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My young (8 year old) child is starting to play around with writing music, and he's done a bit both on pencil and paper, and with a tablet app that is still writing on a staff, but takes some of the direct elements out (ie, you pick "eighth note" then it shows the 8 major notes on the two center octaves of your current key, you pick whichever note you want and it then places it on the staff, automatically doing all of the things like combining consecutive 8th notes into a brace and such). The app will also play the notes he writes for him whenever he presses play.

Much of what he's writing is well above the level he can actually play, in part because he's doing the standard kid thing of going to extremes ("here's an arpeggio made out of 64th notes at Allegro"), though he will play the parts he can manage to see if they sound good when he's doing it handwritten.

From a learning point of view, assuming this is mostly self taught (as he's a Suzuki Violin student, mid book 1, and hasn't officially learned written music yet), should I encourage handwritten over app-assisted, or app-assisted over handwritten, or just let him go with whatever he feels like? Disregarding any concerns over screen time (which are there, and separate, but I'll manage that how we do all the rest of his screen time). Mostly concerned with habits (if either method is likely to teach him habits that will hurt, or help, his ability to learn if he keeps this up), and partially wondering if the ability to have the app play for him is going to benefit in the long run (as it means he can more readily get feedback on his writing) or hurt (as it means he doesn't pull out the violin and test things).

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  • This seems opinion-based. FWIW, I do think that the auditory feedback that comes from computer-assisted writing is valuable...
    – Edward
    May 25 at 18:36
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    I'm hoping someone can give an experience-based answer (based on being a teacher, or a parent, or having been a child, in this situation), though I understand the concern about opinion!
    – Joe
    May 25 at 18:43
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    I’m really loving the responses to this post. Inspirational. In the end, all about exploration, enjoyment and curiosity. May 26 at 16:43
  • It could be helpful if you posted a link to the app in question. May 27 at 5:54
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Today any DAW can play notes as you type them, you can consider it as a late 20 century standard. Everyone uses it. I wouldn't be concerned about getting "dependent" on a single particular app. Indeed, for composition it's often beneficial to hear the music "inside your head" before you write it down, or play, but I don't see how using computer software would prevent that.

It's an 8 year old child, at that age it's very important to explore and learn sounds. If he's having fun, that's great, because nothing can replace internal motivation to learn.

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    Wholeheartedly agree. It's far more important that he be able to explore his ideas to the widest extent with the least hindrance. If online tools best accomplish that for him, I find it all to the good. Writing music is not like spoken language, where being able to write by hand remains essential. A child whose interest genuinely takes root will learn to write music if and when it becomes necessary or otherwise of interest.
    – Aaron
    May 25 at 21:50
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Being so young, any interest that he is showing is a good thing. It should be encouraged. Do encourage him though to 'try things out' on his violin where practicable, or even get someone (if you can) who is proficient on the instrument to play what he was written to ascertain if it is 'good' writing. Even trying it out on the piano might be instructive.

If he continues in music, he will quickly enough grow out of that app I think. Maybe you could consider buying him a music programme like Sibelius or Finale. There are plenty around.

Exploring music at a young age is great, however it comes about, and whatever keeps him involved can only add to his knowledge.

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I started composing music about that same age (8), and immediately gravitated to the computer tools available at that time (mid 80s) because of the relative ease of using them versus hand-notation. It definitely changes your relationship to composition, but not necessarily in a bad way. Art is always formed in relationship to contemporary culture and technology.

What's far more important than how your son notates his music is that you take it seriously, and encourage him to continue with it. If you don't value it, he might not either. The support and respect I got from my parents and teachers for my creativity meant the world to me. You'll never again be as creative as you are when you are a young child --I'm still working on some themes and musical ideas I innovated then.

One note of caution with the technology --it changes rapidly, and old formats can easily go out of date and become unusable. If you want to preserve the music your son is writing now, make sure you keep a printed copy and/or switch to one of the well-established programs (Finale and Sibelius --I've personally used Finale for well over 20 years now).

