MEET THE DEVELOPER
Music lessons that kids will love
Monster Chords creator Yat Siu shows how much fun learning an instrument can be.
Monster Chords: Fun with Music
Guitar & Ukulele Learning
With the myriad benefits learning music has on a child’s development, it’s no wonder so many parents start their kids on instruments early on.
For Yat Siu, his music training also led to development – in a more literal sense.
Born in Vienna to professional musicians, Siu was classically trained in piano, flute and cello. By 16, he had earned a music degree from the Vienna Konservatorium. However, instead of following in his parents’ footsteps, Siu took an interest in computers. This eventually led him to his father’s hometown of Hong Kong, where he joined the city’s first wave of IT entrepreneurs. Siu has since become one of the largest mobile game developers in Hong Kong. In his spare time, he is also supporting the classical music community.
Traditional methods of music study involve countless hours and plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Siu admits that many people are hard-pressed to find the joy in it – including himself. After starting his career, it would be a decade before Siu touched another instrument. It wasn’t until his kids were born when he picked up the guitar again – which he taught himself to play.
I had very rigorous training. It was like six to eight hours of piano. Seriously hard work... you would begin to associate learning music with bad experiences.
— Yat Siu, co-founder of Animoca
Among Siu’s three children, his daughter showed musical promise early on. Wanting to cultivate her talent, Siu signed her up for piano lessons. But he became frustrated she wasn’t making progress. Looking back, he’s now clear why.
“I started to do things to her that teachers did to me in terms of strictness. I would have arguments with my daughter because suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.”
It was seeing his daughter’s enthusiasm for music wane that prompted Siu to design an app that emphasises the fun of music. Putting his years as a developer to work, Siu created an app that gamified guitar lessons.
This idea of making music learning fun is part of the genesis of Monster Chords… you can learn music in a fun way and get results without feeling bored.
Fun comes first
Simple in its design, Monster Chords prompts players to take up their own guitars or ukuleles and play chords along to a tune. The objective is to attract an audience of shy little monsters as you strum beside a campfire. Playing is rated on a scale of one to three stars based on pitch and rhythm accuracy, and every passed level unlocks the next. Siu’s hope is that his cute monsters and engaging gameplay will help kids form a love for learning the guitar – and also keep them playing.
As an example of the practice-payoff relationship in gaming, Siu cites the arcade hit Street Fighter. Siu recalls how players would spend hours and develop blisters practising combo moves. He wanted to bring this enthusiasm to learning instruments. The idea worked: the app has kids (and parents who are thrilled to see their child excited about music) asking for more levels to be added.
Despite having studied piano for years, Siu didn’t hesitate as to the reason why he chose guitar: lots of pop stars play it, which makes it “pretty cool”. Of course, there were other considerations, namely cost and sense of achievement.
“We wanted to find an instrument with a low learning curve that gives the highest feeling of satisfaction. With a piano, to get to where you sound good, it actually takes more time,” Siu says.
Classical vs. children’s tunes
As Siu points out, most children who study music are taught classically. Often, this is not music they relate to – or even like.
“People forget that when Beethoven was around, he was a pop star”, he says.
Siu laments the idea of kids being forced to learn music from centuries ago just to pass a test. Often enough, many give up on music altogether once they pass. That’s why the app makes a point of including songs that kids are familiar with – it helps cultivate a love for playing music.
Let the kids choose
Similarly, Siu says that despite his classical background, he wanted to “step back” from the framework of traditional music study and instead focus on having fun.
“Go back in history and musicians are artists. They never actually went through this rigorous [music grading] system. They played because they loved it and then invented something new and created something new.”
His greatest inspiration came from his own kids. He jokingly refers to them as his first beta testers. Siu’s eldest son was less interested in learning music than in passing levels, trying again and again to get a three-star rating. Now, he can play the guitar. His daughter wanted to play songs she liked, which led to the app’s Composer Mode. His youngest simply enjoyed playing along. All their positive responses were enough to convince Siu that his app successfully keeps kids interested in music.
Back to the beginning
While Animoca is known for its mobile games, the firm has recently been focused on children’s education apps – something Siu says is a return to the company’s roots.
In 2009, Siu developed his first app Baby Flash Cards to teach children how to read. It became an instant hit. From there, he cautiously made the jump to games and developed a number of popular titles. After witnessing the ups and downs of Hong Kong’s tech industry over the past decade, Siu decided it was time to revisit why he started making apps in the first place.
If we’re able to start kids on apps that influence them to be more creative and divergent, and most of all teach them something... that would be an achievement.
The company plans to continue making more children’s education apps. Currently, they’re working on a Western cowboy-themed guitar app for teens. It features pop country songs, as well as incorporates a storyline and other gameplay elements, in the hopes of bringing more people to experience the joys of music.