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Exercising creativity

by June Kinoshita, Executive Director

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the importance of creativity. “Creativity is the skill of the future,” proclaims a 2018 article in Forbes. So many skills that were once essential for a livelihood have been replaced by machines, computers and now, AI. Artificial intelligence. What remains unique to people are personal histories, their embodied experience of the world, empathy, social intelligence, and originality.

Composing music is a fantastic way to exercise our creative muscle. It is about expressing a feeling or story in order to make a connection and evoke a reaction from the listener. Musical sounds are not necessarily representational, so you can invent your own sonic vocabulary. Music is wonderfully freeing because it is abstract. You can only judge it on its own terms. Is it pretty? That’s great. Does it set your teeth on edge? Intriguing! Does it fill you with emotions you can’t put name to? That’s powerful. 

Traditional music pedagogy puts up many barriers to composition. We designed Hyperscore to lower those barriers so that more people can have access to music as a creative pursuit. Technology can be a powerful ally of human curiosity and creativity. But we don’t want technology to replace activities that are meaningful to humans. It’s a delicate balance that we work hard to maintain with Hyperscore.

Because our roots lie in the MIT Media Lab, we are of course thinking about AI. In what ways can AI enhance musical creativity? In what ways could AI undermine it?

Curious to see how good AI is in another domain, writing, I tested the capabilities of ChatGPT, an AI-powered conversationalist. I asked it to “write a 100-word creative story about my cat Muji that makes some logical leaps.” Here’s what it came up with:

“Muji was an adventurous cat with a curious mind. She was always exploring her surroundings and getting into mischief. One day, while out on a walk, Muji spotted a bird perched on a tree branch. Without hesitation, she leapt into the air, determined to catch the bird. To her surprise, the bird flew away, leading Muji on a wild chase through the neighborhood. As she chased the bird, Muji made all sorts of creative leaps and bounds, jumping over fences and scampering up trees. Eventually, the bird led Muji to a beautiful garden where she was able to catch it and bring it home as a prize. Muji was proud of her catch and couldn’t wait to show it off to her humans.”

I would give this a B or C (if I were feeling cranky). It’s a serviceable story stitched together from clichés and a literal reading of “logical leap.” A real child would likely have injected more personality into their cat, sharing their pet’s singular quirks and inventing an adventure that would have surprised and amused the reader. 

I’m reassured that machine intelligence won’t pass the Turing Test for now, at least if it were pitted against a bright eight year old. That’s probably to be expected, because current AI systems are designed to trawl huge amounts of publicly posted factoids and phrases and come up with an anodyne result. (I do wonder how older students would do, after they have been pumped full of received wisdom, rubrics, and recipes for “correct” writing….) 

It wouldn’t surprise me if engineers are already working on AI systems designed to generate something unexpected when commanded to “think outside the box.” AI challenges us to ponder what each of us puts out into the world that is unique to the individual and adds value to others’ experience. Someday soon, AI will be able to simulate creativity. We will be forced to ask, is creativity the pinnacle of human endeavor? How will our definitions of creativity shift? What is the relationship between creativity and art? What is art in an age of ingenious machines? How might we envision worlds where we collaborate with these machines in transformational and truly equitable ways? That’s a topic for a future blog post…

Image credit: “Thinking outside the box, musically,” generated by DALL-E.

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Viva Vivaldi!

Have a joyful and musical New Year. We celebrate the universal spirit of music by sharing this exuberant rendition of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by a South African children’s marimba band. We love how these remarkable youths deliver this Western classic with virtuosity, musicality, and joy. They breathe new life into a piece that has been overplayed in formal concert halls and remind us of how much we all gain by sharing musical heritage across geographic, cultural, and generational lines. To more boundary breaking in 2023!

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Composing for video games

Composing music can be a pure pleasure for its own sake, but to motivate a classroom of learners, it is hugely helpful to set a goal. And what could be more fun than making music for something kids already love: video games!