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  • Thanks, that's a really good point to pay attention to the fact that the music app might not be available in the future. He's probably not quite at the point that we need to do that yet - he's still just figuring it out - but we will definitely find a way to store in a neutral format (paper/pdf/etc.) when he makes something he wants to keep!
    – Joe
    May 26 at 17:19
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I've let my kids play with notation software. Yes, they fill up the page with randomness, press play, and hear a crazy flurry of notes. Funny... for a while, then they get bored and stop, because it isn't really doing anything musical. It sort of like when you let a kid at a piano/guitar/xylophone, they bang way, slide up and down, again until bored.

There is a chance that some kid might do more than that, or for whatever reason maintain an interest, and keep experimenting. That would be something to encourage. Some gentle suggestions could help them along. They might need help just with the computer interface. But, writing music is a sophisticated business. I wouldn't expect or push for too much. What is their ability in other areas? Can they composer a well structured paragraph of text? Can they draw pictures beyond scribbles? Imitation games seem more likely to get something from a kid. The teacher lays out a model or starting and the kid mimics or adds on.

I think it's important to consider how a software app will relate back to playing a real instrument or working with staff notation. What's the point of an app that auto-completes staff notation, if the kid cannot read it, or if it isn't a starting point to begin reading? I'm sure there are other apps more gesture driven that would let someone play with sound intuitively. You also should ask whether the point is pure electronic music or apps that support instrument playing, or some combination. The former works on its own terms, but with the later you will eventually need to reconcile what you do in the app with what you can do on an instrument. The long term benefit or detriment depends on what the goal is.

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The "arpeggio made out of 64th notes at Allegro" actually is reflective of some electronic and video game music. (I've ended up transcribing and witnessing some fairly ridiculous 32nd-note passages and fast, bizarre tuplet combinations in both. Transcribing a rock/metal guitar solo becomes similarly nightmarish.)

There's almost certainly a market for any tonal music (and even some atonal music), however unplayable, so having the app provide instant feedback on your child's compositions is probably better. Whether your child's music is playable or not ultimately doesn't matter if it's marketed correctly.

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I don't think his use of the tablet app as you describe it will develop any bad habits. It might mean his musical interests develop in a different direction from your hopes for him.

I come from a family with many self-taught amateur keyboardists, including my mother who plays piano and also writes songs for her own amusement (and now SoundCloud). I started playing the piano as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keys. I didn't get lessons from a professional teacher until I was in middle school. (I'm 51 now.)

My family were also early adopters of the home computer, with the first one arriving right around the time I started piano lessons, in 1978. (The computer was an Ohio Scientific C4P, featuring the incredibly rare inclusion then of an 8-bit DAC!). The music-producing capabilities of computers then might seem laughable now, but we had many of the same inclinations as kids today do with modern applications: Play crazy things that look interesting on the staff, that are too fast for human performance, etc.

Since early home computers really had to be programmed to produce music, I also had to learn something about tuning theory to understand where the frequencies come from.

So where did that leave me?

I think the worst "bad habits" I did develop are in the areas of performance technique, and nothing to do with the computer. Once I started lessons, I had to unlearn a lot of poor fingering, and I still fall back on it when improvising. I am still a poor sight-reader, though I was better when forced by my lessons to learn quickly.

Fortunately my piano teacher (who was also on the faculty at a local university) gave me a good foundation in theory and composition, not just performance technique.

If anything, the computer helped me understand some aspects of harmony in a more intuitive way because I could compose and hear things that my limited keyboarding skill might not be able to produce. I experimented with odd scales.

I ended my piano lessons when I went away to college to get a degree in Engineering, so I was left with some big gaps in my music theory knowledge, which I've chosen to fill through self study and sites like this.

Aside from a period in the 1990s playing bass in an alternative/rock band, and occasional unpaid session gigs for my wife's recordings, music has been a hobby.

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