Before I start writing about Compose Yourself, I need to make something clear. It is not a traditional game. It’s also not a puzzle or a toy. In fact, it’s not any of the things that you’d expect to see reviewed on this site.
It is, however, transformational.
ThinkFun sent me a copy of Compose Yourself for this review. I, in an act of breathtaking stupidity, arranged for a normal playtest session without even looking at the product. When the time came to play, I cooked up some popcorn and sat down around the table with the kids and some root beers. We were ready to roll. I opened the shrink wrap, and handed Compose Yourself to one of the kids.
“Um,” he said after a few moments. “This isn’t a game.”
“Of course not,” I said, improvising. “It’s a puzzle. ThinkFun makes great puzzles.”
“No. It’s not that either.”
“Of course it is! It’s a puzzle about making music. There are transparent cards with notes on them, right?”
“I think maybe you should read the instructions.”
I put down my root beer and glanced through the booklet. “Oh. We’re… um, we’re going to need a computer.”
We carried our sodas and popcorn over to the computer, and logged in at http://composeyourself.thinkfun.com.
“Give it a shot,” I said. “Just take four cards and arrange them however you want.”
One of the kids did a quick arrangement, and then read the card numbers to me so I could type them into the web site: 0244, 0201, 0213, 0142.
“Okay,” I said. “Marimba or Orchestra?”
I clicked play, and watched the kids’ eyes widen.
“I don’t really like the ending.”
Instead, I hit the “play both” button. If the kids and I had been surprised by the Marimba, we were blown away by the orchestra. It sounded like we’d just created the score for a movie.
The kids were instantly engaged, and wanting to create their own compositions. They worked singly. They worked in groups. They laid out all the cards in a giant grid on the carpet, then picked their way through them. It was an unqualified success, so much so that I’m fairly certain they’ll all be buying their own copies.
I don’t often get to write that word, but it definitely applies to Compose Yourself. There’s just no other way to describe the moment you hear an orchestra play your song. It’s an instant rush. You immediately want more. You immediately want to do better. Am I going to drop all my careers and start trying to become a composer? No, but now I get the appeal of playing a musical instrument. I never learned how to play one, but now I want to.
I don’t know much of anything about musical education, so I can’t speak to how Compose Yourself might help with that.
I am, however, familiar with the journey that kids take to become musicians. Learning an instrument takes a lot of time, and involves a making a whole lot of sounds that only vaguely resemble music. It’s hard to stay enthusiastic when you’re going through endless practice sessions, or listening to a band director rant about the importance of posture. When a student finally does play a recognizable song, it’s a moment of real pride and accomplishment.
Compose Yourself compresses the timeline of accomplishment. Players go from “I don’t know what I’m doing.” to “listen to what I just made” in just a few minutes. It’s not difficult to draw a parallel with the real world, to remember that there is something amazing waiting for people who stick with their musical education.
In the case of my group, we had one boy set up the Compose Yourself cards on his piano so he could play the notes himself. They didn’t sound as good the orchestra on the web site, but they sure sounded good to me.
What you need to know
Compose Yourself needs a computer with an internet connection. In theory, you could probably get it to work on a mobile device, but you really want good speakers to get the full effect. Logging in and using the web site is ridiculously easy. Don’t let that be a barrier to you.
You can play Compose Yourself by yourself or in a group. All you do is shuffle through the cards, flipping them around until you have an arrangement that looks good. Once you have something you like, type the numbers on the cards into the computer and listen to the music you just arranged. You can re-arrange the cards however you like in the computer, getting exactly the song you want
In addition to being the editor and web guy for Games for Educators, Patrick Matthews is the author of Dragon Run and the MathFinder series of puzzle books. He also designs games and builds web sites. Stop byDaddyTales for a quick laugh, or check out Live Oak Games to see some of his award-winning games.