Game-based learning, or the process of adapting an educational concept into a game-based structure, has been studied by researchers for nearly a century. Over the last several decades, new technologies have allowed digital media to create a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry commonly known as video games. Video games have become a tool for many educators who have the potential to engage students to learn musical concepts and skills.

The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of digital game-based learning in comparison to other teaching methods for music education and to explore the perspectives of young students regarding video games both in school and in their personal lives. Eighty-two (n = 82) fifth- and sixth-grade students in a northeastern U.S. elementary school completed a study consisting of a pretest/posttest control group design.

Results showed that students who had access to educational video games combined with the assistance of an instructor achieved higher mean scores than students who had access to either video games without instruction or instruction without video games. These findings suggested that educational video games may potentially be used as an effective tool in the music classroom to teach musical concepts and skills.

Teachers must continuously adapt their instructional methods to fit the needs of their students in an ever-changing world. Digital technology has become an indispensable aspect of life in the twenty-first century, and children are growing up with digital media as an integral part of their development. In addition, researchers have shown that video games are a source of engagement and motivation among students.1

Although increasing empirical evidence points to the benefits of digital game-based learning, the educational community remains generally reluctant to develop strategies for embracing video games as a source of instruction.2 This may be due to the minimal amount of research into the educational effects of video games, a situation that has been described as “disappointing, lamentable, and inconclusive.”3

Music education has been the focus of several studies in digital game-based learning; the majority of these studies, however, have been conducted on university students with non-educational, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games.4 Other studies have focused solely on the ability of music performance video games to increase motivation in students to pursue more formal instruction in music without accounting for the games' ability to teach musical knowledge or skills.5

The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of video games specifically designed to teach musical knowledge and skills in an elementary school classroom environment. Selected games were compared with more conventional instructional methods, including discussion- and performance-based formats, to ascertain their effectiveness in reaching educational objectives.

Game-based learning, defined as the incorporation of game design elements within non-game educational contexts,6 is an emerging source of new and innovative opportunities for educational practices.7 Within the last thirty years, game-based learning has been applied using the medium of computer technology, specifically through the use of digital media. Researchers exploring the benefits and shortcomings of digital game-based learning have stated that although video games have not been fully embraced by educators as a viable tool in the classroom, the influence of the video game industry is growing at a rapid rate.8 The Entertainment Software Association estimated that 64% of U.S. households have at least one person who plays video games for three or more hours each week. Its reports also stated that consumers spent a total of $30.4 billion on games in 2016, and $36 billion on games in 2017.9, 10

The evidence suggests that the video game industry will continue to thrive and grow within the foreseeable future. It is also likely that young students' ability to manipulate technology will increase, given the exponential rate at which it is being developed.11 These seemingly irreversible trends have propelled video games to become highly accessible and enjoyable across a multitude of ages, demographics, and cultures.

The educational implications of video games can be used to provide new and engaging opportunities for students spanning a variety of academic disciplines.12 Games can elicit an intense interest that induces learners to think creatively, persist in challenging tasks, and connect educational objectives to relevant, meaningful goals that transcend the boundaries of the classroom. The application of video game technology to music instruction may potentially assist in the development of knowledge and skills while remaining cost-effective and technologically user-friendly for music teachers.13

Research focusing specifically on video games in music education has been considerably sparse when taking into account the increasing amount of digital media available for learning activities. Music production software such as sequencers (GarageBand, Mixcraft), notational programs (Finale, Sibelius), and audio editors (Audacity) can be used to create music technology environments in the classroom by using just one computer, a few computers, or an entire network of computers. iPads have also become available to educators, and their portability can assist in providing greater accessibility.14 Even though the availability of these technological resources has increased significantly in recent decades, examinations of video games that are solely designed to teach musical concepts and skills in the music classroom have been relatively meager by comparison.

A large majority of research determining the effectiveness of video games has been conducted using COTS games, or games solely designed for entertainment rather than educational purposes.15 The popularity of the music performance genre has led many music educators to explore the pedagogical implications of using COTS games in the classroom. Supporters of integrating music performance COTS games into the music curriculum claim that playing these games may increase rhythmic and aural musical skills such as beat matching in various meter patterns, sight reading, and focused listening.16 Although these games are not designed to reinforce musical concepts, the potential of these games to meet educational objectives merits further investigation.17

Music educators and researchers have attempted to create their own pedagogical video game technology that mirrors the effects of COTS games. A game called Lipa's Festival consisting of Super Mario Bros.–type levels was proposed to teach chordal structures in jazz arrangements.18 The player would select the correct chord as part of an animation where multiple choices scroll downward on the screen. Though experimental designs could suggest evidence of the game's ability to teach musical concepts, there is currently no substantiation that the game currently exists, nor are there any other sources of research referencing that specific game.

There are several similar examples of games designed to teach musical skills and knowledge.19 For example, PlaySingMusic, developed by Elmorex Ltd. in 2000, required the player to sing so that an animated character would stay on a predetermined path in sync with the music. Tafelkids: The Quest for Arundo Donax mirrored the gameplay of the Guitar Hero series, though presented with Baroque music,20 and a Swedish program named Feel-ME tasked the player with recording several different performances of a guitar melody to match a sequence provided by the computer.21

While all the research studies involving these games showed participants' increased motivation to play, there was no evidence to suggest that the games could teach musical concepts and skills more effectively than other instructional methods. In addition, all the studies cited were completed outside of the United States, and none of these games are commercially available. The participants were also tested in laboratory settings; no mention of real-world applications or testing in a natural learning environment was suggested. If video game technology applied to music education is to gain credibility, then future studies must demonstrate the relevance and reliability of video game technology in the classroom in empirical settings.

