The Gamification of Musical Learning

Supporting teachers • Promoting learning
Written by Andrew Eales


The rise and rise of electronic video, console and computer games over the last two decades has been spectacular. From Pokémon to Grand Theft Auto, and from Minecraft to Wii Sports, games have become hugely popular and lucrative, and some academics even suggest that they are now the dominant cultural form of the 21st century.

In his much-discussed paper Manifesto for a Ludic Century (available here), Eric Zimmerman suggests that while the twentieth century was the age of information and of moving pictures, the twenty-first is the ludic (play-centric) century. He enthuses,

“Increasingly, the ways that people spend their leisure time and consume art, design, and entertainment will be games, or experiences very much like games.”

We certainly see growing evidence of gamification in music education. In this article I consider the transformative impact this may be having, for better or worse…


The Games We Play

Digital games offer great variety across a range of platforms, from single-player through to online games with a social or team element. Some are played purely for fun, relying on our curiosity and intrinsic engagement. Most however have a competitive, reward-based element, or an emphasis on successive levels of attainment. These games appeal to extrinsic motivation to hook us in.

Let’s consider an example which nicely illustrates this point. As a child, I used to enjoy dealing out a pack of cards and playing Solitaire. The interplay of chance, logic and strategy became its own reward; there’s no denying that the act of manually engaging with the cards themselves was also enjoyable.

Digital app alternatives lack this physical element. Instead, most bombard the player with extrinsic virtual rewards, ranging from showers of imaginary gold coins to the lure of levelling-up at regular intervals. Extrinsic clearly replaces intrinsic here, resulting in a different quality of personal engagement.

In my article The Playful Piano Teacher I make a strong case for a playful, curious, relaxed approach to learning music. I have written about this further in my book How to Practise Music.

In these writings it is clear that the positive play which I am advocating is fundamentally intrinsic in nature. Such play can be variously characterised as being apparently purposeless, voluntary, spontaneous, outside of time, and improvisational.

The sort of gamification which stems from the video game format tends more usually to be driven by extrinsic rewards and the need to “win”.

With this contrast in mind, it is important to understand that gamification and play are not the same thing. A commitment to playful teaching and learning does not correspond with a belief that music education should be gamified.

Here’s a great quote which sums up this point:

“Games don’t matter. Like in the old fable, we are the fools looking at the finger when someone points at the moon. Games are the finger; play is the moon.”

Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (2014, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Gamification in Music Education

Perhaps the most obvious example of gamification in music education is that huge numbers now learn to play the piano using digital apps that have been specifically designed to ape a gaming experience rather than a traditional lesson. Learners complete built-in activities without the personal guidance or support of a teacher, before “levelling up” to the next tune.

When it comes to assessment, ongoing changes to the exam syllabus and its delivery similarly seem less a catalyst for a cultural renaissance, and more geared towards tweaking the parameters of the game experience. More levels are steadily added, unpopular challenges have been smoothed out, and an array of attractive options put in place.

The exams themselves are increasingly also a digital activity, played out in solitude, without the live sharing of music and interpersonal communication between two or more human beings in a real world setting.

None of these developments are necessarily wrong in and of themselves, and the creative implementation of technology to support learning must be applauded. But as educators we must surely also stop to question how such radical change might impact our shared culture; the emphasis on extrinsic motivation and real potential for isolating music learners cannot simply be ignored.

“Game Over”

Games always come to an end. In the case of competitive games, this generally happens when a “winner” is identified. In the case of solo gameplay, finishing the final level spells “game over“. Realistically, a digital game ends when the player loses interest, can no longer commit, or completes the final level. But what happens next?

My son belongs to the first generation of serious digital game players. As he was growing up, I knew when he had reached the end of a game, because he would want me to uninstall it to free up disc space ready for the next game. Remember those days?

But the takeaway point is that he never returned to the beginning to play the same game again. Who would?

In response to Zimmerman, this is certainly an aspect of gameplay which stands apart from the cultural expression and creative forms enjoyed by previous generations.

A poem, novel or great piece of music can be enjoyed repeatedly; the best only gain emotional resonance with us through familiarity and repetition. Artworks might be swapped around, but can provide endless enjoyment. And there are a great many movies that I have enjoyed more than a dozen times.

Play activities which rely on and foster intrinsic motivation can similarly be enjoyed time and again. But games which are based on progressing through multiple levels culminating in a final completion are ultimately disposable: Game Over.

Such a gamified approach seems not to provide the best model either for enduring cultural expression or for education. And when it comes to the latter, there’s another significant problem to address…

Developing Intelligence

In her response to Zimmerman’s Manifesto, Heather Chaplin (included in the article linked above) quotes neurologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who tells us that there are two types of brains: one hardwired for empathy, the other hardwired for building and understanding systems.

