How Rhythm Games Helped Me as a Learning Musician

From plastic guitars to japanese kara

Do you remember the first songs you heard in your life? Probably not the actual first ones, but I bet you can think of an artist that stuck in your mind when you were very young. Those sweet melodies… or maybe some groovy djent? When I was four years old, I’d pick two albums, put them on my dear CD player and start dancing my baby ass out. One of them was “By the Way”, by Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Sonically, it was something I couldn’t explain with my young mind. Energy flew and attacked every inch of space in my living room. The other was “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden. Yes, I was four and I already was “summoning Satan” along with Bruce Dickinson’s voice. In a kind of catholic family. I guess this explains a lot of who am I today, for better or worse. However, the point I want to make is that music had a strong impact on my life since my early years. And it has never left me.

I was listening to a substantial number of bands when I was a teenager, mostly hard rock and heavy metal music, specially nü metal – Slipknot and Korn mostly. But I continued listening to Maiden (like I do today, and I’ve recently bought my ticket for this year’s concert). I was fascinated by “The Trooper”, that iconic riff at the start blew my mind every time, and I wanted to know how they did it. Before I went into the “real deal” – buying my first electric guitar – a video game called Guitar Hero III appeared in my life. I put it on my old PS2, went through the menus, selected my character and “Slow Ride” by Foghat started calling for me.

I instantly feel in love with a game that would give me so many hours of joy and frustration. Something changed in my head – maybe there was a small “click” sound and everything – and it quickly became something special.

Look, I know. I named the third entry of a series that had been around for a while. I was familiarized with Guitar Hero before that moment in my life, but I actually never played it. And when I started rocking it, I was using my DualShock. Back in the time, buying those cute plastic guitars was so out of my league – or my parents’, to be honest. If it wasn’t for a friend of mine, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced my first approach to playing a real electric guitar.

Needless to say, the experience was a game-changer. Like that first time you use a steering wheel to play Gran Turismo – if you haven’t and you are into driving games, please try to do that. I never wanted to play Guitar Hero with a joystick again in my life. Sadly I had to since I didn’t see that friend in particular quite often. However, those times pressing colorful buttons as “Even Flow” was rolling are treasured in my mind. We loved kicking Tom Morello’s ass, too.

The interesting part of the story is that I strongly believe Guitar Hero helped me on learning how to play a real guitar. In music, there is a concept called – incoming jokes? – “fingering”. It’s a technique about learning how to place your fingers and wrists on an instrument when playing a song.

For example, take a quick look at this tab. The lines represent the strings of a six-string guitar, and the numbers the frets. If you want to play the first note, you have to hit the fourth string – you count them starting from the thinner – on the twelfth fret. But which finger do you use to hold the string? That’s where fingering comes up.

While there are recommended ways or schemes to put your fingers, it’s always best if you find what you are more comfortable with naturally. And you know what? Guitar Hero helped me a lot with that.

I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities and the upcoming long way to the top.

Despite the fact of the huge differences between pressing a colored rectangle and hitting a string, the series’ peripheral was a great start and my fingers did a natural transition to the real thing. Usually, the way you play the songs in these games have a relation with the way you would do it in real life, so you won’t necessarily start from scratch when learning a new song.

When the desired event happened, the purchase of my beloved Fender Squier Bullet Stratocaster, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities and the upcoming long way to the top. I tried to reproduce what I was doing in GH while Even Flow was playing, but it was impossible. It was a damn hard track for a rookie like me. But I noticed something: my fingers were coordinating and adapting themselves to the strings really fast.

The Pearl Jam’s massive hit was still far from my possibilities, but I started “rocking” with the songs I believe everyone starts learning: “Back in Black”, “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, “Smoke on the Water”… you know, the golden songs to pick an instrument and feel you are doing something. I’m trying to remember which was the first exact song I learned to play with my Strato and I’m failing over and over again.

The fact that I had played an acoustic guitar some years before at primary school wasn’t helping. Yes, I didn’t mention the fact that I already knew some stuff about playing guitar because I assure you, I was a complete disaster. I played for a really brief time and I lacked any legit enthusiasm at the time. Nevertheless, with the Strato was another story. And for the better.

Some years later, when Rock Band came out, I was told this was the “next-gen evolution of GH”. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to play it, as I was more focus on learning how to not get kicked off my own band – a funny story, actually. Although I spent less time playing video games and more practicing, I never quit the joystick. I just didn’t feel like discovering these new rhythm games or returning to my beloved franchise – DJ Hero always looked sick to me, though.

Luckily enough, video games are known for creating new experiences from time to time. Nowadays, rhythm games don’t require pricey accessories and are more than just re-creating a specific song. Gems like the frenetic Thumper or the charming Crypt of the Necrodancer are perfect examples of this natural evolution.

Sometimes, we might not need the most rational thought or impulse to start something that we’ll love. I try to keep that in mind.

Two of my favorite rhythm games of the last decade are the Persona Dancing series and the karaoke minigame in the Yakuza franchise. I won’t say I got into dancing because of the first one, but I can’t deny, even if it sounds ridiculous when you think about it (because it is), that Yakuza gave me the final push I needed to start singing classes. The precious minigame won’t help you learn any single thing about your voice’s ability, not even if you speak Japanese. It’s just about pressing and holding a button for a precise period of time. The thing is, watching Kiryu and Majima having a blast (and breaking the world) increased the desired I always have since I was a small kid. Sometimes, we might not need the most rational thought or impulse to start something that we’ll love. I try to keep that in mind.

You might be wondering: “Man, your experience is nice and everything, but do we have actual evidence of rhythm games helping ourselves in developing any skill?”

The short answer is “yes”, although there are remarkable “buts” on the way. There is a study in neuroscience focused on investigating if rhythm games can help to develop specific rhythm skills. Ironically, they don’t help to train any rhythm skill, but they do help with other cognitive functions, like memory or general language skills. There has been a discovery of benefits for people with diseases or disorders, like Parkinson (improvements on motor behavior) and Developmental Language Disorders (training speech perception in children). However, the lack of precise movement recording, the imprecise rhythmic measures or the improper use of musical stimuli fails to deliver a proper training for the studied topic.

Trying to close this personal piece, I might not be able to state that rhythm games have helped me with learning music in the way I originally believed. There could have been timing and memory improvements (maybe some fingering too?), but I can’t say I had a specific music help in my musical journey.

Nevertheless, if you allow me to sound a bit corny, somewhere deep inside my heart, between my frozen soul and the eternal void of anguish and death thoughts in my mind, rhythm games helped me realized I could give music a chance. There probably hasn’t been a push so big for me like these games. And if you are doubting about it, please stop. If I could start playing guitar and I even do some gigs, you should definitely try yourself.

By Axel Nicolás Bosso

Latino. Almost a psychologist. Shameless Yakuza lover. Likely to remind you that objective reviews don’t exist. @Axl_Bosso

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