Current research is addressing the teaching ability of games specifically designed to foster musical concepts and skills. Programs such as Rocksmith go beyond mere entertainment by interfacing with a real musical instrument, unlike the Guitar Hero series.22 Development of these types of games, however, is still at an early stage compared to research focused on creation software such as GarageBand or Audacity.23 Music technologies, including video games, are becoming more accepted as digital natives grow older and enter the teaching profession.24

METHOD

To address the question of educational video games as an effective source of learning musical concepts and skills, an investigation was conducted by comparing the classroom use of video games specifically designed for this function with other teaching formats. Participants were recruited from the fifth and sixth grades of an elementary school located in southern New Jersey. Due to mobility rate and number of forms collected, a total of eighty-two participants completed the study, thirty-four fifth graders and forty-eight sixth graders (n = 82). The roster of each fifth- and sixth-grade class had been previously sorted by the school administration into separate classes prior to beginning of the experimental design.

The study commenced in September 2017 with approval from the participant district's board of education and school principal. Parent/guardian consent forms were then sent out through district mail; students submitting both a Parental Consent Form and Student Assent Form were considered for the study. The study began in January 2018 after the winter holiday break.

Classes were randomly assigned to one of three groups that were given instruction in different formats by the same teacher.25 One group exclusively used video games on iPads as instructional tools, a control group did not have access to any video game technology, and a hybrid group combined both of these formats.

The iPad group contained students who used iPad video game applications for the entire class session (n = 30). Limited instructions, save for a brief operating tutorial, were given by a single instructor; students were then allowed to work independently with little to no teacher guidance. Instruction on how to manipulate each game was presented as a built-in tutorial, though assistance was given by the instructor as needed for students who were having trouble playing the game as opposed to progressing through the game itself.

The control or non-technology group did not have access to the iPad games and was instructed directly by the teacher for the duration of the lesson (n = 23). In-class activities involved class discussion, lecture, and composition and performance of original musical works based on the instructional objective of each lesson.

The hybrid group involved aspects of both iPads and non-technology (n = 29). The first half of each instructional session was whole-class, lecture, and discussion-based format. The second half consisted of access to the iPad games, where the instructor offered assistance as needed.

Students in each group completed a pretest/posttest control group design, the results of which were concealed from the students during the course of the study. The pretest/posttest was divided into three categories: aural perception (pitch matching), rhythmic perception (beat matching), and pitch/rhythm identification (see  Appendix A). All students were administered the same test and allotted twenty minutes to complete the exam.

Assessment objectives of the pretest/posttest were designed around the New Jersey Visual and Performing Arts Standards 1.1.5.B.1 and 1.1.5.B.2 and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Standards MU:Pr4.2.5.a, MU:Pr4.2.5.b, and MU:Pr4.2.6.b, as displayed in Table 1.

TABLE 1.

State and National Standards Assessed in the Study

StandardDescription
NJ 1.1.5.B.1 Identify the elements of music in response to aural prompts and music notation. 
NJ 1.1.5.B.2 Demonstrate the basic concepts of music notation and differentiate structures. 
MU:Pr4.2.5.a Demonstrate understanding of the structure and elements of music. 
MU:Pr4.2.5.b Read and perform using standard music notation. 
MU:Pr4.2.6.b Read and identify by name standard symbols for rhythm and pitch. 
StandardDescription
NJ 1.1.5.B.1 Identify the elements of music in response to aural prompts and music notation. 
NJ 1.1.5.B.2 Demonstrate the basic concepts of music notation and differentiate structures. 
MU:Pr4.2.5.a Demonstrate understanding of the structure and elements of music. 
MU:Pr4.2.5.b Read and perform using standard music notation. 
MU:Pr4.2.6.b Read and identify by name standard symbols for rhythm and pitch. 

Students met in music class for three lessons, with one lesson per forty-minute class session, once every six school days. Each lesson consisted of exercises promoting the state-standard skills in each individual experimental group. Lessons were based on skills and knowledge presented as part of the normal elementary General Music curriculum, as approved by the participating district's board of education.

Students in the iPad group manipulated preselected iPad video game applications designed to teach these skills and knowledge. (Additional iPads were available in the event of technical difficulties.) These applications consisted of the following games:

  • Rhythm Cat: Requires the player to tap the screen in the correct rhythm as the displayed score, shown in music notation.

  • Flashnote Derby: Various pitches appear on the screen, which the player must identify.

  • Staff Wars: Notes scroll across the screen in either treble, bass, or alto clef, depending on which clef the player chooses before the beginning of the game.

  • Blob Chorus: This ear-training app matches different individual pitches sung by “blobs” to one pitch sung by “King Blob.” Players must match the correct pitch to receive a higher score.

These specific games were chosen based on recommendations from members of the New Jersey chapter of Technology In: Music Education (TI:ME) and available for purchase on the Apple App Store. They were selected on criteria that included how each individual game conformed to the New Jersey Visual and Performing Arts and NAfME standards. This involved whether the application possessed an embedded assessment within the game's structure and its ability to provide a real-time instant feedback scoring system. Other considerations included the game's user-friendliness; ease of use; challenge level; and the potential enjoyment factor stemming from gameplay, graphics, sound, and overall thematic concept.

Rhythm Cat, Blob Chorus, Staff Wars, and Flashnote Derby all contained the same design constructs of giving negative feedback when students failed to show mastery over the game's challenges. Rhythm Cat's rating construct prevented students from moving on to the next level until they attained at least two stars.

