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Intervallic: Making Music Practice Fun

Bienen alum Aspen Buckingham and senior economics major Steven Jiang launch a video game to encourage aspiring musicians.

Screencap of the video game Intervallic

By Diana Babineau
Winter 2024

You’re 15 years old, and it’s a school night. Your mom tells you to practice your instrument before dinner. Usually you respond with a groan. But this time, you pick up your electric violin, plug it into your computer, boot up the game Intervallic … and suddenly you are a robocat flying through outer space. A techno beat rumbles rhythmically in your ears. Then asteroids appear, blocking your path. You must use your laser shooter to destroy them — lasers that can only be activated with … musical notes!  

You play a melodic sequence on your violin, blasting the space rocks to bits with your lasers. And off you go, cruising through the galaxy. 

Now imagine if practicing piano or tuba were this fun, says Aspen Buckingham ’23.  

Buckingham, a composer, musician and game designer, is CEO of Overture Games, a startup he co-founded in 2022 with Steven Jiang, a clarinetist and Northwestern senior majoring in economics with a minor in entrepreneurship. This fall, the team launched its first title, Intervallic, a video game that turns music practice into entertainment. 

“Our goal is to motivate people to pick up their instrument every day,” says Buckingham. “If we can get more music into the world, that’s a huge win for us.” 

In Intervallic, users connect any electronic musical instrument — such as a bass guitar or keyboard — to their computer. When users play notes, the game responds in real time by moving an animated character up and down on the screen, as if following successive notes (or “intervals”) on a music sheet. Users advance through Intervallic’s intergalactic storyline by playing preset scales and songs, some of which are composed by Buckingham. 

The Overture Games co-founders met serendipitously at The Garage, Northwestern’s innovation and entrepreneurship space, in the spring of 2022. At the time, Buckingham was double-majoring in music composition and computer science, and Jiang was studying clarinet — and both were feeling burnt out by their music practice. Looking for a way to motivate themselves and others, they joined forces to build Intervallic, with Buckingham serving as lead game designer. 

“There are a lot of reasons that people get frustrated with music practice,” says Buckingham, who learned to code when he was in middle school and dove into video game design while studying at Northwestern. “Sometimes they just don’t have enough time or feel like they’re not good enough — but I believe anyone can be a musician.” 

Intervallic’s storyline and replayable levels are meant to help players overcome some of those obstacles, he says. “Each of our game characters struggles with a different aspect of practicing music. … Dorian struggles with trying to get everything perfect. And our main character, Starburst, responds, ‘No, go for it. Make mistakes. It’s OK. You can do it.’ Because if our narrative can speak to how students feel when they’re practicing, that’s something we feel can help as well.” 

“There are a lot of reasons that people get frustrated with music practice. ... But I believe anyone can be a musician.” — Aspen Buckingham

The game rewards players who work on a phrase of music until they master it, but it also allows players who stumble a bit to keep moving forward. It creates “that feeling of progression and productivity that you want when you’re practicing,” Buckingham says.  

The Overture Games team includes several other Northwestern students: Mercedes Sandu, Jack Burkhardt, Leo McGuiness and Evan Bertis-Sample. Together, they plan to further refine and expand Intervallic by adding a more advanced pitch detection software that would enable users to play any musical instrument, such as an acoustic guitar or cello, without needing to plug it into the computer, as well as an editor tool that would allow players to upload their own sheet music into the game and auto-generate a playable level. They also hope to expand their built-in catalog of music and work with independent artists to add their songs into the game. 

But even without these advanced features, the responses to Intervallic have been encouraging, says Buckingham. “A lot of parents love this idea, and we love to see kids smile and get excited to play our game. 

“We had a player from Canada tell us that he had played through a level 947 times because he was so excited about it. He reached out, ‘because my friends wouldn’t understand, but you guys would.’  

“Stories like that are just beautiful.” 

Buckingham and Jiang participated in Jumpstart, Northwestern’s pre-accelerator program for students looking to launch a startup, and made it to the semifinals of VentureCat, the University’s annual startup competition that is supported by the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Kellogg School of Management and The Garage. 

“The Garage has been everything for us,” says Buckingham, who is a founder-in-residence at the entrepreneurship hub for the 2023–24 academic year. “I learned more from fellow students in our cohort and from The Garage itself than from anybody else. Just being able to lean on that community meant so much to us.”  

He and Jiang also were accepted into the Techstars Chicago Fall 2023 cohort. They hope to design more games in the future.  

“I’ve always got ideas on the back burner,” says Buckingham. “But I’ve learned that it’s very important to focus 100% on what you’re doing. Give it your all. And once we’ve validated this game, Intervallic, and made sure that it’s working for people, then we can think about developing other games.” 

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