We tried this idea out at our recent Second Saturdays Zoom workshop with David Casali. David presented three simple video games made by kids using Scratch. Scratch was created at the M.I.T. Media Lab, just like Hyperscore (literally across the hall). It’s a free, graphics-based programming language used by millions of children around the world who have amassed a vast, open-source trove of content, including animations and video games.

Composing for a few good games

Scratch offers a vast collection of kid-made video games. It would be overwhelming for students to search through them, so David suggests picking a few as prompts for a class. Here are the ones he chose. Each has a distinct feel. We picked Phroot Panda, in which the player has to catch pieces of fruit as they rain down from the sky.

“Frantic” and “busy” were some descriptive words for it. Putting himself in the mind of a fifth grader, David said the first thing he might do is set a fast tempo. We then went to work on the melody. Someone suggested a syncopated rhythm.

A Hyperscore melody window showing a basic syncopated rhythm on middle C.

Something jagged…

A Hyperscore melody window showing a melodic line that moves rapidly up and down with a syncopated rhythm.

We quite liked the jittery effect. Time to open a sketch window and start “painting” with this motif. We took this line for quite a hike…

A Hyperscore sketch window showing several lines moving up and down, some of them straight, some wobbly and some gently curved.

Definitely frenetic! Next we used the Harmony buttons to listen to our melody and settled on the Classical mode, tweaking the gray “harmony line” in the center to add harmonic tension and release. Peter added some punchy strings, ratcheting up the drama in the composition to match the game, and voila!

We downloaded the completed music as an MP3 file. David then showed us how to program the game to play to music. Here are David’s step by step instructions: Scratch Soundtrack Guide and Chant Remix on how to add a soundtrack to a Scratch program. You can watch the workshop in the video below and give a shot at composing music for your own games. Comments welcome!


Join in on the fun and spark your imagination for composing with Hyeprscore by registering for our Second Saturdays workshops!


We love having conversations about teaching to compose with Hyperscore. Come hang out with us at our monthly Zoom Office Hours!

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Taking a line (of music) for a walk

by June Kinoshita

The artist Paul Klee famously said that the art of drawing was like “taking a line for a walk.” What if you could take a line of music for a walk? That’s just what it felt like when we held our first-ever composing workshop over Zoom.

We were not at all sure how our experiment would work out. A group of us popped onto Zoom on November 12 at the appointed time (10:30 a.m. ET). Because we didn’t know how many participants would have Hyperscore running on their computers, we decided to take a collaborative approach. Peter shared his screen and the group proceeded to build a piece of music together.

We started with the percussion window in 4/4. To get things going, I proposed a bass drum on each quarter note to establish a steady pulse. We each took turns adding a new percussion line: a cymbal on the fourth sixteenth-note of each beat, another as a quarter note on the fourth beat, then a high-hat on the second and fourth beats. Each time we added a layer, we listened and discussed whether we liked what we were hearing. Once the percussion track had achieved a satisfying density, we played with the tempo and settled on a moderate speed that had a pleasing swing to it.

A Hyperscore percussion window four beats long with purple note droplets arranged on some of the instrument tracks
Percussion window with drum and cymbal notes

Once we were satisfied with the percussion track, we moved onto the melody. Lisa P. hummed a two-measure melody which Peter noted down in the Melody Window. After a few tweaks, he captured the tune perfectly with its subtle syncopation. What instrument should play it? A tenor saxophone felt like a good fit for the melody’s soulful, gently melancholy vibe.

A Hyperscore melody window with six purple note droplets filling two measures
Melody window with a syncopated tenor saxophone tune

With a melody (orange) and rhythm (red) in our “toolbox,” it was time to go to the Sketch Window. First, we took the orange line for a simple stroll, a straight line on middle C for two bars. Then we decided to jump it up an octave. After two bars of that, we added a second orange line underneath it to add harmony. We then took the orange line down a hill, from high C to low C. Halfway down the hill, another orange line came along and decided to head in the opposite direction, up the hill. It felt like time to add percussion, so we laid in a flat red line like a rock-steady floor. Two bars in, a yellow line joined in…a simple descending bass line that Peter had whipped up. 

