When my copy of Rock Band 3 showed up, I immediately tried out its pro keys mode. I’m used to playing piano, and reading piano music; but the game instead gives you a visual representation of (a section of) a keyboard, divided into regions by color. So I had to constantly think about where I was placing my fingers, moving my gaze back and forth between the screen and the keyboard.
After a bit of playing, though, I realized that the colored sections weren’t arbitrary, and that the fact that different sections included different numbers of keys was a virtue: each colored section contained a single group of black keys, along with the adjacent white keys. Once I realized that, I could find notes by touch: I’d move my hands to approximately the right place, feel out the location of the group of black keys, and use that to then feel out the individual key within that color.
That worked for individual keys; what about chords? Well, if the notes in a chord were one apart, it wasn’t so hard to find the chord by feel: find the bottom note with your thumb, say, then move your index finger a little bit higher, skipping one key. It got harder the more spread-out the chord was, however; and eventually, when chords got wide enough I became completely unable to figure out the spacing.
But then I had a happy realization: sight-reading fifths and sixths was okay for me (especially since they were generally the outside notes of a triad, so the note in the middle forms a bridge); larger than that and I had difficulties. But really, if I’m playing an interval larger than a sixth, probably it’s an octave? And a bit of experimentation proved that to be correct; in particular, as far as I can tell, the game never gives you chords wider than an octave. My hands know quite well what an octave feels like, so this realization removed the difficulty from wide intervals quite nicely.
Or rather, it removed that difficulty quite nicely for me. Much of what I’d outlined above could, I think, be done by somebody new to playing keyboards: using black keys to orient yourself, and transitioning from that to playing 1-3-5 chords. But somebody new to playing keyboards can not, I’m fairly sure, simply put down their hands and know what an octave feels like: that’s muscle memory that I’ve developed over years of practice.
It’s not the only such example, either. My hands can play scales without thinking; my hands know all sorts of chords; my hands even know all sorts of chord progressions. (Though I confess, I never expected the practice I put in years ago learning how to play figured bass lines to pay off in quite this context!) I’ve gotten better at reading the game’s notation, but it’s also the case that I can get quite good at the game without becoming fluent in reading that notation: if I start with my hands on a given triad, and see that the screen is telling me that the next chord is a little bit to the right with, say, the bottom note the same and the middle note on a black key instead of a white key, then there’s probably only one chord that’s going to make sense musically given those constraints. So my hands move along to that chord, and can frequently continue for quite some time on autopilot in that fashion.
Of course, sometimes it’s not that simple. In those circumstances, playing through sections of pieces in training mode is illuminating: I’ll be unable to parse a section, but then I’ll go through the section a couple of times, slowed down if necessary, and I’ll realize what the chord transitions are. After which that section becomes trivial to read and play, with a pleasing economy of hand movements.
And I will emphasize what I said above: this makes my experience playing the game quite different from the experience of somebody who didn’t take piano lessons (or harpsichord lessons—yay figured bass practice!) for years. I can see this on the leaderboards: while in general I do well on the leaderboards for all of the songs, I do better on some than on others. On songs that have you playing the same notes over and over again quickly and precisely, I do a mediocre job, frequently failing to make it past the triple-digit ranks. I could be imagining things, but my guess is that people who are very good at playing (non-pro) Rock Band guitar are also good at that sort of piece, and such people are who’s ahead of me on the leaderboard. Whereas if I hit a piece that’s slower but that transitions between chords more frequently, it’s not unheard of for me to get into the 30-50 range on the leaderboard for that song during my first playthrough and not feel like I did a particularly good job.
That’s pro keys; recently, though, I’ve been spending more time playing the game’s pro guitar mode. Which I came at from a quite different background: my only prior guitar playing experience was a little fiddling around with an acoustic guitar one summer during college. So, while I knew of the existence of five or so chords, there are many many more chords that I don’t know, and scales and chord transitions are a complete mystery to me.