Blob Chorus's system of promoting mastery through competence consisted of a numerical scoring system that was updated every time a player made a selection. Every correct selection resulted in gaining one point, while an incorrect answer lost one point. At the conclusion of ten rounds, a final score was displayed, along with an overall percentage of correct answers. Although there was no preventing students from customizing how many pitches they could choose from (anywhere from two to eight), many students were observed to not increase the difficulty until they received a high percentage that they considered tantamount to mastery. In many cases, this meant achieving the highest score in the class or a perfect score of 100%.

Flashnote Derby contained a similar design where players would “race” against a computer opponent, gaining speed every time they correctly identified the names of various treble clef pitches. Like in Blob Chorus, the difficulty level could be customized without the need to complete prior levels, but with each successive level the length of time given to correctly identify a note decreased, resulting in many students practicing at lower levels to increase their competence.

The race format of Flashnote Derby was also present in Staff Wars, but unlike the other selected iPad applications, the game did not end until the player lost all three “lives.” This is a common gaming design, in which the game will increase difficulty on its own until it becomes too much for the player to handle. (One of the most popular examples of this design is the puzzle game Tetris, where the player must match falling blocks of different shapes together to make them disappear before they reach the top of the screen.) In Staff Wars, the length of time given to correctly identify pitches decreased every time a student correctly identified ten notes. Pitches would accelerate across the screen more rapidly until the player made three mistakes, ending the game and displaying a final score of correct notes.

In Staff Wars, there was no option to customize the difficulty level, as the game automatically increased the difficulty in correlation with player ability. Staff Wars seemed to provide increased engagement among participants in the iPad and hybrid groups, possibly because it created a sense of emotional urgency and intensity. Students responded with more interest to Staff Wars than the other games, although this did not mean that games without emotional urgency were not engaging. Since Staff Wars did not present an end-game percentage like Blob Chorus and Flashnote Derby or the level progression of Rhythm Cat, students' perceptions that they had achieved mastery were completely based on teacher feedback and comparisons of scores from their classmates.

Participants in the control group did not have access to any of the iPad games, and the hybrid group had less time to work on the apps than did the technology group. Participants were not informed of the experimental construct or the existence of separate groups until the end of the study to avoid a Hawthorne effect.26

Students in the non-technology control group were given performance-based exercises using body percussion and call and response. Activities included responding to printed flashcards, improvising with short rhythmic and melodic phrases, and composing on music staff whiteboards. More verbal instruction was given to the class with a greater emphasis on interaction between students and the teacher.

Students in the hybrid group used iPad applications and received instruction with performance exercises, such as reading rhythms on flashcards, composing and improvising melodic themes, and responding to aural prompts using an electronic keyboard. Direct instruction was implemented for the first half of the class time (twenty minutes), while iPads were used for the second half.

After the three lessons were completed, a posttest consisting of the same material from the pretest was administered in a separate class meeting. Students were informed of their scores from both the pretest and posttest after the conclusion of the study. Only students who had completed both tests and all three instructional lessons were considered for the data analysis. Students who were absent for the posttest were considered for a make-up test only if they had completed the previous lessons.

Posttests were administered approximately five weeks after the pretest. Students in all three groups participated in three lessons between the exams, meeting once every six school days in accordance with the district schedule. Each lesson in all groups focused on a different aspect of the exam, including rhythmic and melodic identification, recognizing pitch and rhythmic notation, and aural perception using either the appropriate games or performance activities, depending on the group designation. The posttest was administered in the same fashion as the pretest with the same recording and time constraints.

After completing the quasi-experimental phase, students were solicited for their feedback about the lessons. Observations were recorded, coded, and summarized for common themes based on the behavior of each experimental group. Common areas where behavior was observed consistently included student ability levels with or without teacher guidance, student motivation and engagement, student confidence in learning the material through the specific methodology assigned to each group, and social interaction between students during each session.

Given the nature of this study, the participation of elementary school students was essential to replicate the natural classroom environment as accurately as possible. Therefore, parental consent was needed as part of the ethical considerations before proceeding. Results may have varied if all students in the population had participated; further studies of this nature should attempt to include all students in a given population, if possible.

Absentee rates were another consideration when determining the sample size. Participants must have been present for all five sessions of the experimental design in order for their results to be considered valid. Illness and other mitigating factors prevented some students who had turned in a parental consent form from having their scores considered in the data analysis. Students who were involved in activities such as tutoring and other academic assistance programs were not available to participate due to conflicts with the General Music schedule.

Researcher bias was a consideration when designing the parameters of the study. Efforts were taken to ensure an impartial collection of data, including having the pretest and posttest administered by audio recording. It is possible that the method of knowledge dissemination may vary in effectiveness depending on the instructor. Although each lesson was designed with replication in mind for future related studies, researchers or other qualified music teachers may present the material in an alternative fashion.

RESULTS

Results were analyzed using IBM SPSS Statistics software version 24. Scores from the pretest and posttest were examined using descriptive statistics, including a comparison of means, standard deviation, and a paired t-test. Pretest and posttest scores were recorded immediately after all students completed each exam.

Confidence intervals for both the pretest and posttest were set to 95% for the mean. Comparisons were made between each experimental group, grade level, and sex. Means recorded for the pretest total score were 12.03 for the iPad group, 11.65 for the non-technology group, and 11.00 for the hybrid group. The total mean for all three groups combined was 11.56 with a standard deviation of 4.196 and a standard error of the mean of .463.

The hybrid group demonstrated the most improvement in the posttest score mean, followed by the non-technology group then the iPad group. Though the data in the non-technology group showed the highest overall scores, the mean of the hybrid group resulted in the highest for all three groups. A comparison of the means between the pretest and posttest, as shown in Table 2, revealed that the mean of the hybrid group increased the most out of the three groups. Due to the similar number of participants in each group, it is reasonable to determine that the number of participants was not a factor in the difference of the resulting scores.

TABLE 2.

