music you made. Then the phonograph came along, and we lost all of that.

It may not be quite the same, but “Rock Band” and other music video games may be taking us back to a time when music-making brought us together.

Here’s to that.

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