The intersection of mobile gaming and music education is a category Music Ally has been tracking since 2011, when a Finnish startup called Ovelin started to get attention for a music-learning game called WildChords. It later rebranded as Yousician, and as of summer 2019 has generated more than 100m downloads of its apps.
Now history might just be repeating itself. Big Ear Games is another Finnish startup sitting at that intersection, with a free app for iOS and Android devices. The company was a finalist in the Midemlab startups contest in June in the music creation and education category.
“We are seeing a lot of excitement about what we do. People like the product,” says CEO Aviv Ben-Yehuda, talking to Music Ally shortly before heading to China for meetings with potential partners.
His backstory is fun: born in Israel, he was a drummer in local bands as a teenager; did his national service; then became a doctor (complete with a year off in Germany in the middle of his studies, playing percussion in the band of a Brazilian singer); abandoned the medical profession to go to jazz school in Zurich; and then moved to Finland (“because of a Finnish girl that I met!”) and worked as a music teacher.
“After 20 years of teaching, it was clear that there was a certain problem in my classes: these 18-20 year-old youngsters, who were really good musicians, still had a lot of problems feeling comfortable with improvisation,” he says. “It was clearly something to do with the way that we were teaching.”
Ben-Yehuda had ideas for changing this, and in Finland, he says, individual teachers have much more leeway to try out new and experimental teaching methods with their classes. He was offered the chance to write a book, but as he looked at his students with their smartphones and tablets – and the games on those devices – he decided something more interactive would be better.
That’s the origin story of Big Ear Games, with Ben-Yehuda – like the founders of Ovelin/Yousician – seeing potential for an app that was as fun as a game to play, but which would be driven by proper music-theory principles. And in this case, his desire to teach children the building blocks for musical improvisation.
The resulting app – Big Ear: Play With Music – features a smiling alien/monster character called Solo, and a cast of other characters. Players learn to play songs through “musical puzzles” while collecting instruments and using the in-game sequencer to compose their own tunes. Ben-Yehuda says it’s just the first of several games that Big Ear Games plans to launch.
“Some of them will be much more hyper-casual than what we have now. But if we started with the hyper-casual game with a little bit less educational value, then we could not stand out from the crowd,” he says.
“It’s super-important to have a balance between fun, and a very clear educational or skill-learning value. As a team, we have skills in music and we have skills in gaming. That gives us a good chance. With educational games, you often see teams that have their core very much in gaming, or in a strong educational background only. We think we have a good balance.”
Currently, Big Ear Games licenses compositions where necessary, but is not yet working with master recordings. That’s something Ben-Yehuda is keen to do for his company’s games, as and when it becomes possible.
“We do want to incorporate real tracks. We know we will have to pay a bigger [royalties] price for that, but we think that’s the name of the game. If it’s not killing us, it’s good for us!” he says. Initial discussions with labels have been positive, although Ben-Yehuda says they are more ‘let’s keep the conversation going’ talks rather than serious negotiations at this point.
Big Ear Games already has some interesting partners: for example, pianist Lang Lang’s International Music Foundation, which will be testing the app as part of its music-education curriculum, in a pilot with 23,000 children in the US. Ben-Yehuda has high hopes for Big Ear’s games, especially if they can be used in schools and then by students at home, to continue practising.
“I know that some parents still have a stigma about phones: the debates on screen time for example. I get angry with my kids for these reasons too! But I think that if they are doing something that is creative, something that can teach them, then I am happy. It’s creative, it’s something that is supporting them,” he says.
Some of Big Ear Games’ advisors should be able to help with this pitch. Peter Vesterbacka is formerly of Angry Birds publisher Rovio – where he was involved in a number of educational partnerships. Meanwhile, Santeri Koivisto was the co-founder of MinecraftEdu, which focused on helping teachers and children use Minecraft for educational purposes.
“It’s very clear that screen-time is not just one thing. And even normal games [with no explicit educational purpose] are creative,” adds Ben-Yehuda. He hopes that as more children take part in Big Ear Games’ pilots, or discover its first game through the app stores, parents will see its benefits.
What about the business model? Currently, Big Ear makes its money from in-app purchases. People can pay $1.99 to remove ads from the game, and they can also buy its ‘gems’ currency, with those gems exchangeable for a second currency, coins, which can be used to unlock instruments and songs. Coins are also earned by playing.
In his Midemlab pitch, Ben-Yehuda said that a subscription model was already in his company’s plans.
“If you look at Yousician and JoyTunes [another music-learning app] they are straightforward education with a bit of gamification, and they use subscriptions. And if you look at Smule, which is more gamification and creativity, with a little bit of educational value, and they still have a subscription model,” he says.
“The creative part is bringing people into a very strong subscription engagement, so I think that in our case, it will not look strange: because the educational value is quite straightforward. But of course, it needs to be tested and validated.”
Big Ear Games is creating its first products more for children than for adults, although as and when a subscription tier is added, it’ll be the parents who’ll be deciding whether to pay for it.
Ben-Yehuda thinks that trends outside the mobile gaming and music education sectors will be a help: for parents who already pay for family plans on streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, it may not be such a hard conceptual leap to pay for a good music-education app (or several apps in one subscription, like Smule’s model) for their children too.
(The flipside to that argument may be the risk that these parents may decide they have reached their digital-subscriptions limit. As Ben-Yehuda says, Big Ear Games will need to test their willingness to stretch to another, and adapt accordingly – including picking the right price.)
“I think it [the subscription model] is proving itself more and more,” he adds. “There will be a push to it, as more and more platforms come into the story from the gaming side, and the educational side.”