Gameplay typically elevates and rewards systematising thinking, but not emotional intelligence or empathy. Chaplin makes an excellent rhetorical point when she asks,

“Are we moving into a future in which plenty of people are logical, good at recognising patterns, and analysing the way things work, but in which fewer and fewer of us are able to empathise?”

Music educators recognise the connection between emotional intelligence and musical expression. A satisfying musical performance will demonstrate emotional connection as well as functional, systemic understanding, and it is clearly important that our teaching, learning and assessment processes foster both.

My Plea to Educators

By now it becomes clear that the gamification of musical learning could prove problematic on multiple fronts. But each generation faces its own challenges and opportunities; I have no doubt that with conviction, cooperation and commitment we can rise to those of our time.

At a basic level, alert educators will want to develop strategies which mitigate any potential downsides to the gamification of music education, perhaps steering learners away from over-gamified resources and activities, and by promoting shared music-making to enrich their studio programme.

My plea is simply for us to keep our essential core educational and social values in clear focus as we adapt to and embrace change. Here are some central tenets which I know many will want to uphold:

  • We do not see music as disposable, but rather as an evolving art rooted in works of enduring value.
  • We believe that music is its own reward, and that it contributes to our wellbeing, personal and social development.
  • We do not believe in a final “game over” point in musical engagement, learning and development.
  • We believe that through performing, communicating, collaboration and sharing, music brings people meaningfully together.
  • Our primary goal is to foster a lifelong, shared love of music.

DIGGING DEEPER

The Playful Piano Teacher
Exploring how playfulness enhances learning.

Who Needs Piano Lessons Anyway?
Can we learn to play the piano from a digital app?

The Pianist’s Motivations
A beginner’s guide to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Musical Achievement, Assessment and Motivation
How grade exams impact motivation to learn.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

9 thoughts on “The Gamification of Musical Learning”

  1. “We do not see music as disposable, but rather as an evolving art rooted in works of enduring value.
    We believe that music is its own reward, and that it contributes to our wellbeing, personal and social development.
    We do not believe in a final “game over” point in musical engagement, learning and development.
    We believe that through performing, communicating, collaboration and sharing, music brings people meaningfully together.
    Our primary goal is to foster a lifelong, shared love of music.”
    Andrew, thank you so much for this! It sums up exactly why I teach piano.

  2. Gamification is one of the best things to happen to art, culture, & music in generations. You don’t “watch” art any more, you are part of an active collaborative experience! The democratisation and barrier busting of Gamification is something to be widely celebrated, especially in the “Classical” music field where the cultural movement still struggles to expand beyond appealing to disproportionately white middle class (Western) folks with music disproportionately from dead white European men.

    Not that students shouldn’t be learning such music, but the great publishing houses still regularly publish period compilations of pieces and forget that women exist, for example.
    Gamification gives achievable, incremental goals, and rewards for engagement, involvement, and improvement. These are all things we want.

    There is no “bad” way to consume art, and those that argue so are practicing gatekeeping and exclusion (even if unintentionally). If someone wants to learn the a piece, and then is happy with their achievement and abandons it… So? They have engaged with and celebrated art through practice and performance. Did we need something else? Many of the great composers of past ages regularly abandoned works either temporarily or permanently. We’re setting a higher bar for the youth of today? Why?

    Whilst many games are played and abandoned, this is almost never the case with cultural totem poles in video games. See: Fortnite, World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, Minecraft, Roblox, Overwatch, FIFA, etc. These games are often competitive collaborative and the degree of each can be chosen by the player. No other art form gives such freedom to “touch” art and use it for personal use, and sheer level of creation and imagination.

    Many video games also make heavy use of music (and by extension the influence of “classical” music can loom large). See: the soundtrack to Hollow Knight, also available in solo piano folio and an official piano album. It would be wonderful if this blog could review this publication. Other video games such as Katana Zero heavily use modern synthesiser music, also used in the Hotline Miami games. Speaking of intrinsic rewards, many video games also use music to heighten emotional engagement with the player, for example the truly wonderful game Gris (French for “Grey”). Also available in solo piano folio and an official piano album. This involvement matches the desires express in the main article.

    And not forgetting the heyday of literal music games, with Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Band Hero, Just Dance, Sing Star, and more recently Beat Saber in thr VR gaming space!

    More people than ever are being exposed to more music than ever in more forms, platforms, and contexts than ever before, this can only be a cause for celebration.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comments, many of which I agree with. However (and while noting that this article isn’t actually about gaming music anyway) I am interested by your points about diversity, which I really don’t think are fair or correct.