A polyphonic Hyperscore melody window two measures long with four descending chords
Melody window with descending chords for use as a bass line

We quite liked where this was going, but we wondered how the descending orange line would sound if we imposed a bit of harmonic structure to it. Classical mode converted our soulful melody into C major—all wrong! General harmony worked well for the sloping orange parts but robbed the original theme of its specialness. Peter then showed us a cool trick. He could select sections and turn off the harmony function, restoring the original. That was fantastic, as we could now preserve melodies that we wanted to keep exactly as written, while allowing other parts of our piece to “collaborate” with Hyperscore’s machine intelligence. 

And that, folks, is how you take a line of music out for a walk.

If you have a basic subscription to Hyperscore, you can find our little opus on the Community board (“Composing Workshop 1”). If you want to remix it, just give it a new name and it will be saved to your account. To share it with the community, just make sure to check the “share” box. 

Our Second Saturdays workshop is held on—surprise!—the second Saturday of each month at 10:30 AM US ET over Zoom. Everyone from anywhere is welcome to join. Just register for the series to receive the link.

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Accelerated learning for music

by June Kinoshita, Executive Director, New Harmony Line

“Next time you hear the phrase learning loss, think about whether we really want to define our students by their deficits instead of their potential.” – Ron Berger, “Our Kids Are Not Broken,” The Atlantic

As schools navigate the post-lockdown world, educators are turning to “accelerated learning” as a method to make up the ground lost over the past two years. But this moment can be about so much more than clawing back lost time. This is also a moment to open our minds to new possibilities. “Acceleration does not mean assigning some students to remediation while others are allowed to fly,” writes Ron Berger, senior advisor of teaching and learning at EL Education. “Accelerating learning means moving students into exciting new academic challenges with a growth mindset for their potential.” 

An accelerated learning approach for music education is precisely what we are championing through the use of HyperscoreTM and our “inverted pedagogy.”

Hyperscore is an intuitive, graphical composition tool developed at the M.I.T. Media Laboratory by composer Tod Machover and a team of musician-engineers with deep knowledge of composition, music theory, artificial intelligence, and interface design. Hyperscore has been used in Machover’s Toy Symphony and City Symphony projects, in which hundreds of school children composed original music that was incorporated into symphonic works. These children have heard their work performed by major orchestras including the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Toronto Symphony, and Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

In these projects, we saw how Hyperscore completely shifted the relationship between children and professional musicians. This technology, in the hands of creative, inspired teachers and mentors, empowered children to share their stories and experiences through music. The children were treated with respect, their voices validated.

How Hyperscore works

In the Hyperscore environment, melodic motifs are created by “dropping” dots and lines in a “melody window,” a grid in which the vertical axis represents pitch and the horizontal axis represents time. Motifs are assigned a color, and then that color “pen” is used to draw a contour in a “sketch window.” The position of the line changes the pitch of the motif. Multiple motifs can be layered and combined to build more complex musical structures. A horizonal “harmony line” can be dragged up and down to create harmonic tension, release, and modulation. The user can also impose classical western harmony on the composition with the click of a button.

“My students absolutely loved creating their own songs with ease,” enthused Jenn Stiegelmeyer, the General Music teacher at Wickham Elementary in Coralville, Iowa, who tested Hyperscore in her classroom this past spring. “The program made sense to them right away and they felt very successful from day one. They came into class excited and ready to get started, and they often wanted to share their creations.”

“Hyperscore represents a quantum leap—rather as if someone could speak in a foreign language simply by deciding what one wanted to say and using one’s body in a natural way,” says Howard Gardner, the cognitive psychologist renowned for his theory of “multiple intelligences.”

