Learn Piano & Music Theory Through a Video Game

Learn Piano & Music Theory Through a Video Game

Music is a mental superfood—truly enjoyable and beneficial for both brain and soul! Music awakens imagination and even boosts math skills. Join host Janna and her guest Dana Dominiak as they talk about Piano Prodigy—a video game that teaches kids both music theory and how to play the piano.

About our guest: Both a video game entrepreneur and a professor of Computer Science at Lewis University, Dana Dominiak has extensive experience in both games and education. Dana's companies have created many hit video games for Nintendo and other platforms including Dragonball Z: The Legacy of Goku series for Atari, and My Little Pony and Hello Kitty for Hasbro and Sanrio. Dana holds a PhD in Computer Science in AI from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Mostly, she just really likes to play video games.

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Podcast Transcript

Janna Koch (00:36):

Hi, and welcome to Homeschool Your Way. I'm your host, Janna Koch, and the community manager at BookShark. In today's episode, I am joined by Dana Dominiak. She is from The Prodigy Factory. We're going to be discussing how music can awaken your child's imagination and introduce you to a product that might just be helpful in engaging your child in wanting to learn music. Dana, thank you so much for being here.

Dana Dominiak (01:00):

Thanks for having me on your show.

Janna Koch (01:04):

I am interested in this concept of how music really does help creativity in the mind, in the brain. And as a homeschool mom myself, I'm always looking for ways to spark creativity in my youngest child that's still at home homeschooling with me. So why don't you tell our audience how you got into the homeschool field?

Dana Dominiak (01:28):

Well, I come from a family of teachers, which wasn't always a good thing when you're growing up, but in retrospect, it's a great thing actually. So my dad was a high school art teacher and my mother was a grade school art teacher, and all of their friends were teachers. And so, of course, I didn't know when I should stop going to school, so I just kept going forever. And I have a passion for teaching because of that, because my family and our friends are all teachers. And I also had a passion for video games. So the passion for teaching and the passion for video games kind of came together into this educational software company, The Prodigy Factory. And one of our products is a piano teaching game. So instead of just educational software, the spin on it is, it is an educational game. So it's much more engaging for children and actually it's a little bit more fun to work on than just plain old boring business software. So, that's how I got into it.

Janna Koch (02:44):

Now, coming from a family of "artists", and here you are, people would maybe look at computer science and program writing as the opposite of art, but how do you combat that misconception?

Dana Dominiak (03:03):

Well, it's kind of interesting because I got started as an artist. When I was a kid, when people would ask me, what do you want to do when you grow up, I'd say, I want to be an artist, because there was no such thing as a computer programmer back then. It was like maybe you saw computers in the movies or on TV, but they were all fake. This was way before the Apple II came out in the late seventies. So first I wanted to be an artist, and then I saw my first computer in school, in grade school, and then I wanted to be a programmer. So I did a lot of art, I did a lot of programming. And at one point I realized they both kind of felt the same to me. And you would think they'd be complete polar opposites or they'd be different, but that creativity in your mind is the same, whether it's programming or whether it's art, being creative and thinking. And so, to me, there's no difference. It's an interesting question though, and it's interesting that people think it's completely different.

Janna Koch (04:15):

Well, it's in the age of Minecraft and kids getting into gaming and yet being creative at the same time, for an old school parent like me, I'm thinking, why are you playing video games again? Why? And I have three girls, I would not call them gamers in any way. I think Minecraft was probably one of the ones that they gravitated towards, but it was more because they could play with their friends offsite with each other, and that was about it. But when I started to actually sit down and watch what they were doing in this game, I thought, oh, well, that's pretty creative. And ironically, they have a creative mode, which is the only one I would let my girls play in. And so, I am now seeing this cross between, you have two different fields, but they're actually starting to meld. And from the old school sense of computers being art, that's kind of hard to wrap my mind around, but I'm learning more and doing better these days with that.

Dana Dominiak (05:16):

Yeah, Minecraft is excellent software and you can even build machines inside of Minecraft. I have taught a computer architecture class at our local university, and students can actually simulate building an actual computer in Minecraft using logic gates and circuits. So Minecraft is just infinitely flexible. It's a wonderful educational tool, but don't tell that to kids. Tell them it's a game.

Janna Koch (05:50):

Right. Let them know that they're still playing.