Comparison of Pretest and Posttest Means by Group

GroupStudentsPretest MeanPosttest MeanPretest Std. DeviationPosttest Std. Deviation
iPad 30 12.03 13.93 3.882 3.991 
Non-technology 23 11.65 14.96 4.987 4.205 
Hybrid 29 11.00 15.41 3.901 3.235 
GroupStudentsPretest MeanPosttest MeanPretest Std. DeviationPosttest Std. Deviation
iPad 30 12.03 13.93 3.882 3.991 
Non-technology 23 11.65 14.96 4.987 4.205 
Hybrid 29 11.00 15.41 3.901 3.235 

A paired t-test was conducted for all individual groups and the total of all three groups (Table 3). Data showed that all p-values were less than .05 (α = .001 for the iPad and non-technology groups; α = .000 for the hybrid group), revealing that the difference between the pretest and posttest mean for each group would not be statistically significant (H0 ≥ .05). Though the hybrid group showed the most improvement in mean scores, all three groups demonstrated a statistical significance (H1 < .05) in increasing mean scores between the pretest and posttest.

TABLE 3.

Paired t-test Statistics by Group

NumberMeantdfSig. (2-tailed)
iPad 30 −1.900 −3.861 29 .001 
Non-technology 23 −3.304 −3.913 22 .001 
Hybrid 29 −4.414 −6.619 28 .000 
Total 82 −3.183 −8.097 81 .000 
NumberMeantdfSig. (2-tailed)
iPad 30 −1.900 −3.861 29 .001 
Non-technology 23 −3.304 −3.913 22 .001 
Hybrid 29 −4.414 −6.619 28 .000 
Total 82 −3.183 −8.097 81 .000 

Students in the iPad and hybrid groups were observed enjoying the games, evidenced by exclamations of excitement and triumph when completing levels (“I'm a boss!”) and disappointment and frustration when losing (“This is so hard!”). When encountering a difficult level or challenge, some students became visibly upset, but this did not deter them from playing.

Nearly all students in the iPad group demonstrated an emotional response to the challenge aspect of each game; a small amount said they were ready to “rage quit,” or stop the game entirely out of intense frustration due to lack of progress. Students who were achieving success began assisting other students on their own without any teacher suggestions. Students who received help from their peers began asking the helper if they could finish the level for them, a process they referred to as “cheesing,” or an easy or cheap way to accomplish a goal outside of the mainstream directions.

Students who demonstrated high ability levels began to interact with each other, mostly to brag (“Yo, I beat the highest level!”) and compare scores. Competition was a common theme among students as they tried to finish a level as quickly as possible, even though they were specifically informed that there would be no reward for finishing first. Students would sometimes take a break from playing and walk around the room, checking each other's scores. The interactions never became negative or inappropriate, as students would encourage each other or joke in a friendly way (“Want me to do it for you?”).

It was also noted that male participants showed more competitive behavior than females. While the boys engaged in bragging and external displays of frustration when not achieving a desired score, the majority of girls sat quietly and played the games independently. Some girls who were sitting near each other began to socialize while playing, but it was not noticed that this behavior resulted out of a competitive nature. Both sexes equally reported enjoying the games and mentioned a desire to continue playing even after the session had concluded.

Most students reported that they would play the games again given the opportunity, though they required assistance regarding certain mechanics of each game. Rhythm Cat, designed for learning rhythmic notation and performance, would not allow players to progress unless they pressed the correct button for the exact amount of time the music required. This would lead to confusion when the player believed they had performed correctly. In addition, higher levels created a sudden difficulty increase, especially when tempos became faster and players had to use two hands instead of one.

When asked directly which games were their favorite, students preferred Staff Wars and Blob Chorus the most, which was demonstrated by the amount of time students devoted to these games compared to Rhythm Cat and Flashnote Derby. Blob Chorus was the most popular of the games; students enjoyed the animation, customizable difficulty, and the instant feedback system that allowed them to view their progress in real time. One student in particular who was consistently attaining high scores began to refer to himself as the “Blob Chorus King.”

The non-technology group was assigned as the control group; participants did not play any games in any of the three sessions. During the first session, students practiced rhythmic dictation using music staff whiteboards after a review of musical notation. Students then composed their own basic rhythmic figures and compared them to rhythms composed by their peers. The teacher then played one out of three different melodies on a piano, which students had to identify correctly. The students demonstrated enjoyment participating in the activity, particularly the compositional aspect and the challenge of correctly identifying which rhythm was played from multiple options. After approximately thirty minutes, students began to show signs of distraction, including engaging in side conversations, talking without permission, and doodling on the whiteboards.

The second session proceeded similarly to the first but focused on melodic contour and pitch identification. Students were tasked with correctly identifying a matching pitch from three options using aural perception, then composing their own brief melodies, which were presented with other student compositions. Students then had to identify which of the three melodies the teacher played on the piano. The final session began with a review of the notes of the treble clef staff from first line E to top line F. Students composed melodies while writing the correct names of notes above or beneath the staff. Students were then given Orff xylophones and played their own and their classmates' melodies.

Note names were clearly marked on the instruments to make it easier for the students to read and perform their melodies. But some classes contained students who were more interested in playing around on the xylophones, sometimes frenetically striking the keys so hard that the instrument had to be removed for its safety. Some students reported confusion with the assignment during the activity, though many students thought that they had increased their knowledge of pitch identification by the lesson's conclusion.