Putting creativity first

Embodied in Hyperscore is a different philosophy about teaching creativity and engaging children in music. It’s a playground for kids to experiment, go crazy, have fun, and then the teacher can guide a conversation about what they just did. How does that make you feel? Why do you think that is? What could you change to get a different effect? What’s the story you want to tell? Let’s think about how we can do that.

How does this fit in with accelerated learning? According to a Carnegie Corporation report, accelerated learning includes:

  • Deeper learning through complex and meaningful problems and projects;
  • Prioritizing high-level skills and content and creating teaching and learning pathways;
  • Access to grade-level content despite the absence of some knowledge and skills from previous grades;
  • Identifying the most crucial knowledge and skills that students need and integrating those into lessons;
  • A long-range plan, building on a foundation of assets, not deficiencies;
  • Assuming all students can learn literally anything with the right instruction and support.

In the hands of teachers who understand its capabilities, Hyperscore meets all of these criteria. It empowers users to compose deeply personal, original music. What could be more complex and meaningful? Hyperscore prioritizes high-level skills, such as constructing a sonic journey, which then opens pathways to teaching about underlying ideas such as pitch, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint. Because it starts at the high level and “back fills” basics concepts as needed, students won’t get left behind. The ideas and skills students need become naturally integrated into work on their composition, in the service of a goal that is personally rewarding.

Composing with Hyperscore enables an empathetic educator to recognize each student’s assets—their singular stories, their unique experiences and feelings—and celebrate and validate them. It doesn’t matter if the student does not know a quarter note or a key signature at the outset. They will learn it when they have a reason to do so.

Set your imagination on fire

For educators who have not previously taught music composition, or even composed themselves, the prospect of coaching a group of students to compose can be daunting. Even for those who have taught composition, it may not come naturally to overturn their traditional training. Recognizing these hurdles, the team behind Hyperscore has developed a variety of tools and resources. These include:

  • Short video tutorials on Hyperscore basics;
  • Teaching modules which map to national arts standards and can be customized for different grades;
  • Monthly office hours on Zoom for Q&A with the Hyperscore team. Educators who are new to teaching composition to students can learn tips for running creative composing workshops for different ages and backgrounds.
  • Virtual, one-hour workshops in which anyone—educators, students, the general public—can dive into creative composing experiences in a supportive, judgement-free environment.

Hyperscore is a versatile, flexible tool that serves a broad range of backgrounds and musical genres. It brings a fun, game-like element to a variety of teaching methods and curriculums. But Hyperscore truly soars when teachers recognize its unique capabilities as tool that empowers children to explore self-expression and musical storytelling.

Our mission, ultimately, is to transform individuals’ relationship to music. When children are given the opportunity to create music, they will start to experience music in a deeper, more personal way. They will begin to venture beyond what’s popular, what’s the latest earworm, and start to discern the intention behind many different types of music. When children are given the tools to find their voice, they will also be better able to hear what other voices are trying to say.

Take away the barriers that we put in the way of young people, give them permission and space to create music, and support them in drawing out their authentic voices. The results may be among the most rewarding learning experiences they, and you, will ever have.

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Kids build a musical bridge with Hyperscore

From our archives. This story about the 2012 “A to A: A World in Harmony” concert in Yerevan, Armenia, is a testament to the power of Hyperscore to foster powerful collaborations.

The opulent Armenian Opera Theater in the heart of Armenia’s capital Yerevan will reverberate with some truly fresh sounds on the evening of February 25, 2012, as two of Armenia’s elite musical ensembles dig into new pieces composed entirely by children from Armenia and the United States. The concert features the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and DOGMA, one of the country’s most popular rock bands. The event is co-sponsored by the LUYS Education Foundation and the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan to celebrate the embassy’s 20th anniversary.

Despite the composers’ youth – they range in age from 8 to 14 – their work is rich and rewarding to hear, thanks to the boost their musical imaginations received from Hyperscore, a music-creation software developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab by a team led by renowned composer Tod Machover. Hyperscore puts unprecedented composing power into the hands of people who long to express themselves musically, regardless of their formal training. More than that, Hyperscore turns out to be an exceptional tool for collaborative creativity. One of the pieces receiving its world premiere at the Yerevan event was jointly composed by children in Boston and Armenia.

