With the holidays upon us, many of us musical types have been doing some last-minute shopping, racking our brains to think of any gift that is sufficiently cooler than a treble clef paperweight. So it seems like a good time to bring up IV-V-I, a new harmony-based card game created and designed by composer and educator Rafael Hernandez. The idea behind IV-V-I is easy to grasp: using their available cards, players compete to build the best phrase (where “best” means most daring and elaborate, not just technically correct), and then seal the deal with a cadence.
While one of IV-V-I’s strengths is how accurately the game captures the challenge of harmonic part writing exercises, the addition of several unique gameplay elements makes for a level of strategy and fun that far exceeds what can be derived from standard harmony exercises. Players compete with their opponents to score the most points with their phrases, yet they can also play “part writing error” cards to nullify an opponent’s points, or shake things up with “style cards” which have a global effect on gameplay; Beethoven, for example, doles out extra points for “special harmony” cards while that rascally Shostakovich makes part writing errors a virtue.
These details make for a rich and immersive experience that manages to teach and hone some of the most complex elements of music theory without becoming pedantic. Players are allowed to expand phrases from either the left or right, which provides for more playing options, as well as provoking a way of thinking seldom encouraged in classroom harmony exercises; and most importantly, the communal and interactive element of gameplay ensures that what might be many players’ first attempts at composing will be enjoyable and provocative.
In IV-V-I, it’s easy to change the game’s level of difficulty with a few house rules: the more complicated cards (augmented 6th chords, for example) can simply be pulled from a beginning deck and subsequently introduced at a later time, while more advanced players can ratchet up the intensity with additional restrictions. See below for a video clip of gameplay (other demonstration videos available at the IV-V-I website):
All in all, IV-V-I would be a welcome addition to most any music theory classroom while holding plenty of interest for music nerds of all skill levels. I hope that Rafael will turn his considerable game design talents to more projects; since IV-V-I targets a more advanced age group, I can’t help but think how a companion game targeted to even younger players—and one that readies them for the challenges of more advanced harmonic functions—would fill a comparable gaping hole in the K-6 bracket. The availability of more well-crafted games like IV-V-I to students and educators would go a long way to enrich and vitalize the appreciation of music in America—a country where it’s common for children 6 years old or even younger to study an instrument while rarely delving very deeply into how music is put together.