Wednesday, December 30, 2009

DJ Hero -- first impressions

I had DJ Hero at home for a long time before I put the disc in the PS3. It's tricky when video games occupy such a peculiar category in my life: too fun to be high-priority during the work day, too much like work for the evenings. (And in some cases also too noisy/intense, both for the downstairs neighbors and for me -- after a long day, loud rock music and the incessant tapping of the RB drum kit feel like sensory overload). So the DJ Hero turntable controller was just sitting around for weeks, on the same table as my spouse's actual turntables and mixer. Yet somehow until I finally sat down to play the game it didn't occur to me how weird it is that the controller only includes a single turntable (maybe because during its sitting-around-in-the-corner period it had so much DJ-gear company, like it was the third turntable in someone's kit).

I have no DJing experience myself -- indeed, I still get nervous about actually setting a needle down on a record, on the rare occasions that I attempt such a thing. But I've spend a lot of time with DJs, and I've taught a lot of classes that revolve around post-turntablism music. When I'm teaching the first class meeting of a multi-week unit about hip-hop, I often begin by asking the class, "Why are two turntables better than one?" And when I watch a DJ at work with two turntables and a mixer, I'm often awed by his/her ambidextrous virtuosity. Of course club DJs today use all kinds of equipment, but given that DJ Hero features a turntable at all (vs. any of the myriad other interface possibilities for simulating real-time remix production), it seems peculiar to just use one. Especially when the game tutorial voiceover is by Grandmaster Flash (who starts things off by emphasizing his own turntablism pioneer status). There's something surreal about having Grandmaster Flash explain that each of the three buttons on the single turntable represents a different sound source, as though this had been his pioneering innovation. Someone unfamiliar with record players might conclude that all records come broken into three concentric rings, which you can mix and match on your single turntable and manipulate individually as you play your set. And of course this implies the presence of three invisible tonearms/needles (the controller doesn't include any representation of the tonearm/needle at all).

[Maybe now I have a better sense of the cognitive dissonance guitarists experience when they first encounter a GH/RB guitar controller, i.e., why the hell would you make a guitar with no strings? For me, a pianist with no stringed-instrument experience, the fret buttons just seemed like a very simple keyboard -- though the idea that one could fret before strumming required some mental adjustments.]

When I actually started to play a DJ Hero set, I discovered the satisfying click of the cross-fader. This click has strong associations for me; at a club the music would be way too loud for me to hear it, but it's a big part of the sound when my spouse is mixing in the living room. It helps me distinguish what he's doing with his mix vs. what was already part of the mix on each record (because the clicking cues me that he's shifting between the two sources). I also just like the sound -- the crispness of it, and the way that it makes a rhythmic pattern of its own that interlocks with the rhythm of the musical mix in interesting ways. So while the turntable part of the controller packed more associations visually, once I was playing the game it was the cross-fader that made me feel more aligned with a DJ's kinesthetic experience. The DJ Hero turntable doesn't even spin around (except when you briefly spin it backward yourself on "rewinds"); I certainly wasn't imagining a record was under my right hand. Maybe some kind of track pad, but not a record.

But was it fun to play? Yes, definitely, and also a lot more relaxing than playing GH/RB. This is dance music, after all, and instead of "star power" you earn and deploy "euphoria" (leading to bizarre screen texts like "euphoria used", but that's a subject for another post). As one might expect, this game's remixes/mashups are structured very differently from the rock songs in GH/RB, and the result is a trippier kind of immersion/flow. The musical selections are also much more in line with my own listening tastes, so waiting while someone else played a song was more fun than with GH/RB (plus it didn't have to be turned up so loud, since there's no need to drown out drum kit noise). But something about the game makes me think it's unlikely to be a huge hit (and not just because of the recession). I feel like it's too musically complicated to offer the visceral appeal of GH/RB, where each player is always following his/her specific part and feels deeply connected to it. Also, Guitar Hero greatly increased my appreciation for some kinds of rock and metal, but I'm not sure DJ Hero is going to increase a metalhead's appreciation for electronic dance music. And I can't imagine millions of teenage boys devoting a lot of time to mastering these mashups. While I'm usually the first person to point out that the videogame-playing demographic has long since expanded beyond teenage boys, I'm still not sure what core constituency might exist for DJ Hero.

Now I want to read some reviews and see if others have reached similar conclusions -- I haven't been keeping up with media reception of DJ Hero at all, but the fact that coverage hasn't been jumping out at me with no effort on my part leads me to suspect that sales have not been good.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity"

The article is officially published! In accordance with the journal's policy and my rights as the author, I am linking to a PDF of the finished version while also including the full bibliographic information and a copyright notice here.

Miller, Kiri. 2009. "Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity." Journal of the Society for American Music 3(4):395-429.
Copyright the Society for American Music, 2009.