Dana Dominiak (05:53):


Janna Koch (05:53):

So let's talk about The Prodigy factory. What is one of the products that you guys have created that has helped children with their creativity?

Dana Dominiak (06:05):

Well, one of our artistic products is Piano Prodigy. And this is a way of taking piano lessons, but making it seem like the kids are playing video games. So I mean, every parent wants their kid to learn how to play piano. Right? And you hear of horror stories of kids having to practice and they don't want to practice, and the piano lessons costing $120 a week, and if the kid doesn't practice for a week but the teacher comes anyway, that's like 120 bucks down the drain. So practicing has always been a thing of contention between students and parents. So we've turned piano practice into playing a video game, which when you think about it, kids love to play video games. And because I come from a video game background, one of my companies made a bunch of Dragon Ball Z games for Nintendo, and we've made Hello Kitty and My Little Pony games for Hasbro.


So we're hardcore video game developers over here, in addition to educators. So we made some arcade games that teach you how to play the piano, and they really seem to grab the attention of the students. So they don't have to do some boring practice for 30 minutes a day. You send them to their MIDI keyboard, their piano keyboard and a computer and tell them, "Now you can't get up until you're done playing your video games". And it has a much better reaction from children than making them drill math problems or piano lessons or violin lessons. The kids play the video games for 30 minutes and they're learning, but it's not difficult and it's not boring. It's fun, so they want to practice.

Janna Koch (08:12):

Now, those are the families who already maybe have the idea that their kids are going to learn an instrument or they're going to practice. What do you say to the families who are maybe of the persuasion that music isn't that high on the list when it comes to education? When you and I are younger, it felt like everyone had to take piano lessons. If you weren't doing piano, you were in band, you were in something, right? Almost everybody had their hands on some type of instrument. And I haven't looked up the statistics, but I know when I talk to people like my kids' friends, that's almost like, if you take piano lessons, it's like you're kind of in the minority where it used to be the majority. So we have this new generation of homeschool families that maybe haven't been taught what music can do for their families. So what would you say to combat that idea that it's not necessary, it's not one of the core subjects. Why do we really need it?

Dana Dominiak (09:13):

There are many studies, I mean, besides the fact that it's fun and then you get to go to parties and play the piano, there are so many studies that show that children who learn an instrument and learn music, it enhances every other aspect of their learning. They're better at math, they're better at language, it's enjoyable. So they're a little bit more relaxed and they enjoy learning more. There's just endless benefits from this. Although you reminded me when you said that when we were younger, almost everybody played an instrument. My sister played the trombone, and it was horrific to have to listen to her play the trombone when I was trying to concentrate and do math homework or something. And so, the beautiful thing about piano prodigy is that you can adjust the volume or have the students wear headphones. So somebody could be learning the piano at all times, or if you have multiple children, it could be one after another, taking turns on the keyboard and they can wear headphones.

Janna Koch (10:23):

The joys of modern technology.

Dana Dominiak (10:25):

It's hard to wear headphones when you're playing the trombone.

Janna Koch (10:30):

Although nowadays it seems... My husband always used to say to our kids like, "No, we're not getting a set of drums. A, we don't have the room, and B, I don't want to listen to it". But now, even this product, even drums, you can stick its headset in if it's electric and not have to hear it. So I would think because of these advances, we would be more apt to have our children in music. But I do, again, I find that, especially in my homeschool community, it's not something that is, well, I don't want to say it's not value because I know everyone enjoys music in some way or another, whether they want to admit it or not, but it's not as a high priority. It's not at the top of people's list, because as a homeschool parent, you think, okay, reading, writing, arithmetic, maybe a second language, maybe a sport. But where does music fall in when I only have so much time in a day?

Dana Dominiak (11:30):

Yeah. Well, like I mentioned, when students study music, their grades in all other subjects tend to go up. But a parent might not know where to start with music lessons. And this is where Piano Prodigy really guides the student through the lessons. It teaches music theory. There's a little onscreen avatar in the form of Professor Bunsen, a talking rabbit. And the software and the AI really guide the children through music theory and how to play the piano. And it really frees up the parents not to worry so much about the details of playing the piano because the software handles that, but instead the parents could spend more time worrying about the overall curriculum and make sure it's balanced. It's maybe not too much science and too much art, but there's a little bit of everything mixed into it.

