Playing with Music, Part II: Learning to Play the Game

Let’s Play a Game

One of the universal behavioral similarities between birds and mammals (and some child-rearing reptiles as well) is a tendency to engage in play behavior. This is usually broken down into social (i.e., playing with others), object (i.e., playing with a ball), or locomotor (i.e., chasing your tail) play, or some combination thereof. It seems that for these species the well-being of both the individual and the group are improved by engaging in play, thus building social bonds, reducing group tension, and promoting the development of both muscle and intellect.

In the ubiquitous genre of the “Cute Internet Pet Video,” we have a canine engaging in novel object and locomotor player with an automated ejection device, or “Dog Plays with Ball-Throwing Robot.”

Humans play in uncountable ways. You could probably count a good handful of play behavior patterns throughout the day: linguistic (puns, jokes, water-cooler stories), raffles, competitions, sports, play with children, play with colleagues, and, for musicians, engaging in our art—which hopefully has retained a sense of play and wonder through the years. Retaining playfulness is essential in the ongoing artistic quests of discovery, re-evaluation, self-challenge, and, hopefully, fun.

One of the elements of music-making that sometimes loses a sense of playfulness is concert programming. For programmers and presenters, concerns for vital practical issues—audience attraction, audience retention, rehearsal time, capability of the performers, length of concert versus listener attention, performance and advertising budgets, ethics, demographics, etc.— have the potential to stunt the natural creativity of concertizing. How does one go about crafting a musical presentation—be it a solo concert, a tour, or an ensemble’s or venue’s full season—that also balances a sense of play, engagement, and wonder that leads to the most natural music-making?

One way to address this question is by looking at the way that game designers approach play. Both game designers and musicians are dealing with interactional frameworks that should, at their best, be fun (and/or fulfilling) to engage with, and, for professionals, need to be economically viable. That is, they are balancing experiential qualities with practical quantities. Approaching programming with game design elements in mind can give musicians (and artists in general) a fresh set of variables to consider in the quest to present their art.

Here are the Rules

Most successful games (and you can place your own value on what success is, whether it be cultural endurance or economic viability) tend to have a few things in common:

  • There is some sort of interaction. This interaction might be virtual (with a computer or video game system), with another human player with or without methods of intervention—cards, board, dice, etc.—or possibly even against oneself, in the case of playing solitaire, or practicing (“solo play”) for a sport or art.
Calvinball Image © Bill Watterson

Calvinball
Image © Bill Watterson

  • There is context for understanding what is going on. Typically, this is a rules set, whether explicitly defined or implicitly understood by the players. Sometimes, the rules can be changed (as we saw in the last installment of this series, or as any readers of Calvin and Hobbes know full well), but the common understanding of the players help them to parse the actions of the game.
  • There is a balance between novelty and familiarity. The rules and setting of the game help to create expectations amidst unexpected events, which could be generated either through chance operations (the result of dice rolls, shuffled decks of cards, or computer-generated spawning sites and rates), the actions of another player (“Will she pass the ball?” “Will he tag me?”), or simply novel surroundings (e.g., I have a soft spot for Star Wars Monopoly, despite having played seemingly eternal “Classic” Monopoly games growing up).
  • There are opportunities for fulfilling experiences. Having rules also creates goal-oriented action, the pursuit and attainment of which can lead to a emotional and psychological fulfillment (oftentimes known as “fun”). However, these goals aren’t necessarily always about winning. (which in general is less applicable in the art world, as I and others have written about).

“You Can Learn How to Play the Game…It’s Easy”

This set of game design aspects certainly resonates well with programming in general. Most artists already strive to foster interaction and understanding, balancing familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and creating fulfilling experiences. These are easy enough to discuss in the abstract, but implementation can prove challenging, whether due to over-generalization of an idea (what is a “fulfilling experience,” anyway, and how does one even approach quantifying it?), or to colleagues, boards, or directors who might not share the same types of programming goals. Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down the above ideas through pertinent questions that offer a fresh look at how we choose to program and present our art. As the Beatles (above) suggest, “all you need is love,” but it’s always helpful to have a few guidelines along the way to figure out the best way to share the music you care passionately about.

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