The Gamification of Musical Learning

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

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, Eric Zimmerman suggests that while the twentieth century was the age of information and of moving pictures, the twenty-first is the ludic (game-centric) century.

Zimmerman 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, and in this article I will be considering and reflecting on the transformative impact this may be having, for better or worse…

The Games We Play

In my book How to Practise Music I make a strong case for a playful, curious, relaxed approach to learning music. I have written about this in more depth in my article Putting the PLAY back into Playing the Piano.

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.

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 and the need to win 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.

With this important contrast in mind, we can easily see 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 of course be applauded, or at the very least, cautiously welcomed.

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.


Putting the PLAY back into Playing the Piano
A manifesto for piano teaching in the 21st century

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 a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.