The third group was designed as a hybrid group, combining the aspects of both the iPad and non-technology groups. The first half of the class was dedicated to group instruction, using a truncated version of the activities presented in the non-technology group. The second half was devoted to playing the iPad games, though teacher assistance was given more freely than in the iPad group. As in the case with the iPad group, students were circulating throughout the room freely encouraging and assisting students who were having trouble while playing the games. Many did not want to stop playing—the hybrid group had significantly less time to play than the iPad group. Since the iPads were set up at the beginning of class for a more efficient transition, some students already began to play before the first half was concluded and expressed their interest in playing from the very beginning of the lesson.

When asked at the end of each session, most students felt that they had increased their skills by the end of each lesson, demonstrating excitement and animated behavior when achieving a high score (“Who got the highest score?”; “Can you tell the other classes what score I got?”). This was considered to be a major point of motivation, as students wished to broadcast their scores not only to the class but to the entire grade level. In addition, students from all three groups felt confident that they had performed better on the posttest than on the pretest. This may be because the questions on the pretest and posttest were identical, or because they understood the directions more clearly.

When informed of the nature of the experiment and the methodology after the conclusion of the study, students in the non-technology group expressed disappointment that they did not have the opportunity to play the games (“Can we play next time?”; “How come they got to play and we didn't?”). Most students in the non-technology group were upset that their group was selected as the control group because they did not have the opportunity to play any of the iPad games. Several students complained that it was “unfair” that other classes in their grade level could play video games when they themselves could not.

These students suggested that they should be allowed to play the games as a way of restoring equality among student groups. Students in the hybrid group did not seem bothered by the fact that the iPad group was able to play for the entire class session as opposed to half of the period (twenty minutes). This may have been an ideal period of time, as it satisfied the students' desire to play but not so long as to become bored or frustrated. Both the iPad and hybrid groups wished to know when they would be able to play the games again, and they expressed a desire to try new games as well.

DISCUSSION

The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of video games designed to teach musical knowledge and skills in an elementary school classroom environment. While the evidence presented in the results suggests that examples of educational video games can effectively teach musical concepts and skills, there may be no clear and definitive answer for whether games can be more effective than other methods of teaching.

Although all three groups achieved higher mean scores on the posttest than the pretest, the hybrid group that received both teacher-delivered and technology-delivered education showed the most growth. This may suggest that the use of games combined with a knowledgeable and qualified teacher is the best formula for success. Effective games without a dedicated teacher who is familiar with the technology, or a highly qualified teacher working with poorly designed games, will most likely result in a failure to meet educational objectives. It is more likely that when these games combine with effective teaching, the potential of digital game-based learning can be realized.

Mean scores collected during the pretest/posttest control group design suggested that video game technology is effective in teaching musical skills and knowledge to elementary school General Music students. Using educational games to form this conclusion cannot be generalized to COTS games because they are designed for entertainment purposes. Although previous research has been conducted using COTS music performance games,27 the results of the present study cannot be used to strengthen the argument that games designed solely for entertainment can effectively teach musical concepts and skills.

When video game technology is implemented appropriately by a music educator who is knowledgeable of the specific software and taught effectively so students may manipulate games independently, then video game technology has the potential to become a successful instructional tool for music education. Its success is also determined by factors such as the individual games used in instructional sessions, the technology available for use in the classroom, and the response its implementation receives from stakeholders such as students, parents, and administrators.

Students' motivations for playing the iPad games were analyzed within the context of self-determination theory, as specific links were observed between self-determinism and gaming. Self-determinism is governed by three aspects of emotional needs: competence, autonomy, and mastery.28 If the participants were not progressing through the games at a pace they considered appropriate, they would express feelings of frustration, which resulted in either quitting or asking for assistance. Students who were achieving high scores were clearly motivated to continue playing and, in some cases, seek out other students who were having difficulty in order to assist them.

Students participating in the control non-technology group could not tell if they were achieving competency without direct feedback from the instructor. In some cases this led to confusion, which required more teacher intervention in describing the conditions for successfully completing the objective. For example, students in the iPad and hybrid groups were required to correctly play a series of written rhythms in various time signatures by playing the game Rhythm Cat, and the game automatically alerted the players when they were correct by highlighting each note as they tapped the screen; the students then received a rating out of three stars for the entire exercise, based on how many notes they correctly played. The non-technology group's only source of feedback was the instructor listening to each student individually and critiquing their performance. It was also possible for advanced students to listen to their classmates and determine competency, but this was not used in the formal student assessment. The hybrid group received a briefer version of the instruction provided to the non-technology group; thus, they were better prepared than the iPad group for playing the game and showed competency at a faster rate.

These data suggested that one of the essential qualities of effective instruction is the ability to provide immediate and meaningful feedback. In a classroom setting with a large group of students and one instructor, it may be difficult to fully assess competency while simultaneously attending to the needs of each individual student. Effective video games, both commercial and educationally orientated, directly assess and provide instant feedback as players progress. At all times, players are aware of their progress, and failure serves as an instructional guide for what they did incorrectly and how to do better the next time.

Based on the data collected by the experimental treatment, however, video games in and of themselves may not always provide the necessary individual instruction that is given by a qualified teacher. This can be mitigated by the instructor's ability to create and communicate educational objectives that match the developmental needs of their students. Some video games have the ability for students to customize the difficulty level, making the game more challenging or easier, depending on ability. But the possibility exists that students will intentionally lower the difficulty level so that they are not challenged at all, leading to a total absence of educational growth. The teacher can monitor this by direct observation or choose games that must be completed on a certain difficulty level before customization is available.

The experimental data also suggested that creating the conditions for competency leading to concept mastery may require both teacher-directed instruction and student-directed manipulation of technology. This may depend on ensuring that the video game matches the teacher's instructional goals and provides effective feedback within the game's design that can be reliably used for student assessment. All the iPad games that were used during the lesson portion of the study contained a built-in assessment component.