As with pro keys, however, touching the instrument and getting my hands oriented was central to my experience. This was clear as soon as I started pro guitar mode: I’d been used to plucking guitar strings, but the game does a lot better at detecting your playing if you use a pick (and that is, of course, much more common for the actual musical performances that are on disc), so that is what I did. And, at first, I had a very hard time just finding the different strings with my pick! In fact, jumping between strings still occasionally gives me trouble half a year into this experiment; it’s amazing how difficult such basic actions can be.
That’s just my right hand, but of course there’s a lot more room for things to go wrong on guitar with my left hand. And go wrong they did: I initially had no idea where my hand should be at any given time. (Incidentally, I think the game and instrument’s ability to give you feedback on your hand position before you strum without requiring you to look at your hand is a huge advantage for learners.) But this turned even the easiest, chord-free mode of pro guitar into a wonderfully tactile and tactical experience: I would be confronted with a sequence of notes, and while it’s possible to approach them in isolation, it’s a lot more interesting to figure out how to position your hand so that you’ll be able to play as many of the notes in a sequence as possible without moving your left hand up and down the fretboard, playing as economically as possible.
And, of course, as you move up the difficulty level, the game throws chords at you, which is its own special experience. Learning the shapes of different chords on their own, learning how to maintain proper pressure to get a good sound out of barre chords, learning how to place my fingers on a barred A chord so that I don’t inadvertently mute strings. Learning how to transition between different chords, first slowly and then quickly, trying to hit each chord in the sequence crisply and accurately. Having common chord transitions slowly seep into my subconscious, into my reflexes; having right hand difficulties return when I need to master alternating strumming. All of the knowledge that’s in my hands for keyboards, I have to recreate when playing guitar.
As I go through the pro guitar experience, I’m constantly impressed at the tools the game gives to train my hands: the multiple versions of each song teaching different techniques, the range of difficulties across songs, the training mode letting you focus on key sections of each song, the lessons teaching you different playing techniques. With micro goals everywhere, with an attainable goal always nearby for my hands to strive for.
Video games have such a strange relationship to touch. By all rights, touch should be central to the experience of video games: your hands on your controller is exactly what mediates your experience, what forms the bridge between the desire for action in your head and the electronic representations that are inside the software and hardware that make up the games.
Yet, somehow, touch rarely contributes to my experience of games. At best, controllers are ready-to-hand, an unnoticed link in the chain of translation of action between my thoughts and my avatar. At worst, they’re present-at-hand, serving to frustrate with their clumsiness, with their lack of fidelity.
Rock Band points at what more is possible. I suppose that, if forced to choose, I would prefer a musical instrument to be ready-to-hand rather than present-at-hand. But, to me, both of those concepts understate the importance of hands! I don’t want instruments to be invisible, I don’t want my hands to be invisible, I don’t consider either of them to be interfering with some sort of direct connection between my brain and expressions of concepts in the world. My hands are creative partners, I want them to contribute more rather than less, and I don’t want to sweep those contributions under the rug.
(Is that attitude a side-effect of where I am in the learning process? Do professional musicians’ hands vanish as they’re absorbed in the music? I doubt it, if only because of the vast number of hours they spend training those hands.)
Does this richness of physical interaction ever happen with traditional video games? For me, rarely. But, of course, Rock Band 3 has two huge advantages in that regard: it’s a game that I play obsessively, and it builds on physical interaction designs that have evolved over centuries. There’s not a lot that most video games can do about the latter; the former, however, is more promising. Yes, most video games are play-and-forget operations; but perhaps serious Starcraft players, serious Counter-Strike players feel that their hands guide them at times?
And, of course, despite my obsession, my hands don’t spend most of their time playing Rock Band: they spend most of their time typing. Which they are good at; not the same sort of experience, however. Though it gets a little closer once keyboard shortcuts get involved: using meta-period to elegantly assemble commands in bash, using refactoring keyboard shortcuts to rearrange code in IntelliJ.
I am grateful to Rock Band for its help in reminding me of the pleasures of my hands. (And, if I’m drumming or singing, the pleasures of my feet and throat! The latter deserves its own post, though.) Perhaps I should try out Dance Central next, to move that experience in from my extremities, towards the center of my body?
This post has not been revised since publication.