Dana Dominiak (13:29):

I think that people have a tendency to focus on the subjects that can be quantified. I can see a test, I can drill the math facts in, I can read an essay that's been written and I feel like I can grade it, and so then I can check that off my list. With music, because it's its own animal, right, it's its own entity, and so there is sometimes in my mind, well, let's just skip that for today because I don't have a way to grade you anyways and we'll get to it later.

That's one of the beauties that the software is because it's like a video game, there's actual levels that you have to pass. So students will perfect a level and move up to the next level. They'll earn virtual medals and certificates that they could show off to their friends and family, but you can hear them progressing. You could hear more complicated songs as Professor Bunsen guides them along, and you could see them earn ribbons and medals as they level up through the game. And I think in a way, it really gives students and parents a sense of progression as they go through the product. And having a sense of progression is not only important for education, but it's important for games as well when you think about it. Just about every video game you play, you get to higher and higher levels, and that's what compels you to keep going.

Janna Koch (15:06):

It definitely triggers something that's innate inside of us to accomplish, that we are all created to accomplish something. And so if you have no progress, that's really defeating, I mean, in a lot of ways.

Dana Dominiak (15:20):

Yes. Yeah. No, a sense of accomplishment is vital.

Janna Koch (15:24):

Nobody wants to play a game that they can't eventually win.

Dana Dominiak (15:28):

Right. Correct. Although, I'm pretty sure my mother does that all the time. She keeps trying. She's not in the video game generation.

Janna Koch (15:37):

Well, I guess, we had gotten our kids a gaming console several years ago and it's way outdated. And they're older now, but again, they're not big on gaming. So it hasn't been an issue. But once in a while, we'll all go downstairs and all as a family and we'll try to play a game. And I was down there trying to do the racing game, and I'm overextending myself thinking that somehow it's going to make me go faster on the track. And every time I get thrown off the track and I don't understand. And in that moment I thought, I have become my mother. When my mom used to come downstairs and try to play Sega with my brother and I, and she just was all over the place and couldn't figure it out. And we're like, this is so easy. Why can't you get it? And now when they say you turn into your parents, it's a 100% true. I am now my mom.

Dana Dominiak (16:27):

Yeah. Whenever I say something that my mother would've said, she just beams with pride and a little bit of, I think comeuppance, she's just so glad it happened to me too.

Janna Koch (16:38):

Yeah. My girls kept saying, "Just put yourself in a bubble. Just go in the bubble in the game, then we can keep playing and you're not bothering us". And I was like, I don't want to be in the bubble. I want to play the game. But it just-

Dana Dominiak (16:51):

Being in the bubble, the ultimate shame.

Janna Koch (16:53):

The bubble of shame. Well, that's where I was banned. And that was probably the last time I tried to play a video game with my kids because I was like, fine, I've lost my touch. It's no big deal.

Dana Dominiak (17:05):

They put me in a bubble and they left me there.

Janna Koch (17:07):

I know. No, after all I did for them, Dana. It's so rude. It's so rude.


Dana Dominiak (17:11):

It's the story of the ages.

Janna Koch (17:13):

Yes. It is fun to think about what music does for our children. I had read a book a while back about multiple intelligences and the author of that book had really talked about how parents can awaken these different types of intelligences in their children and music is one of them. And so I thought, I looked at my kids, I'm like, how can I awaken that in you? And learning an instrument obviously is the goal to awaken that gift of music inside of our children. But it doesn't stop there. Mean you had talked about how math scores go up. And people think, well, there's no creativity in math. I think you and I could both argue that's not true.

Dana Dominiak (17:57):

There's a lot of creativity in math for sure.

Janna Koch (18:00):

Well, tell us a little bit more about that for the layman who's just like math.

Dana Dominiak (18:06):

Yeah, I think some people have had sort of negative experiences with math lessons when they were a kid where they were frustrated and they didn't really understand and they maybe didn't get the right teacher for them or have the right lessons or guidance. That doesn't mean math is bad, it means that they had a bad experience, which is different than math being that. But math is, when you get into upper level math, maybe in the last couple years of high school or in college, math is more creative than anything. And it's also a huge subject. It's not just the addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. There's a lot of really creative stuff that goes on in math. So having a mathematical mind is actually really important. And it's really important to all kinds of professions. I remember before computers were really popular, somebody in one of my math classes in school asked our math teacher, "Well, what is math good for?"