Competition among students was not encouraged or discouraged by the instructor. An announcement was made at the beginning of each lesson that no rewards would be given to the student with the highest score. However, a warning was given that the introduction of the competitive element would require appropriate behavior in accordance with the school's code of conduct. There was a significant amount of student motivation to achieve the highest score in the class, and several students asked about scores in other classes, hoping to be the highest scoring student in the entire grade.

Though students openly bragged to and taunted their classmates with their scores, at no point did comments became hurtful or behaviorally inappropriate. On the contrary, students would actively encourage others, especially those who were having difficulty with any of the iPad games. The only feelings of anger or frustration demonstrated by the participants were when they did not achieve the desired score or were distracted by external stimuli. This aspect of gaming encourages Nicole Lazzaro's concept of “hard fun.”29 Though the challenge level of the higher levels of the games was greatly increased, players were observed showing intense emotions from completing these levels, such as exclamations of joy, physical displays such as holding their arms in the air as a sign of victory, and showing their iPads to other students.

An essential requirement of intrinsic motivation as defined by self-determination theory is the ability to work autonomously and progress at an individualized pace.30 Students in the iPad group received this condition for the entire length of all three lessons, while students in the non-technology group were directed by the instructor and given limited opportunities to work independently. Lessons in the hybrid group were balanced between twenty minutes of teacher-directed instruction and twenty minutes of student-centered individual work.

Although complete autonomy was given to students playing the games in the iPad group, many students required additional assistance from the instructor or other students. The pace of student progression in the iPad group was also determined by the level of competition displayed in a given class dynamic. Students who were more competitively oriented attempted to finish levels as quickly as possible to be the first who had completed the game. This sometimes resulted in a cursory understanding of the musical concepts that the games were designed to assess. Students who took their time and were not motivated by external competition were more likely to report a greater sense of competency when asked by the teacher.

The non-technology group was given limited time to work independently or in groups of their own choosing after receiving teacher instruction. This had to be closely monitored as some students would choose team members with whom they could socialize and be distracted from the purpose of the lesson. Those who remained focused demonstrated a greater sense of motivation to complete the assignment, unlike during teacher instructional time. These observations suggested that while autonomous work has the potential to increase intrinsic motivation among students, it must be organized and monitored by a qualified teacher to ensure that educational goals are met. Video game technology has the ability to allow students to work at an individualized pace, but only when games are selected and supervised effectively.

While there are many commercially available games for teaching music, none is currently known to possess the entertainment value that draws young people to them. But the results of this study show that video game technology may have the ability to engage and motivate students to participate in class. Traits that well-designed video games share include user accessibility, appropriate levels of challenge and difficulty customizability, instant feedback, competitive elements with a system of rewards, and the ability to interact with others competitively and cooperatively.

These elements may not be present in traditional methods of classroom music instruction, especially when settings are centered on teacher instruction and not student interaction. Differentiated instruction may also not be applied to classroom activities because of time constraints or inability to attend to individual needs. Effectively designed video games can enhance activities rooted in musical objectives, promote competition and cooperative learning through social interaction, provide instant feedback with real-time scoring systems, and enable students to customize their experience to best suit their abilities.

Like any educational tool, video game technology is not as effective when it is employed exclusively and without the guidance of a designated teacher. This eliminates a crucial aspect in learning beyond a student's capabilities, which is required to fill the gap between acquired knowledge and potential knowledge, as illustrated in Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development31 or James Paul Gee's regime of competence.32 Video games may one day possess the ability to serve as a sole instructional resource, but presently the need for a qualified teacher to design, implement, and assess these resources is imperative for effective student learning.

Gaming hardware materials are also a consideration when determining the viability and accessibility of video game technology implementation. The video interface can vary depending on the technological needs and availability of peripheral products. For example, many video game consoles made by companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo do not come with built-in visual interfaces. This has in part been rectified by the development of portable devices, such as the Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo Switch, to name a few, which have small built-in monitors so that an external visual interface is not needed.

In the classroom setting, restrictions on the number of simultaneous players is particularly significant, and it may not be ideal if only one student has the ability to use the system at a time. For group-oriented lessons, projecting the console onto a Smart Board or external television may be the only viable option. However, students and teachers would not be able to use the touch-screen feature because the Smart Board would only serve as a projector. Controlling the game would still have to be accomplished by using a controller or keyboard.

iPad or tablet products may be the most effective form of technology currently available for digital game-based learning. iPads do not require a separate visual interface, nor do they need separate peripheral controllers or other external accessories such as a keyboard, a mouse, or multiple wire connections. The only wire connection needed is to charge the battery and connect the iPad to a computer, which allows for the backup of data. Console systems normally require the purchase of games as external software packages, whereas iPads can download games directly from the internet. Although most stand-alone consoles can also download, their games are generally more expensive, take up more memory, and can be accessed only through a single visual interface.

In addition, most games designed for console systems take a longer time to complete, anywhere from two to over 100 hours of gameplay, making them unsuitable for designing an entire curriculum. A typical General Music class that meets sporadically would not have the available time to complete even one console-based game. In the case of the present study, students met for class once every six school days for a forty-minute period for the duration of the school year. This calculates to approximately thirty-five to forty class sessions per year, or a maximum amount of twenty-seven hours for the entire school year. Educators may therefore wish to focus on games that can be completed within the confines of one or multiple class sessions, particularly games that can played multiple times in order to practice and improve musical skills.

Assuming that extraneous factors such as individual student access to technology, support from administrative officials, and proper professional development training are satisfied, the success of incorporating video game technology into the music classroom rests mostly on the quality of games used and their relevance to the music curriculum.

