Message category: Close-up

Special topics and FAQs: The articles in this category focus on some aspect of one of our products, or explore a topic of related interest.

October 13, 2011

First note

Categories: Close-up — Tags: , ,

What is the best note with which to introduce the keyboard and notation to a beginning piano student? Tradition and habit offer middle C as the automatic choice, and at first sight it has some clear advantages. After all, it’s the one note that you can play with either hand in the home position — at least when the home position is defined by having both thumbs on middle C. And that’s not all. Middle C is pivotal for notation, the bridge between the treble and bass staves, and a gateway to both. On the page, it’s easy to spot because there’s a line through it. And it’s just about right in the middle!

There are problems with middle C, however, that might send us in search of another candidate. To begin with, it’s the one note about which you have to worry which hand to use or which staff it’s on. Confusingly, it is drawn differently from the other notes. Even worse, it is not especially easy to locate on the keyboard: the white note to the left of the middle pair of black notes. Children’s often-dodgy sense of the difference between right and left can delay progress for significant minutes as this threshold is crossed.

But if not C, then what? Where else to turn?

C and D, side by sideIt’s actually not a hard choice. For recognition on the keyboard, the easy winner is D: smack between the middle pair of black keys, with no messing about. A child could find it. The distinctive position of D below the treble staff is also easy for the teacher to specify and the student to remember. In the home position, D falls under the index finger — the same one you use when you’re pointing at it. The index finger is easier for rank beginners to play with good hand posture than is the transversely-mounted thumb, whose proper use takes longer to develop.

Once D is known, the next step, to the left-hand B, symmetrically placed and notated, is easily taken. But then where next? Back to C? Not so fast. If I were to take up teaching again, I think I would be inclined to leave the thumbs idle at first and instead explore the other fingers in turn, if only as a way of avoiding the usual stale melodies for a while by excluding the C major scale. The thumbs would enter last, leading naturally into position shifts thereafter.

August 19, 2010

A look at NoteCard 3.2’s oversized piano keyboard control

Categories: Announcements, Close-up — Tags: ,
The on-screen piano control in NoteCard has an oversized mode in which the keyboard is wider than the NoteCard window.The available oversize keyboard control in NoteCard 3.2 comes as a bit of a visual shock, but will permit extra mousing accuracy.

This is the text of a press release: “Learning Musical Notes A Serious Pleasure With Notecard 3.2 (but satisfying user expectations needed literally out-of-the-box thinking, reveals developer)”.

AHA! Software has released a newly-enhanced version of its popular music education application, NoteCard, whose goal is to help even musical beginners achieve rapid but profound memorization of the musical notes. According to the developers, the new release retains NoteCard’s traditional focus on results, but continues an ongoing effort to make the software more approachable for users of all ages.

“We still have some great features in the pipeline for future cycles, but on this occasion we concentrated more on ease of use, and adapting to evolving user expectations”, says developer Nick Sullivan, who wrote the first version of NoteCard on a Commodore 64 computer in 1983, and has continued to extend and refine it ever since. “For instance, we had reports that some users found the keys on the onscreen keyboard to be just a bit too narrow for complete mousing accuracy. We suspect that in most cases this problem would probably have dissolved anyway after a little extra time spent with the program, but the fact remains that for some customers it made NoteCard less approachable.”

The goal of widening the onscreen piano turned out to pose a tricky design challenge, however. The piano keyboard already consumed nearly the full width of the NoteCard window. Widening it further would require either enlarging the window itself, or creating a new, independent window of the required size, but the designers were unenthusiastic about either option. Reconfiguring the main window seemed like overkill when the goal was to accommodate a single instrument. But giving the user the burden of a second window to manage was just as undesirable.

To resolve this design dilemma , the team decided that although a wider secondary window was necessary, physically detaching it from the main window was not. When the user selects the wider keyboard display in NoteCard 3.2, the keyboard appears simply to expand beyond its window borders. When the main window is moved, the keyboard window automatically moves along with it.

The resulting arrangement may raise some eyebrows for its lack of orthodoxy, says Nick Sullivan, but he predicts that users will adapt without difficulty. “It does look a bit odd right at first, as though NoteCard had suffered some sort of aneurysm. But then you see it behaving like a perfectly conventional window, one that just happens to stick out a bit at the sides, and you forget all about it.”

AHA! Software’s unvarying design ideal for the NoteCard software, easily stated though difficult to achieve, is to help users memorize the musical notes as efficiently as human brains will allow, and then recall them quickly and infallibly when needed.

“Note-reading is a prosaic skill”, says Sullivan. “It’s not essentially musical at all. But if you can read with speed and confidence from almost the very start, it’s a huge advantage. Many beginners spend far too much of their practice effort consciously decoding the notes. With NoteCard, note-reading becomes largely subconscious, as it is for an experienced player. That leaves the conscious mind free to deal with more important things, such as music.”

About the NoteCard software

NoteCard is a product of AHA! Software, distributed through AheadWithMusic.com. NoteCard can be operated either in Free Mode, at no cost, or in Paid Mode, with additional features, following a one-time payment of $19.75. Discounts are available for institutional and group purchases. NoteCard is available for laptop and desktop computers running Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7. Use of a MIDI instrument keyboard for note input is supported but not required.

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For information about topics covered in this release, or to schedule an interview with the creators of the NoteCard software, please contact us at news@aheadwithmusic.com.

August 4, 2010

The world in a small window

Categories: Close-up — Tags: , ,

The biggest new feature in version 1.9 of World Geography Tutor, which we’re rolling out this week at FamilyGames.com, is the optional larger view that is now supported. Some users have found WGT’s small window size a matter of curiosity since the app first came out back near the turn of the century, and admittedly it might seem like an odd choice. After all, is it not more convenient to work on a large, non-scrolling map if the monitor screen is big enough? Why doesn’t World Geography Tutor provide that option?

I’m not sure I’ve ever answered this question in public, though I’ve explained the reason often enough to individuals. In fact we particularly wanted the window to be small enough that the user would be required to scroll. The issue is not one of convenience, but of learning theory. On a fixed map, you might think you’re memorizing the location of The Gambia, but in fact your memorization is clouded by a detail that should be irrelevant but is irresistibly exploited by your memory as the new information is processed. That detail is the position of The Gambia on the display. On a fixed map, each country stays put with respect to the enclosing rectangle, be that a window boundary or a monitor screen, and that extra positional information is included in the new memory. While you remain at your computer, the added information, arbitrary though it is, will actually make recall easier. But it’s also a crutch. In an environment where the positional cue is absent — a conversation, say, or a test — recall won’t be nearly as good.

What you should really be doing is memorizing each country in the context of the shape of its containing land mass and the countries surrounding it on the map. It means far more to know that The Gambia is on the west side of Africa nested inside Senegal than that it is on the left side of the monitor screen two centimeters below the logo. On a scrolling map, your memory is compelled to depend more on the geographically-relevant cues, and the importance of the physical context is reduced. Since the learning goal is primary, we went with a scrolling map.

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