And her answer was, "Oh, it's really good for mind exercises". But what I've learned since is it's useful in all of engineering, all of science, so much of business and music and art as well in creativity. Math is probably one of the most important subjects. I can argue with people about that. But if anything teaches you some of the fundamentals of math, it's actually music. Music is math applied when you think about it. It's math over time. And students learn the simplest of concepts from learning how to read notation. They learn fractions and multiplication and then they start to learn rhythm and frequency and things that are more important to sciences and engineering. And I think that's one of the reasons why so many scientists are also musicians. They had that part of their brain awakened when they were younger and it never shut off. It just got more and more active.

Janna Koch (20:28):

I recently read a quote by Einstein and I wrote it down so that I wouldn't forget what he said. So what'd he say? Oh, he said, "I live my daydreams in music".

Dana Dominiak (20:39):

That is really interesting.

Janna Koch (20:40):

And I thought, wow. Here you have a man who is known for science and his contributions to that field, and yet his daydreams were in music. So I feel grieved when I hear that people have a separation in their mind between music and the sciences, where they feel like music is an art and it's a luxury, It's not a requirement. Music, it maybe make you feel good, but how does it help you in the real world? And it actually is wonderful for creative problem solving. I mean, it's like, why don't we think that problem solving is creative, but in order to actually, when you're presented with something, material that you have never seen or an escape room that you don't know how to get out of, it's creative problem solving that is going to be your best friend. And music is one of the things that really helps facilitate that skill.

Dana Dominiak (21:48):

Yeah, I know. It really helps wake up parts of the brain and make you think. And I think so many subjects are so important, especially the arts that wake up creativity because you can be fed facts or you can learn mechanical things about how to solve certain math problems, but how do you get creative and solve something that's never been solved before or apply something in a completely new way and all the amazing science and all the breakthroughs in science and engineering or from a creative standpoint, they weren't from a mechanical standpoint. So you brought up Einstein before. I remember reading about how when he was a boy, he'd be riding his bicycle down a path and looking at the ground. And you'd think, well, how does a kid riding his bike to school teach you anything? Well, what he was thinking is, my wheel was turning relative to the ground.


And he would think, but if I wasn't on the ground, if I was in space, what would I be moving relative to? So the seeds to his theory of relativity came from when he was a boy riding a bike to school. I mean, and that was a creative spark that was, in fact, I guess there's all these stories about how he wasn't very good in math in school because he probably was so far ahead of his teachers that it just angered them and he couldn't understand why he'd be doing exercises and something that was so easy when he had moved on to harder things.

Janna Koch (23:35):

And to think he was probably labeled the troubled child.

Dana Dominiak (23:38):

Yes, exactly. And he was-

Janna Koch (23:41):

Nonconforming. Nonconforming.

Dana Dominiak (23:43):

Yeah. Nonconforming, he was so far ahead. But he was way far ahead in math and in creativity. And music is pure creativity, but it's structured creativity. So when you think about timing and patterns, developing those things in the brain is going to make somebody much more advanced in science and engineering and even visual arts because it's all connected together in there. And the better you are at one thing, the better you are at something else. And music is something that it's just known to increase IQ points. And in addition to making people more intelligent, it makes life more enjoyable. And maybe when life is more enjoyable, you're more interested in learning things. And it's just this feedback loop of music, really. And it enhances your education, but it also enhances your life.

Janna Koch (24:50):

And there's a part of the brain that is affected when we listen to music, but that part of the brain is different than when we're actually playing the music.

Dana Dominiak (24:59):

Yes, yeah. There's all sorts of caveats like that. And when you're playing music, you're using parts of the brain that you normally would never have used in this way. And there's something interesting when somebody is a really advanced musician and they hear music, if they're just like a master piano player, their fingers will actually start to move as they're listening to music because you can't shut off the brain. It just keeps going and making those associations and making those patterns or recognizing those patterns. So at this point, it's just scientifically proven how well studying music really, really helps you grow and mature and it helps your brain grow and mature as well.

Janna Koch (25:54):

I had always wondered when there were people who are classical musicians and they're playing someone else's music, in my mind, I thought trying to perfect it. So a perfect performance of, they hit every right note, they did it. And I recently read that actually when classics, say, pianists are in a competition, it's more about how they apply their style to the music that is written and composed hundreds and thousands of years ago. And I thought, well, that makes so much more sense to me now because if it's more like a robotic, I must get all the right notes, and not saying that they obviously do hit all the right notes, but they have their own style... I felt so much better about how they... I'd never heard that before.

