Photo: Chan2545 (Shutterstock)
I’ve been playing music games for the past 10 years and playing music-music for longer than that, and I’m fascinated with how much musicianship you can learn from playing video games. The answer is: Some, and in interesting ways.
I’m not in the camp of musicians who sneer at music games for not really teaching music, because Guitar Hero, et. al are actually good for teaching some basic skills—and great for keeping people interested in rocking out. No game is going to make anyone a good musician, but it might get one started on the path.
I’ve broken down the three main music video game franchises—Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Rocksmith—in terms of what they can teach you and what they can’t.
Guitar Hero: Better than nothing
The original Guitar Hero games are the least effective games at teaching actual music. On a real guitar, you play combinations of six strings on 22 or 24 frets. Guitar Hero controllers have the equivalent of one string and five frets. I haven’t done the math, but guitars have to be over a gajillion times more complex than controllers, so there’s not much transferable there.
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This isn’t to say you can’t learn anything about how to play guitar from Guitar Hero. Holding frets with one hand while strumming with the other gives you a basic sense of the limb independence needed to actually play a guitar, and it can teach you rhythm, too. Through repetition, Guitar Hero can help you internalize the beat in a way that practicing alone won’t. (Unless you religiously use a metronome, and we all know that no one does that.)
Band Hero, the Guitar Hero spin-off, includes a drum set, and has the same basic positives and negatives as Rock Band’s drum aspect detailed below.
Rock Band: Getting a little closer to real music
Rock Band’s musical instruments (guitars, keyboard, drums) offers more variety than Guitar Hero’s single instrument, and the keyboard and drum controllers are much closer to their real-world counterparts than guitar controllers.
The Rock Band keyboard controller is a two-octave keytar-style keyboard. On the highest “Pro Keys” difficulty, you’re more or less playing the notes in a song, or as close as you can get within the two-octave range. So you can actually learn keyboard parts on this instrument if you put in the time, but there are some major caveats.
Fingering: Rock Band does nothing to teach you how to play keyboards efficiently—there’s no guide on what fingers to use when. This can lock you into bad musical habits that will be difficult to break later. This isn’t that big a deal to me, but I’m only interested in banging out riffs in a garage techno band, not playing “serious” music.
Bass: One of the challenges of actually learning to play keyboards is incorporating the left hand, the bass part, with the right. “Real” piano instruction include both hands almost as soon as you start playing to get you in the habit but Rock Band doesn’t do left hand parts. A lot of real keyboard parts don’t either, to be fair.
Listening: Rock Band doesn’t let you hear what you’re actually playing. You’re largely triggering the music from the song through key presses, so the nuance is missing: Hold down a note too long, Rock Band won’t acknowledge it. Play some parts too loud and other too soft? It’s not going to be audible. Also: It’s a game, so the rhythmic “hit boxes” are forgiving—you can drag or lead the beat consistently and still score points, while having no idea that you’re not playing on time.
In terms of transferable skills, Rock Band drums are beginner-decent. The controller consists of four drum heads and a pedal that plays the bass drum. It feels like playing drums on an electronic kit because it is one: You can convert a Rock Band kit into functional electronic drum pads by soldering a few wires together.
But does it teach you to play drums? Kind of. The main goal of beginning drum players is developing your sense of rhythm, and Rock Band will drill “playing in time” into your body memory better than not playing Rock Band will, although it still lets you get away with playing sloppily.
Those are the drum positives. Here are the drum negatives.
Limb independence: Rock Band drums require three limbs; real drums require four. The game leaves out the foot you use for controlling your high-hat. So it’s definitely useful, but not all you need.
Technique: Rock Band (and Band Hero) do not teach drum mechanics: how to hold the sticks, how to control their bounce, etc. So you could easily ingrain hard-to-break bad habits you’ll later have to un-learn.
Listening: You really need to hear yourself when you play drums. Before you play with other people, you need to be able to control your volume and intensity and you need to know when you’re playing off time, even slightly, and Rock Band won’t let you do either of these. It won’t teach you to lock in with a bass player, nor how to drive the engine of a band. It will not teach you how to move into your girlfriend’s apartment because you were evicted from yours either, and real drummers need to know this.
Creativity: A friend of mine is a very good drummer, but he cannot play Rock Band drums to save his life, because the concept of playing the “right” drum at the “right” time is antithetical to how he approaches his instrument. Rock Band has no setting for “I’m playing awesome drums, just not the ones you tell me I should be playing.” Instead, it penalizes you for any kind of creativity. More on that below.
You don’t need a game or any lessons to learn to play bass guitar because it’s basically so easy it’s a joke. (Shots fired, bassists!)
Rocksmith: More serious; more learn-y
Ubisoft’s Rocksmith, and just-launched Rockstmith+ subscription service, straddle the line between “music lessons” and “game.” They contain interactive instructions, and some mini-games, but I’ll be focusing on the main game here—gamified music instruction is a different thing altogether from music games.
Rocksmith’s main game is basically Guitar Hero with a real guitar: You use any electric guitar or bass as the “controller,” and your scores are based on accuracy following the guitar or bass parts of thousands of songs. Because you’re playing a real guitar, Rocksmith is way more difficult to master than Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but once you’ve put in hundreds of hours, you could be playing the actual guitar part of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Overall, Rocksmith is great for beginners. When you’re starting out, playing guitar is awkward—it’s not a natural way to move your fingers, and the instrument feels weird to hold. Fluidity (and callouses) are only achieved through repetition, and Rocksmith will gradually teach you how to shape your fingers into chords to play songs, how to not mute the other strings, how to use a pick, and more. It will help you become comfortable holding and using a guitar, and all that transfers directly to playing music for real. Kind of.
Rocksmith’s main game won’t teach you any of the subtlety that separates good guitarists from bad ones—for that, you need to concentrate on how your technique affects how you sound, which is hard to do while you’re also trying not to fail out of a song in a video game.
That said, you can at least hear yourself playing guitar in Rocksmith, although you can also hear the guitar from the recorded music tracks. It’s disconcerting until you get used to it and/or fiddle with the levels so you’re loud enough to hear over the “band.” Beginners probably wouldn’t make these adjustments, because it would make them sound worse.
Then there’s the lag. I played Rocksmith on a console (PC is supposed to be better), and found that hitting a note and hearing it milliseconds later made the game nearly unplayable. I fixed it by splitting my guitar’s signal so I could hear myself from my own amp and still trigger the game, but this is not something I’d expect a beginner to even know they needed to do. I guess most new guitarists either give up in frustration or compensate for the lag through hitting notes too early—likely without even knowing they’re doing it. This is not good for playing in the real world.
Creativity is the missing ingredient in all these games
For me, the fun part of playing music is not memorizing and repeating the notes and patterns that make up a song; it’s getting together and making weird noises with my friends in a garage. Musical theory, practice, and technique are only tools for making the weird noises more interesting.
These games (especially Guitar Hero and Rock Band) are made to simulate the feeling of making music with your friends, and they’re great at that. They aren’t really designed to teach music, though, and shouldn’t be expected to. Players may pick up a few transferable skills along the way, but more importantly: There’s a generation of young guitarists who were inspired to pick up real instruments after mastering guitar controllers, and maybe that inspiration is the most important music lesson of all.
(Actually “learn to play in time” is the most important music lesson of all.)