As mentioned earlier, regardless of their general inability to teach or assist in instruction, using COTS games is not practical due to their cost and requirement to purchase a dedicated console such as an Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo Switch. Some games can be played using a personal computer or laptop, but most COTS games take up an enormous amount of memory and often require a faster processing speed than computers that are not designed for gaming can maintain.

Due to cost-effectiveness, accessibility, online capability, portability, and user-friendliness, iPads were the most effective means of teaching musical concepts with video games. Use of iPads as opposed to consoles may also serve to reduce the stigmas placed on video games because iPads are becoming an increasingly essential resource for classroom teachers of all subjects. Currently there is also a greater abundance of games designed for educational purposes available for iPads than for consoles.

Choosing a video game or series of video games to use in the classroom, regardless of subject, requires balancing educational objectives with a sense of enjoyment. As Jane McGonigal described, the initial difficulty is that part of what contributes to a game is that it must include voluntary participation.33 Being assigned to play a video game as part of a classroom evaluation or grade may lower the amount of student motivation to engage fully. A possible solution is to first accentuate the aspect of fun of playing the game rather than explain the educational purposes. If successful, students will be so entirely focused on enjoying the game itself that learning will occur naturally. This mirrors Mark Prensky's concept of stealth learning, but Prensky himself acknowledged that edutainment may never reach the same level of motivation currently achieved by COTS games.34 This does not necessarily mean that students cannot gain the same type of enjoyable experience using video games to learn music; the educational game's design aspects must possess features that are contained in successful COTS games.

COTS games, though reported as extremely popular with students, have limited ability to teach musical knowledge. Music performance games—reported by previous studies as helpful in attracting students to pursue more formal music studies—are in general becoming less popular and are not regarded by students as engaging as other game genres.35

Based on the data results and participant feedback, some recommendations can be made for well-designed video games in music education and how they can be integrated into a new or existing curriculum. Many aspects of well-designed educational games can be drawn from previous research using games outside of music education. These suggestions can also be combined with results from this study, including students' perceptions gathered from the survey and interview data.

Based on observations during the iPad and hybrid group sessions, it seemed that the most engaging characteristic of video games was the level of challenge presented in the game's design. This also reinforced the sense of competition that created intrinsic motivation within participants during the instructional sessions. The challenge of a game can be created by a design involving a player-vs.-system structure, which was present in the iPad games. It can also involve a player-vs.-player or players-vs.-players structure, which would increase the amount of student interactivity and social interaction, allowing students to work together or against each other in an environment based on rules and procedures.

For this to occur, an online connection would need to be available and maintained through the school's technology department. To achieve the type of student interaction necessary to promote motivation through challenge and competition, the game would need to function much like a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) similar to World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online. These games are played through a connection to an online server, which normally requires a paid monthly or annual subscription. The subscription allows users to purchase a certain amount of licenses for students to have unlimited access to the game both in school and at home at their convenience or as part of a structured lesson. A potential disadvantage to this method may be the overall cost, since General Music teachers normally teach every student in the school and would require individual licenses for each one.

A solution would be to choose games that are free for student use, a practice already implemented by the online game Prodigy. Prodigy uses a Pokémon-style battle system (player-vs.-player and player-vs.-computer) that requires students to answer math questions correctly in order to win. Winning a battle earns access to rewards that can be used to upgrade the player's character for subsequent battles. In this fictional virtual world players can roam around and interact with other players in a social MMORPG environment. Adapting a game such as Prodigy to serve a music educational objective may be possible, but currently no known online games exist with that purpose. The iPad games used during the present study did not contain any fictional worlds for students to explore; thus, the creation of a MMO music education game may achieve more success than current music edutainment games.

These aspects of effective game design include a scoring mechanism that provides instant and unambiguous feedback that can be interpreted clearly by both the student and the instructor. Teachers should be able to use the feedback provided by the game to assess and evaluate students based on specific educational objectives designed by the teacher and tested by the game. Failure to achieve these objectives should be followed by the opportunity to reattempt that specific goal, allowing for the player to accept failure as a part of the learning process and be motivated to try again.

In summary, intrinsic design concepts that music educators should look for when considering video games for the classroom include:

  • ability to practice specific educational objectives with the assistance of an instructor;

  • encouragement of active learning by promoting simple, user-friendly gameplay;

  • allowing students to progress at their own pace and customize difficulty levels;

  • adequate challenges by competing with the system or other players;

  • a scoring system that provides instant and clear feedback; and

  • engagement of learners by including elements of fun such as characters and a storyline.

Games that possess these elements have the potential to be effective tools for education in any subject. Specific aspects of music education—such as rhythm, pitch, aural perception, history, theory, and composition—can be adapted into a game-based format and used in any General Music curriculum that has access to the appropriate technology and support from administrative officials.

The success or failure of incorporating video game technology into a music curriculum depends largely on the support of its implementation by all affected parties. Acceptance or “buy-in” to a curriculum involving the use of digital game-based learning must be offered by three distinct groups: faculty, administration, and community. The faculty and administrative staff will teach and supervise instruction of the curriculum, in addition to choosing specific software and its application to musical objectives. The community, represented by a board of education, must approve all changes to curriculum and instruction, especially when considering budgeting for new technological materials.

To contribute further valid evidence to the effectiveness of video game technology, more studies must be conducted outside of a laboratory environment and inside the classroom. Additionally, participants representing a variety of ages younger than university students should be used to provide a wide range of data. This extends to gathering information from both public and private schools containing diverse demographic backgrounds including race, gender, and economic strata.

Longitudinal studies may also be beneficial to ascertain students' perceptions of video game technology over time, in addition to how video games are being used in the music classroom at different grade levels. Since the video game industry is continuing to expand at a rapid rate, new technologies will likely be available as students progress through school. Examining virtual reality games, social media games, and online co-op games are just a few examples of how future studies can branch out from the general subject of video game technology.

