Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 3 / OCTOBER 1988


The ECS MIDI Musicware Series

ST Musical Education Software

by Jim Pierson-Perry

Although the ST MIDI market is presently focused on performance applications software (sequencers, patch editors, etc.), music educational products are just beginning to appear. The first offering is a series of 16 programs that teach a variety of subjects from note recognition to jazz harmonies. These come from Electronic Courseware Systems, Inc. (ECS) and are ST translations of music courses previously released for the Apple II and other computers.

The ECS Campus

ECS publishes educational and training software for all instructional levels from elementary school through college, as well as business and government uses; the courses can be set up for individual or classroom use. ECS offers over 300 courses, from language and math to fine arts and technology. Each is drafted by a qualified instructor then tested with students before being released.

Out of their existing 50-odd musical educational courses, ECS has released 16 for the ST, representing instructional levels from elementary to advanced. Most assume the user to be in at least mid-elementary school with some basic ability to read music at the note recognition level. Since all share a similar format, I'll go over their common elements before touching on individual program features.

Common Ground

Unfortunateiy, the ECS programs share a commonality of flaws. They all come on separate single-sided copy-protected disks that you cannot back up or transfer to hard disk. This is doubly bad since all the programs write to disk at some point and thus do so on your master disk. Compounding the problem, ECS provides no documentation beyond a package blurb outlining content and loading instructions. Minimum system requirements are a 520 ST with color monitor; most of the programs also require a MIDI keyboard although a few allow operation with just the internal monitor speaker.

The biggest problem is that these programs appear to have been directly ported from the Apple II, and make no attempt to support GEM or the mouse. Some offer a help fimction that you call with the H key, ignoring the HELP key provided on the ST. Even more embarrassing, there is no way to exit the programs other than resetting your ST! The programs handle MIDI functions reasonably well but they miss notes if you play too fast. This is particularly evident when playing scales and arpeggios but is not a problem for basic note recognition drills.

Oddly enough, half of the programs come configured for classroom use and require that you log in and provide a password before proceeding. This is ridiculous for home use and unfortunately you cannot bypass it. Auxiliary instructor software is included for administrative functions and monitoring student performance on these disks, along with instructions for its use.

Program content falls into one of two types: tutorials with quizzes or rote drills. In most instances, you can specify the difficulty level for the quizzes. Passing a quiz enters your name in a "Hall Of Fame," a fairly useless feature for such applications.

Course Selections

ECS has divided the courses into two sets of eight each representing beginning and intermediate levels. Beginning courses concentrate on note recognition and ear training while intermediate courses go into chord structures and fingering. Due to the similarities between the programs, many of my comments are generic.

Going beyond the frankly poor ST implementation, there is too much repetition of course content between programs. Keyboard Kapers, Keyboard Note Drill, Keyboard Namegame, Keyboard Speed Reading and Super Challenger are all basically the same exercise: keyboard note recognition. The same applies to the advanced chord theory courses as well as the fingering and arpeggios courses. In these cases, a single strong comprehensive program should have been delivered rather than the repetitive, watered-down current offerings.

A second and more annoying concern: there is often too little instruction provided, especially considering the program prices. Many of the beginning programs have no instruction whatsoever and are merely simple quizzes. Another example is the intermediate program Keyboard Fingering which gives no lessons--just a single help screen summary of information. This program is also restricted to cover only major, minor and harmonic minor scales for a single octave.

ECS provides two programs at the novice level. Early Music Skills lets you determine whether a note is drawn on a line or space and whether consecutive notes go up or down--that's all. Most 3-year olds can do that without MIDI or a computer. The other is Musical Stairs, which introduces the concept of note intervals. Unfortunately, it uses an atypical nomenclature that is not used in any other ECS course, let alone standard music, and it covers only whole note intervals.

Although Electronic Courseware is to be commended for bringing
educational music software to the ST, their programs' user inter-
faces should be reworked to take advantage of GEM.

On the positive side, several of the intermediate courses that cover chord theory have excellent integration of screen graphics, text tutorials and MIDI support. Chords are drawn on screen and played at the same time via MIDI. These could be first-rate if the ST implementation were cleaned up.


The unfortunate bottom line is that I cannot recommend any of these programs in their present condition. Even the best of the lot are crippled by poor user interfaces and are overpriced for the amount of instructional content. There are also several ST public domain ear trainer programs far superior to these efforts.

ECS could make these programs much stronger without too much additional effort. They need to rework the programs' user interfaces to exploit the ST's features and should combine the repetitive lessons into separate powerful packages. They should also either get rid of the classroom log-in routine or make it a switchable option. Finally, I would urge ECS give up its copy protection entirely, or alter it to a key disk format so that owners could do some form of protective backup. With these changes, the ECS courseware would be worth a second look.

Jim Pierson-Perry is a research chemist and semiprofessional musician living in Elkton, Maryland.

Products Mentioned

Early Music Skills, Functional Harmony, Keyboard Tutor, Musical Stairs, Super Challenger, Keyboard Kapers, Keyboard Name Game, Keyboard Note Drill $39.95 each; Keyboard Arpeggios, Keyboard Blues, Keyboard Chords, Keyboard Extended Jazz Harmonies, Keyboard Fingering, Keyboard Intervals, Keyboard Jazz Harmonies, Keyboard Speed Reading, $79.95 each. Electronic Courseware Systems, Inc., 1210 Lancaster Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, (217) 359-7099