Musical composition is usually imagined to spring from the minds of geniuses toiling in splendid isolation. But for the youngsters visiting the Media Lab earlier this month, the composing process was more like a cyber paintball game. Color-coded splashes of melodies and beats popped up on a large flat-screen monitor as a half-dozen students from the Armenian Sisters’ Academy in Lexington, MA, traded ideas over a Skype connection with their counterparts in a classroom 8,700 kilometers away in Yerevan.

Under Machover’s deft direction, the students launched into creating their new piece by humming melodies and tapping out rhythms, which were notated using Hyperscore. The screen quickly filled up with melodic ideas, or ‘motifs’, and a percussion sequence. The kids then started assembling their composition. “Do you want the piece to start with a big explosion, or something quieter?” Machover asked. Something quiet, the kids agreed. A motif was selected and “drawn” onto the digital canvas. A second pensive motif was introduced, and then it was time to bring in some livelier motifs to wake things up.

“How do you tell a story through music? How could we keep this moving, keep it building?” Machover urged. The kids started piling on layers, made a motif swing high and swoop low, tried out various harmonic configurations… and they were out of time. In one hour, they had put together the first minute of their piece. After a few more sessions, they completed a short but complex and fascinating work which they titled “Frenzy of Friendship”, ready to be orchestrated and sent to the Armenian Phil for its world premiere.

“We usually think of music as belonging to a special elite who have unique powers to create it and share it,” Machover says. “Hearing these exciting new pieces by young people renews my conviction that anyone can create original, valuable music given the right tools, environment and encouragement, and that through music we can build friendships, share individual visions, and enhance life’s meaning.”

To Jacqueline Karaaslanian, Executive Director of the LUYS Education Foundation, this is a perfect example of harnessing technology to spur creativity and collaboration. The foundation was established by Armenia’s President Serjh Sargsyan and Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan to transform the nation by raising the quality of education and infusing the country’s youth with a “can do” attitude.

“Hyperscore wakes up the genius within children and instills in them a desire to better understand a whole universe of worlds they had not previously imagined or considered,” Karaaslanian explains. “When children know that their elders and professionals will play their music, they are empowered. This process is beyond encouraging words; it validates children as thinkers and creators.” And that, she says, is vital for any nation that expects to thrive in our rapidly changing and interconnected world.

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Hyperscore enables “Amazing accomplishment”

As we reported previously, Hyperscore is being used by hundreds of school children in Toronto this fall to compose music for Tod Machover’s “A Toronto Symphony” project. How has it worked in practice? We found out last Friday when Tod met with around 300 kids gathered with their teachers on the campus of Toronto’s College Français. There to witness the occasion was Musical Toronto‘s John Terauds. He writes:

Hyperscore offers synthesized audio output of its own, but orchestrated by a real composer and played by the excellent young musicians on stage, these miniature compositions from pint-sized composers sounded remarkably sophisticated.

Here is one example, from Broadlands P.S. student Nebyou. What you see on the projection is the Hyperscore screen. The crazy doodle is the composition. The music is being played by members of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra:

Terauds says, “I have to admit that the ease with which the user becomes a creator worries me, because it feels too easy. Part of me considers this to be a form of pseudo creation, that only the careful application of pencil (and eraser) to notation paper is real creation.”

But the results have convinced him otherwise:

These children, many of whom I’m sure haven’t had any lessons music theory, were truly and fully engaged with the act of creating music.

Isn’t that what we all dream of?

The fact that their work will eventually find itself performed on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall seems almost superfluous after this amazing accomplishment.

Read John Teraud’s full post here: Toronto school children become engaged composers in Toronto Symphony experiment

Empower kids to tell their stories through music. Set their creativity free with your support!

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