Future studies may also wish to compare the impact of COTS games with the learning possibilities of edutainment games, using a similar pretest/posttest control group design and survey/interview data. As video game technology studies in music education are still relatively in their infancy, there are many opportunities to contribute empirical evidence to the digital game-based learning field.

1.

Colin Archbell, “Covert Learning: Perceptions of Video Games and Education,” PhD diss., Nipissing University, 2009.

2.

Lily Gower and Janet McDowell, “Interactive Music Video Games and Children's Musical Development,” British Journal of Music Education 29, no. 1 (2012): 91–105.

3.

Marc Prensky, “Comments on Research Comparing Games to Other Instructional Methods,” in Computer Games and Instruction, ed. Sigmund Tobias and J. D. Fletcher (Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2011), 253.

4.

Jennifer Jenson, Suzanne De Castell, Rachel Muehrer, and Milena Droumeva, “So You Think You Can Play: An Exploratory Study of Music Video Games,” Journal of Music, Technology, and Education 9, no. 3 (2016): 273–288.

5.

Guillaume Denis and Pierre Jouvelot, “Building the Case for Video Games in Music Education,” Sound and Music Computing '04 conference, http://smc04.ircam.fr. Accessed March 3, 2016.

6.

Sebastian Deterding, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke, “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification,” in Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, 9–15 (Tampere, Finland: ACM, 2011).

7.

Darina Dicheva, Christo Dichev, Gennady Agre, and Galia Angelova, “Gamification in Education: A Systematic Mapping Study,” International Forum of Educational Technology and Society 18, no. 3 (2015): 75–88.

8.

Sasha Barab, Melissa Gresalfi, and Anna Arici, “Why Educators Should Care about Games,” Educational Leadership 16, no. 1 (2009): 76–80.

9.

Entertainment Software Association, “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry,” 2018, https://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/ESA_EssentialFacts_2018.pdf.

10.

Entertainment Software Association, “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry,” 2017, https://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/ESA_EssentialFacts_2017.pdf.

11.

Tsung Chuang, Nian-Shing Chen, Ming-Puu Chen, Chun-Yi Shen, and Chia-Min Tsai, “Digital Game Literacy: The Difference between Parents and Their Children,” paper presented at the 5th European Conference on Games Based Learning, 2011, https://scholar.lib.ntnu.edu.tw/en/publications/digital-game-literacy-the-difference-between-parents-and-their-ch.

12.

Fred Kersten, “Inclusion of Technology Resources in Early Childhood Music Education,” General Music Today 20, no. 1 (2006): 15–28.

13.

Rekha Rajan, “Tapping into Technology: Experiencing Music in a Child's Digital World,” General Music Today 28, no. 1, (2014): 8–11.

14.

James Frankel, “Music Education Technology,” in Critical Issues in Music Education: Contemporary Theory and Practice, ed. Harold Abeles and Lori Custodero (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 236–258.

15.

Dominic Arsenault, “Guitar Hero: ‘Not Like Playing Guitar at All’?” Loading … 2, no. 2 (2008), http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/32.

16.

Nicole Biamonte, ed., Pop-Culture Pedagogy in the Music Classroom (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2011).

17.

Andrew Mercer, “Game Play to Music Play: Video Games in the Music Room,” Musicien Éducateur au Canada 50, no. 3 (2009): 45.

18.

Denis and Jouvelot, “Building the Case.”

19.

Ulrich Wechselberger, “Music Game Enjoyment and Natural Mapping Beyond Intuitiveness,” Simulation and Gaming 47, no. 3, (2016): 304–323.

20.

Jennifer Jenson, Suzanne De Castelle, Nicholas Taylor, and Milena Droumeva, “Baroque Baroque Revolution: High Culture Gets Game,” in Future Play '08: Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Future Play: Research, Play, Share, 105–112, https://doi.org/10.1145/1496984.1497002.

21.

Patrik Juslin, Jessika Karlsson, Erik Lindström, Anders Friberg, and Erwin Schoonderwaldt, “Play It Again with Feeling: Computer Feedback in Musical Communication of Emotions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 12, no. 2 (2006): 79–95.

22.

Sigrid Jordal Havre, Lauri Väkevä, Catharina Christophersen, and Egil Haugland, “Playing to Learn or Learning to Play? Playing Rocksmith to Learn Electric Guitar and Bass in Nordic Music Teacher Education,” British Journal of Music Education 36, no. 1 (2018): 21–32.

23.

Evan Tobias and Jared O'Leary, “Video Games,” in The Routledge Companion to Music, Technology, and Education, ed. Andrew King, Evangelos Himonides, and S. Alex Ruthmann (New York: Routledge, 2016), 263–272.

24.

Cathy Benedict and Jared O'Leary, “Reconceptualizing ‘Music Making’: Music Technology and Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism,” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 18, no. 1 (2018): 26–43.

25.

John Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Method Approaches (Los Angeles: Sage, 2014).

26.

Robert Slavin, Educational Research in an Age of Accountability (Boston: Pearson, 2007).

27.

Ben Miller, “Music Learning through Video Games and Apps,” American Music 31, no. 4 (2013): 511–514.

28.

Karl Kapp, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

29.

Nicole Lazzaro, Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion without Story (Oakland: XEODesign, 2004), 3.

30.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead, 2009).

31.

Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

32.

James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

33.

Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: Penguin, 2011).

34.

Mark Prensky, Don't Bother Me, Mom—I'm Learning! (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2006).

35.

Juha Arrasvuori, “Playing and Making Music: Exploring the Similarities between Video Games and Music-Making Software,” PhD diss., University of Tempere, 2006.

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Appendix A