Dana Dominiak (26:48):

Oh yeah. I mean, when you think about it these days, we have computers and robots that we can have play things, play musical pieces that are maybe technically perfect, but it sounds like it has no soul. It's a like a player piano. And when people add emotion and their spin on a piece of music, it comes alive and it's beautiful. It's definitely different than just pure mechanical rote music. So it's an interesting way that music brings science and the humanities and the arts all together at the same time. And it can't just be one or the other, it has to be both.

Janna Koch (27:36):

So we could almost say that music is a super food in a sense because it brings all those properties together in a way that like a traditional nutritionist would say about a super food.

Dana Dominiak (27:49):

Yeah. Yeah. It's very good for your brain and your soul, and it's way better than broccoli. So let's not compare it to that super food.

Janna Koch (27:59):

We will not. We will not.

Dana Dominiak (28:00):

It's more like dark chocolate.

Janna Koch (28:03):

Even better. Even better. Well, one thing that we always do at Homeschool Your Way is give parents a homeschool hack. So what hack do you have for our homeschool parents?

Dana Dominiak (28:18):

I actually have a couple hacks, but it's the same hack, and I got this hack from my parents who are both teachers. Learning has to be fun, and there's a couple ways you can make it fun, but it goes back to our physiology. When something is fun, we want to do it more, which is how nature and the universe encourage us to do things that are fun. And little kids, when you look at them learning something new, the look of delight on their face and the way their eyes become saucers and they jump up and down, you could actually see it in small animals as well, when a kitten or a puppy learns something new, it's just so exciting and so much fun. And that's nature's way of making sure the little ones learn something so they could become happy and functioning adults.


So anything that makes learning fun, whether it's a video game or it's a field trip to a museum or an art gallery, or any activities that make learning fun just reinforces and teaches the right lesson to children, that learning should be fun and it's something worth doing and it's very valuable to learn new things. So that's the argument I'm going to make for using video games for teaching. It makes learning fun. And that's important.

Janna Koch (29:53):

That is very important because without fun, why do we even do the things that we do?

Dana Dominiak (29:59):

Yeah. Yeah. There has to be a motivator. There's too many people sitting on couches watching TV too much. And you certainly don't want to see that in young children.

Janna Koch (30:11):

Yeah. Dana, in closing, what would you like to leave with our audience? What would your final thoughts for them to just really be inspired with the idea that music can awaken imagination in their children?

Dana Dominiak (30:27):

I would have to say that music and math are almost the same thing applied in different ways. So if you're worried about your students or your children maybe not loving engineering or science or math enough, something like music can awaken these type of skills and this type of enjoyment of these different fields. So for students to get good at something, they have to want to do it for a long time. And music is something that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. They can not only play an instrument for the rest of their lives, but they can enjoy listening to an album. I was going to say buying a new album, but now people don't buy albums.

Janna Koch (31:25):

It's download new music.

Dana Dominiak (31:27):

I don't even know if they download it anymore. They just stream it.

Janna Koch (31:29):

Stream. Stream. That's right. We don't download anymore.

Dana Dominiak (31:32):

Right. But they can enjoy streaming music for the rest of their lives.

Janna Koch (31:35):

That's right. That's right.

Dana Dominiak (31:37):

So this is something they take with them forever. And the younger they learn it, the more a part of them that it will be, the more it'll stick with them as they get older.

Janna Koch (31:49):

And the Piano Prodigy available from The Prodigy Factory is a product that can help young children and children of any age start to awaken this love of music in a very fun way. And so we encourage you to look on BookShark's website. You can also go to the Prodigy Factory's website and look at the products they have and see if it's a good fit for you and your family. Dana, thank you so much for being here today. It was a pleasure talking to you, grappling with these ideas of how the arts and the science really are not two separate entities, but they overlap and are one and the same in a lot of ways. I think it's something that we don't stop to think about a whole lot.

Dana Dominiak (32:31):

Oh, thank you. This was a pleasure. And I hope I didn't babble too much about teaching or science. I'm a teacher and now I tend to babble.

Janna Koch (32:39):

But that's what we love. We love to hear about what's going on in the different areas and how homeschool parents can be equipped when they are teaching their children. So thank you very much. Thank you guys for watching. Until next time, bye.