JSAM website

article PDF

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Day with the Score-Oriented (FlowTV column #3)

My final FlowTV column is out now -- it's about Rock Band tournament play.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fieldnotes from a Rock Band Bar Night (FlowTV column #2)

Just a note to say that my second Flow column is right here and will be reposted to this blog eventually. Tonight I'm off to rock at Orleans in Somerville.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just Add Performance (FlowTV column #1)

This column originally appeared here, but it seems like it belongs on the blog, too. (And I know how some people just hate to click through.)



When I tell people that I’m doing research on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I usually get one of three responses:

1. “But those games aren’t really musical, right? Isn’t it just pushing buttons in time?”

2. “Are you studying whether they get kids interested in playing real instruments? Because I read an article about how guitar teachers are getting a lot more students since that game came out.”

3. “I love those games! So, do you actually play? Like, for work?”

People who don’t already have personal experience with the games usually think it’s self-evident that Guitar Hero and Rock Band are only creating musical automatons who suffer from escapist delusions of rock stardom—or, as guitarist John Mayer has said, “Guitar Hero was devised to bring the guitar-playing experience to the masses without them having to put anything into it.” If I’m talking to a fellow ethnomusicologist, s/he often assumes that my project involves a critique of the games as the latest symptoms of the decline and fall of genuine musicality and DIY creativity. If there is a saving grace here, it can only reside in the possibility that the scales will fall from players’ eyes and they’ll be inspired to pick up real instruments: in the words of Sleater-Kinney guitarist/rock critic Carrie Brownstein, “[M]aybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who’ll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.”

My previous videogame project was on Grand Theft Auto, and there, too, much of the non-gamer media response revolved around the relationship between gameworld activities and “the real thing”—only with GTA, the winds of moral panic blew in the opposite direction. Clearly, games like this would inspire players to pick up a real gun or beat up a real prostitute. Think of the children, especially the underprivileged children! As Congressman Joseph Pitts (R-PA) asserted at a June 14, 2006, hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, “It’s safe to say that a wealthy kid from the suburbs can play Grand Theft Auto or similar games without turning to a life of crime, but a poor kid who lives in a neighborhood where people really do steal cars or deal drugs or shoot cops might not be so fortunate” (transcribed from television footage).

[Congressman Pitts]

This kind of “media effects” discourse is so well-established and pervasive that it took Guitar Hero and Rock Band in stride. Will these games save real rock music or destroy it? News at 11!

Come to think of it, Congressman Pitts’s logic might be a more persuasive fit for Guitar Hero than GTA: it does seem more likely that a wealthy kid from the suburbs would have the resources to move from playing a plastic controller to taking private lessons on a Fender.

But really, I think this obsession with the relationship between playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band and playing “real music” is missing the point. My standard strategy for explaining my research to those caught up in the effects debate is to point out that playing these games isn’t just like playing real instruments, but it’s nothing at all like just listening to music. It’s a third thing, a new way of musicking. And if you want to get involved in value-oriented debates about it, here’s a thought experiment: rather than concluding that Guitar Hero players are wasting the time that they would otherwise be putting into long hours of practice on a real guitar, consider the possibility that they might otherwise spend that time just listening to recorded music (or, of course, playing Grand Theft Auto). Anyone who has played Guitar Hero or Rock Band for more than five minutes will tell you that it requires a deeper level of musical engagement than listening to an iPod—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and often socially. Moreover, everyone I’ve interviewed for my research reports that the games have substantially changed the way they listen to popular music when they’re not playing. This has certainly been the case for me; after playing drums in Rock Band I started to hear and understand drum parts in a totally new way (forever altering my visceral reaction to heavy metal, for instance). I’ve been running an online survey about the Guitar Hero/Rock Band gameplay experience, and so far 79% of my 480 respondents have indicated that the games have increased their appreciation for certain songs or genres; 75% have added new music to their listening collections because of the games. (A few more stats appear here.)


My survey statistics only reconfirm what the music industry already knows: these games have created a huge market for value-added versions of previously recorded popular music. Every song licensed for release in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games has been broken down into parts and transcribed at four different difficulty levels, creating a new, hard-to-pirate digital music product. Once players have bought a game and a set of instrument controllers, and have invested the time required to achieve proficiency on one or more instruments, they are happy to spend money on new repertoire. (This is a venerable business model; in the nineteenth century, once a family had a piano in the house, they gladly kept buying four-hand piano transcriptions of the latest symphonies and chamber music for parlor entertainment.) In March 2009, Harmonix announced that the Rock Band franchise had surpassed one billion dollars in North American retail sales revenue in 15 months, including over 40 million paid downloads of individual songs. In September, Harmonix will release The Beatles: Rock Band, an extraordinary licensing coup—the Beatles back catalog can’t even be purchased on iTunes yet.

The transcription work, scoring mechanism, and on-screen avatar band are the obvious components of the value-added, of course, but I want to suggest that the most important value-added aspect is the potential for performance. Actually, the term “value-reconstituted” might be more appropriate: you reconstitute instant soup by adding water, and you reconstitute a recorded song by adding performance. In both cases, the quality of the original ingredients makes all the difference. Guitar Hero and Rock Band let players put the performance back into recorded music, reanimating it with their physical engagement and performance adrenaline. Players become live performers of pre-recorded songs, a phenomenon that I call schizophonic performance. Unless I’m off-campus, in which case I just call it a lot more compelling than listening to a recording.

