Guitar Hero as a Form of Scaffolding

October 29, 2009 at 9:52 am 13 comments

My daughter turned 12 on Tuesday, and unfortunately, she was ill.  Dad hung out with her, and played whatever video games she wanted.  One of those she picked was Guitar Hero, so I finally got time to play it repeatedly.  Y’know — it was kind of fun!

Back in December, when I first got Guitar Hero, I wrote a blog post where I agreed with Alan that Guitar Hero is not nearly as good as learning a real musical instrument.  At that time, I wrote:

Guitar Hero might still be fun.  But it’s just fun.  I might learn to do well with it.  But it would be learning that I don’t particularly value, that makes me better.

Now I’m thinking that I might want to eat those words.  I found Guitar Hero hard.  I own a guitar and have taken guitar lessons for two semesters.  (Even putting it in terms of “semesters” suggests how long ago it was.)  Some of my challenges in learning to play a guitar included doing two different things with my hands, and switching chords and strumming to keep the rhythm.  I noticed that that’s exactly what I was having a hard time doing with Guitar Hero.  I also noticed the guitar parts of rock songs — songs that I had heard a million times before but never had noticed all the guitar parts previously. I noticed because I missed my cues, and so those guitar parts were missing.  While I have known Foghat and Pat Benatar for literally decades, Guitar Hero had me listening in a different way.

It occurred to me that Guitar Hero could be a form of scaffolding, a reduction in cognitive load that allows one to focus on one set of skills before dealing with all the skills at once.  Cognitive scaffolding is much like the physical scaffolding, “a temporary support system used until the task is complete and the building stands without support.”  Now, Guitar Hero would only be successful as a form of scaffolding if it actually leads to the full task, that it doesn’t supplant it.  In education terms, if Guitar Hero could fade and if it doesn’t lead to negative transfer, e.g., “I’m great at Guitar Hero, but a real guitar is completely different.”

I did some hunting for studies that have explored the use of Guitar Hero to scaffold real music education.  I could not find any educational psychology or music education studies that have explored Guitar Hero as a form of scaffolding or as a tutor to reduce cognitive load.  I did find papers in music technology that hold up Guitar Hero as a model for future educational music technology! My favorite of these is a paper by Percival, Wang, and Tzanetakis that provides an overview of how multimedia technolgoies are being used to assist in music education.  They point out additional lessons that students are learning with tools like Guitar Hero that I hadn’t noticed.  For example, the physical effort of playing an instrument is more significant than non-players realize, and Guitar Hero (and similar tools) build up the right muscles in the right ways (or so they theorize — no direct studies of Guitar Hero are cited).  The paper also argues that getting students to do something daily has a huge impact on music learning and performance, even if it’s a tutorial activity.

Now here’s the critical question: Does Guitar Hero lead to real music playing, or is it a stopping point?  Nobody is arguing that playing Guitar Hero is making music, that I can see.  Does it work as scaffolding?

I don’t know, but I’m now wondering: Does it matter?  If Guitar Hero stops some people from becoming musicians, then it is a problem.  If some people, who might have pushed themselves to become musicians, decide that Guitar Hero is hard enough, then Guitar Hero is doing a disservice.  But if that’s not true, and people who never would become musicians, have a better appreciation for the music and a better understanding of the athleticism of musicians because of Guitar Hero, then Guitar Hero is providing a benefit.

These are computing education questions.  You have all heard faculty who insist on using Eclipse in their introductory classes, because that’s what real software engineers use.  We have recently read in comments on this blog that students should use “standard tools” and “learn science the way scientists understand it.”  We also know from educational psychology that engaging introductory students in the same activity as experts only works for the best students.  The bottom half of the students get frustrated and fail.

We need Guitar Hero for computer science.  We need more activities that are not what the experts do, that are fun and get students to practice more often, that are scaffolding, and that reduce cognitive load.  We have some, like Scratch and eToys.  We need more. Insisting on the experts’ tools for all students leads to the 30-50% failure rates that we’re seeing today.  We have to be doing more for the rest of the students.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. keith  |  October 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I wish I had some friends at Fender or Gibson to confirm my intuition that guitar sales are *way* up since guitar hero appeared, but here a few indicators:

    Guitar sales are up (according to the CEO of activision, not the most unbiased source).

    A study in the UK on the impact of music games on real instruments:

    “The Youth Music research found that of the 12 million under-16s in the UK, 19% (or 2.5 million young people) said they now play an instrument because they were inspired to do so after playing a music-based console game.”

    Concerning the “pianos versus stereos” analogy — sometimes stereos (or at least turn-tables) can be pianos. Tools aren’t creative, people are.

  • […] Continue reading here: Guitar Hero as a Form of Scaffolding « Computing Education Blog […]

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  October 29, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I wonder if a game like Guitar Hero forces people to actually listen more to the music? I mean in a deeper way that causes them to understand what is happening rather than just absorb it. Sort of seeing the trees and not just the forest.
    As for the professional tools in CS, I was talking to a senior manager at work a couple of years ago and he pointed out that as we moved the tools up, making things easier for professionals to do the hard things, we were also making them too complex for beginners to do the easy things. The conversation was in the context of how to help students move from beginner tools (scratch, Alice, etc) up to professional level tools without losing them. Today Alice is moving towards making Alice projects convertable to java ones. The latest version of Small Basic allows students to “graduate” to Visual Basic .NET projects. So people are thinking about the problem. But to some extent the beginner tools delay the problem of professional complexity rather than completely solve it. Of course the hope is that they hook people so they are willing to make the jump. Does it work? Some indications are yes but it could be better.

