Contrary to your assumptions, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are not sneered at by all serious musicians.
By themselves they may not teach you how to be a part of a bona fide rock band, but two instructors whose job it is to do so say the games have some qualities that make them a worthy adjunct to a true musical experience.
"I know there are some haters out there," said Aldo Noboa, a guitarist of 30 years and co-founder of the Paul Green School of Rock Music. "But I'm always looking for ways to inspire people to experience music. And that's not a guitar, of course, but it's very, very interesting how they set it up. I definitely see some constructive aspects."
The benefits are not directly connected to making music, an experience both games only replicate at best (although Guitar Hero: World Tour's music studio mode goes a little further with musical experimentation.) But in nuturing an appreciation for music, or breaking down performance anxiety, or just letting someone get comfortable posturing with a prop guitar, rhythm games have a legitimate place, they say.
Studies and claims have tied the popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band to actual music performance for some time. A British study says the games' popularity have inspired children there to experiment with music. There are unverifiable claims Guitar Hero is responsible for a surge in sales of real guitars. And anecdotally, most know of someone who's bought a real instrument after falling in love with the game, or, at least, has thought about it.
This hasn't translated to a legion of ADD youngsters begging for music lessons and half-serious about doing the work. Not for Noboa, anyway, whose School of Rock Music is "a bit more over the top" than typical guitar lessons. Students, typically younger ones, not only learn their instrument, but learn to perform with it in the context of a rock and roll band. But few, if any, are showing up because Guitar Hero convinced them they could do it, he says.
However, "I do have several adult students with kids in the program," Noboa said from his San Francisco office. "They play these games too, and I can say the adult students who have arrived to us, at the very least, are inspired by these games and the experiences they have with them."
On the other end of the spectrum, Power Chord Academy, which likewise teaches a music-and-performance curriculum at locations nationwide will be teaching a specific rhythm game skills camp over the summer. Part of the reason for the course, Power Chord's Dave Wood said, was to capitalize on Guitar Hero's strength as a search category, and try to offer something that would steer kids Googling that over his way. But he doesn't trivialize what the game - especially World Tour - has to offer.
"Tone recognition, that would be the main thing," that these games build, Wood said. Playing a familiar song, one builds a basic understanding of what key is supposed to be played next. Going further, "in [World Tour's] recording platform, you can program the notes, people can say, I want these notes to work with, and it gives a good deal of autonomy and understanding to what the person is doing."
Other actual music skills? Rhythm, obviously, and not just with the drums."You're not deciding on the pitch because you're being told what button to hit, so it is all about the rhythm," said Wood, who surmises some means of selecting pitch would be among the next developments in this genre's evolution.
And then just conquering stage fright and building stage confidence. "We attract singers who have gotten their feet wet with this and are wanting to try it out for real," Wood said. By the same token, playing with a virtual band where the music won't come to a screeching halt, no matter how poorly one plays. "You have a level of confidence with the song you're playing, knowing that the bass, drums, everything is going to stick along with the same rhythm more or less," Wood said. "You don't have to worry about the drummer literally losing the beat, because even if he does, there's still something there."
Noboa, although he speaks admiringly of what the games have accomplished, takes a little more circumspect view. "There are no fundamentals already in place from [playing] these games," he says, "other than inspiring greater general interest and curiosity." However, "these in turn do not seem to establish any pre-sets that would require retraining from old habits, etc."
But rather than brood on a "101 Dalmatians" syndrome - the fad everyone wants, but no one wants to commit to, seriously - Noboa sees it in more positively. "Say it does inspire them to go to a music store and take a look at guitars and think, hey, maybe I want to do take this a step further."