Value-reconstituted songs make some people very uncomfortable, because rock music is supposed to be ├╝ber-authentic hard work. Instant fame is only for industry-manufactured sellouts, and hitting buttons on a plastic controller to release someone else’s hot guitar solo seems a lot like lip-syncing—it’s not even as authentic as karaoke. But players aren’t deluded; they’re quick to point out that they understand the difference between playing instruments and playing Guitar Hero. (It’s worth noting that 74% of my survey respondents have experience playing instruments; 49% have experience playing guitar). They know that the “instant” songs that they play in Guitar Hero and Rock Band are packaged, commercialized, and designed to be labor-saving, but that doesn’t spoil their musical experience. Just add performance, and the music blooms into new life.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Just Add Performance

I just published my first of three columns for FlowTV, titled "Just Add Performance". I'll republish the column on this blog eventually, but for obvious reasons they ask that I don't do it right away. Check it out!

[yr humble correspondent]

Friday, May 8, 2009

Schizophonic Performance article

I'm excited to report that my first article on Guitar Hero and Rock Band has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the Society for American Music. According to my copyright transfer agreement, I have the right to post the unrevised manuscript version on a personal website -- see the PDF link at the end of this post.

Update: the article has now been published -- see this post for the final version.

Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity

Abstract: Music-oriented videogames like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are generating new modes of engagement with popular music repertoires. Tens of millions of players use instrument-shaped controllers to play along with classic and contemporary rock songs, generating appreciative feedback from a virtual crowd. These games inspire physically virtuosic, visually engaging performances. Players often “practice” at home and “perform” in public (or on YouTube). Advanced players gather online to share tips for mastering the fingerwork for complicated musical passages. In the course of their gameplay, players encounter and assess game designers’ conceptions of rock’s canonical repertoire, aesthetic norms, performance conventions, and symbolic value. But what does pressing buttons in time with a pre-recorded soundtrack have to do with music-making? This article investigates these games’ implicit models of rock authenticity, their sometimes-sincere/sometimes-ironic constructions of rock heroism, and their players’ ideas about authentic musicality. Drawing on ethnographic research—including interviews with players and game designers, a web-based qualitative survey, and media reception analysis—I discuss players’ concepts of musicality, creativity, and performance as they are developed through Guitar Hero and Rock Band gameplay and game-related discourse.

Monday, January 12, 2009

interview tidbits: on musicality in Guitar Hero and Rock Band

During Brown's winter break I've been working on a talk I'll be giving in March; the Boston University Music Society (BUMS) has graciously invited me to be the keynote speaker for their annual graduate student music conference. My tentative title is "Virtual Virtuosity and Mediated Musicality: Why Guitar Hero Players Don't Just Play Real Guitars". I'm planning to focus on a very basic question: what’s musical about Guitar Hero and Rock Band? In particular, I will address the nature of the musical notation in these games, how playing a controller compares to playing a traditional instrument, and how gameplay affects musical listening. I discussed these matters in detail with a bunch of players who volunteered to participate in gameplay observation/interview sessions last summer, and I've been revisiting the interviews in search of material for this new talk. I thought I'd post a few clips here (with the permission of the interviewees, of course), since it's so interesting to hear people talk about this stuff.

Kevin (who has a little experience with trumpet, sax, and guitar) talks about whether gameplay feels like making music:

All of my interviewees reported that people had asked them why they don’t just play real instruments. Here are two clips from an interview with Josh, who has many years of experience playing jazz saxophone:

Another interviewee, Steffen, is an experienced rock drummer. He contrasted the experience of playing the guitar controller with the experience of firing a weapon in other video games:

You can hear Steffen trying to work through the apparent contradiction between feeling like he’s really playing music, even playing creatively, and knowing that he's doing what the game wants him to do.

Josh, the sax player, discussed the importance of muscle memory and embodied knowledge for both playing videogames and playing traditional instruments:

Here several interviewees compare their Guitar Hero or Rock Band gameplay with their other musical performance experiences:

Mike (a guitarist)

Dan (a singer-songwriter who regularly performs on acoustic guitar; he sings and plays lead guitar simultaneously in Rock Band)

Lauren (a drummer)

Sean (a pianist who has dabbled in guitar; the interviewer is my research assistant, Kate)

Josh (comparing playing sax and playing Guitar Hero)

Reviewing my interview and survey materials has also made it clear to me that for many players, the feeling of making music in these games doesn’t necessarily have to do with feeling like a star rock performer on stage. Here I talk about this topic with Kevin:

I'm still working through the tracks about the impact of gameplay on musical listening and/or learning about music, but here's a teaser from Dan:

All of these interviewees were undergraduate or graduate students here at Brown; none of them were music students. (I didn't deliberately exclude music students, but math/science/engineering types were much more likely to be on campus during the summer.)