Bringing some fun to practicing an instrument

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Heqiu Song defended her PhD thesis at the Department of Industrial Design on November 28th.

Practice makes perfect. But getting a child to practice the musical instrument they are learning can be an uphill battle. This prompted TU/e researcher Heqiu Song to design a music buddy. She saw that when children had a humanoid robot with them, they were able to spend more time motivated on their music practice. Music teachers and parents, too, are enthusiastic about the encouraging effect of the music robot.

"Wow, that was great! I’d love to hear it one more time. Will you play that tune again?" The young pianist - her face beaming - straightens her back and once more her fingers seek out the right keys. Watching on video, and feeling slightly jealous - with two young would-be musicians at home I’m no stranger to the frustrations of music practice - I see what the music buddy developed by Industrial Design researcher Heqiu Song manages to achieve, with seemingly minimal effort.

In her teenage years, Song herself gave up her music lessons; having her mother breathing down her neck wasn’t making her practice sessions any more enjoyable. Song now hopes that robots can be used to help children get more fun out of practicing their musical instruments.

Daily routine

After all, we know it takes effort to learn a new musical instrument. Regular repetition is very important and that’s why music teachers advise their students to practice every day, if only for a little while. It turns out that’s not easy. It’s often hard to schedule a regular time, there’s distraction at every turn, and a child is usually more easily satisfied than the parent who is sitting by listening.

A few years ago Song took up piano again. She can recommend music to everyone. "Playing music can create a deep sense of relaxation; when you’re in the flow, it feels wonderful. And when you’re playing together, in an orchestra or band for instance, music really does become a way of communicating with one another."

Music is especially important for a child’s brain, explains Song. "It prompts the formation of more complex neural connections, improving the child’s ability to switch between multiple tasks, process information and concentrate on a task for a longer period of time. It has even been shown that music has a positive effect on mathematical understanding. And on social-emotional development; making music is good for building self-esteem and perseverance, and for processing emotions. And for so much more, I could go on and on!" laughs Song. "That’s why it is such a shame when a child wants to stop having music lessons because they dislike practicing. I wanted to see how I could make practicing more enjoyable for children, with the knock-on effect of supporting parents and music teachers."

Robot role

As one of the first researchers who tried to apply a social robot in music education, Song studied whether and how robots can be used effectively in musical instrument practise. "There are already many robots for children, in healthcare, for example, and in second-language teaching. But using social robots to fulfill an encouraging role in the practice of music, that’s new."

Song decided to test two different humanoid robots. Jimmy, a SociBot-Mini, is a compact robot with a mobile head onto which facial expressions can be projected. The other robot, named Pepper, has a friendly appearance designed to encourage communication, and can also display different kinds of behaviors, thanks to its mobile arms and hands.

Partly because her background in psychology, Song first wanted to know what role a supporting robot should assume during the practice sessions. She was helped by a music school in Eindhoven (Cultuur&Kunst Eindhoven), Muziekschool Den Haag, and Phoenix Cultuur, an art and culture school in Veghel.

Finding music schools keen to take part in the study was a time-consuming business, says Song. "New technology is often greeted with suspicion and teachers were worried that the robot would replace them. But my aim is precisely the opposite: I want to support the teacher. When a student is practicing better at home, this has a positive effect on their music lessons. Besides, music isn’t only about learning skills, emotions are also very important. And that means you always need a good teacher."

Playing along to YouTube

Song arranged for the children to first be introduced to the robot, then to practice repeatedly in its company for a number of weeks. She herself sat in a separate room from which she operated the robot and had it say the right things. She worked with children aged from eight to sixteen, both beginners and advanced students. Song is enthusiastic about the initial results.

"Without exception the children were highly motivated during their practice sessions with the social robot; surprisingly enough, the type of robot made no difference. They practiced for longer and with greater concentration. And, really importantly, they had a lot of fun while they were playing; they thought it was a shame when the session ended. And whereas I had expected teenagers to be a little dismissive of a ’childish’ music buddy, they too practiced more effectively. Playing along to their favorite music video on YouTube, duetting with the robot, proved a favorite activity. Several children spent an entire session doing this, without realizing how quickly time was passing."

Learning critical listening

If we really want to use music buddies, what recommendations does Song have for us?

"Children who are new to music lessons mainly need a lot of encouragement. In experiments with a non-evaluative robot and an evaluative robot we saw that the beginners did better with only positive encouragement. Girls in particular are highly sensitive in this respect. Children who have been playing an instrument for a number of years benefit from having a robot that gives extra tips and pointers. It is also important that the child’s self-learning capacity is trained. This can be done by having the child assess their own playing, in terms of rhythm and tempo for example. Afterwards they and the robot listen to the recorded piece, and the robot gives constructive comments. It is great to see that during another attempt to play the piece, the tips really are taken on board."

Before music teachers and parents get too enthusiastic, Song emphasizes that these are initial studies. "A great many follow-up experiments are needed before a robot comes over to your house to stand beside the piano stool. We are keen to test, for example, whether social robots are subject to the novelty effect. After months or even years, do children still enjoy being with the music buddy? And do they keep trying just as hard as they did at the outset?"

In the meantime, she has some final tips for parents: "Parental involvement is essential when learning a new musical instrument, even if you can’t play a note yourself. It really helps if you sit beside your child. Don’t judge, just encourage. And remember: perseverance pays dividends."