      As a reviewer I regularly receive and review published music by women, and by composers of colour and from many ethnic backgrounds. A fair-minded read through the reviews on this page confirms this fact. ABRSM and other exam boards can also be congratulated for making enormous strides in this area.

      A glance at the programme for an event such as the BBC Proms reveals a huge and growing number of successful female performers, and music composed by an ever-increasingly diverse representation of composers. Classical music, due to its heritage, is an easy and lazy target, but the truth is that huge efforts are being made towards diversification, with considerable success.

      I don’t see that in game music. How many black game composers can we name, for example? The overwhelming majority appear to be white and Japanese men, with just a few women breaking into an industry whose main product is well-known to often include misogyny, sexual objectification, gratuitous and extreme violence – a phenomenon that has led to the academic community writing entire studies into so-called “Dark Play”.

      My point is that when considering diversity and inclusion, I think you may be aiming at the wrong target 😉

      But in any case, again the article is not about game music anyway. The main thrust of the article addresses whether the extrinsic-reward and levelling-up approaches that are so effective in gaming contexts are equally effective in pedagogy and/or andragogy. These are important and legitimate questions for the professional teaching community to consider, which have nothing to do with judgment of gaming, but rather to do with questioning what is best for our students in the context of educational psychology, cognitive development, and real-world musical experience.

      Thank you again for your thoughts.

  3. “Our primary goal is to foster a lifelong, shared love of music.” Yes. With this as a guide, it’s easier to figure out which games or apps are helpful and which best left to hobbyists. It is probably best decided student by student as some will appeal to one student and not another, but the goal remains the same–to ignite am intrinsic passion for making music. Thoughtful article as always, Andrew. Thank you.

  4. I wanted to point out another aspect of the move to “gamify” life as well as music teaching and appreciation, and that is, it is a return or step backward to the male as the “norm.” Lack of empathy is something that is discouraged in men but encouraged in women. Therefore, men will likely feel more comfy and get more peer support when they engage in the gamification process. I don’t see any evidence that gaming has welcomed the participation of women with open arms, as we all know about the evident exclusion and derision of women gamers. Nor do I see evidence that gaming has become inclusive of non-white participants, or economically-challenged people who fall mainly in the minority community as facts seem to indicate. I’m not against anyone learning music thru gamification, but let’s not let that become the end-all and be-all of the teaching and learning mode, because there are still a lot of us, esp. older adult (pre-gaming) or senior students who love the interpersonal relationships and spiritual connections we develop to teachers and music whom/which we love, appreciate, and learn effectively from. I, for one, could be less interested in learning digitally how to play my beloved little baby grand. Your article is spot on about key values in music and music education from my point of view. Thanks!

    1. As an LGBT+ POC/immigrant gamer (and piano player!), I can speak from lived experience that the wider gaming community and mass media still has great strides to make in inclusion for women, disabled folks, rainbow acronym folks POC folks, etc. (this list is not exhaustive).

      I would add that this is a wider problem in society with many things (see the level of public jubilation over the Lionesses’ recent football win, compared to the much larger jubilation that would take place if it were the men’s team that had won their respective cup).

      And great strides are being made in the industry. It is the youngest of all the major art forms and is going through the most growing pains at present. Please permit me to assure you that there are many active elements, quarters, groups, and platforms that celebrate women, POC, LGBT+, etc. folks in this space, both as creators and as players.

      The existence of numerous video game orchestras (one in Boston, one in London, one in Manchester, just to name a few!) as well as touring orchestras (see my Facebook comment on this article) has many people engaging with video game music via the context of classical pedagogy.

      Thank you very much for bringing marginalised accessibility into the conversation. Alway a vital one to be having.

    2. Ann, thanks for your perceptive comment, and for picking up on the points I quoted from Heather Chaplin, who worked with Zimmerman and is one of the leading expert academic voices on the impact of gamification, both for better and worse.

      I agree that a gamified approach to learning, which favours functional systematising but neglects empathetic development, could prove to have a knock-on effect for gender and other inequalities. There is of course a very wide spectrum of learning needs and preferences. Similarly, gamified approaches may be especially helpful for some, and it is good to see an increasingly creative and positive range of resources available to support different learners.

      The concern is perhaps that assessments based on models of gamification could become the main or only standard, and that some who learn using gamified apps are unable to access the direct support of a suitable teacher, whether for financial or other reasons. These points all impact on equality of access.

      I think the takeaway from this is that if educators want to foster an inclusive, level playing field it is in our interests to include gamified approaches within a much broader spectrum that also includes socialisation, interaction and develops emotional connectivity.

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