  • 4. Darrin Thompson  |  October 29, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    If you thought guitar was hard, try the drums. That pedal on the floor will turn your brain inside out. It will hurt you.

    Regarding the effect of the game, I played Piano well enough for church for years. I found the game to be stimulating and fun. The drum parts are the most fun for me because they are challenging in a more realistic way. But I came to the exact same conclusion as you. No that’s not a real guitar, but those are very realistic rhythms you are strumming. It’s crazy to discount that kind of practice.

    Glad you came around.

    Totally looking forward to Lego Rock Band in Indianapolis.

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  October 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I think Guitar Hero is likely a scaffolding for something, and maybe paying attention a little more to the music instead of using it as a background soporific is a plus.

    I seriously doubt that it is a very good scaffolding for learning to play the guitar (this is from having been a professional jazz guitarist for 10 years, and a guitar teacher of both adults and children).

    The idea that the physical demands of GH help playing regular guitar is false and ludicrous.

    The notion that guitar sales are going up has anything to do with actually learning to play guitar misses how people buy things as symbols (e.g. they have determined that most people who bought “A Short History of Time” bought it to have it, but they didn’t open it).

    A much better scaffold for all musical instrument learning would be technological aids for helping and encouraging people learn how to sing better and to listen to themselves better. (All playing is actually singing through an instrument.)

    Certain kinds of dancing also are great scaffolding — and also certain kinds of drumming (c.f. the Arthur Hull “Drum Circles” stuff).

    Another kind of scaffolding that would help in all manner of learning would be environments that help people focus and concentrate with much less of the pain than most seem to suffer. A really basic process in all kinds of deep learning involves decoupling day by day anxiety about goals and “am I getting closer?” in favor of “just slogging away” with just enough critical notice to improve small errors and letting the longer term learning mechanisms do their thing.

    Best wishes,


  • 6. Jim Huggins  |  October 29, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    If Guitar Hero stops some people from becoming musicians, then it is a problem. If some people, who might have pushed themselves to become musicians, decide that Guitar Hero is hard enough, then Guitar Hero is doing a disservice.

    Ahh … but what kind of musicians would we be dissuading? Musicians know all too well the people who are self-proclaimed musicians, but even after years of instruction can’t carry a tune. Regrettably, many of those people don’t know that they can’t carry a tune, because it’s impolite to tell them so. (And when you pay someone to give you lessons, there’s little incentive for the teacher to tell you that you don’t have the talent and to stop taking lessons.) If Guitar Hero discourages those kinds of folks, perhaps it’s doing a service for all sorts of musicians … and listeners of music alike.

    [slaps face; alternate ego steps in]

    But wait? How do we know exactly what kind of people we’re dissuading from being musicians? Aren’t we just dissuading people who don’t like video games? Isn’t the concern above more about those few people who go on to becoming professional musicians? Isn’t there a place in the world for musicians who just enjoy music? Shouldn’t we be trying to bring more people into music, not fewer?

    [slaps face again]

    Yeah, you’re right … this sounds an awful lot like the computing education debates.

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  October 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm

      Very nice, Jim — I think you nailed the analogy.

  • 8. Darrin Thompson  |  October 29, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Oh, and regarding the CS tools:

    Why won’t you just let them use Vim? And eat cake?

  • 9. Owen Astrachan  |  November 1, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Red Herring Alert,

    Guitar Hero…Eclipse?

    Why not throw the baby out with the bath water. Many students have used Eclipse with great success for years. Kids learn to use Microsoft word in second grade. Maybe that’s not the best thing, but the idea that they’re failing English because of the tools is, to me, preposterous. You can use Eclipse without all the bells and whistles. Using an approach like Dr.X or Bluejay is fine, everyone should be able to use the tool they want without experts telling them that the problem is in their choice of tool.

    Or you get posts like the last one, perhaps tongue in cheek, but it’s back to the ViVEmacs (that’s vi v emacs) debates/discussion.

    Live by the tool, die by the tool.

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  November 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

      What I’m pushing against in this post is the selection of a tool for students because it’s what the experts use. Maybe the tool works great for students, too. KSC is explicitly arguing that the evidence they describe suggests that a simpler tool than what experts use leads to the same learning in less time. I don’t have any evidence about Eclipse. I do suggest that picking it because experts use it is a bad idea, and rejecting more scaffolded environments because they’re not what experts use is a bad idea. Guitar Hero is not what experts use. That is not, in itself, a reason to reject it.

      • 11. owen astrachan  |  November 1, 2009 at 12:59 pm

        Ok, agreed. We didn’t choose Eclipse because experts use it, nor did we choose Java because of who used it. We chose Eclipse because it was open source and we could modify it to suit our needs, develop plugins, etc. We didn’t evaluate environments to see which was more appropriate in terms of usability/learnability. Eclipse is good enough.


  • 12. Bill Leahy  |  November 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I think Guitar Hero is a plot by the Japanese to turn our kids into mindless zombies. While the Japanese children are learning to play the violin at an early age they have supplied our children with a pretend guitar. Maybe supplied is the wrong word. We had to buy it! And please note: I have nothing but the deepest respect and warmest feelings for the people of Japan.

    • 13. Alfred Thompson  |  November 1, 2009 at 2:14 pm

      Nice theory Bill except that the company that created the game and the company that has since bought that company are both American companies. 🙂


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