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Ode to app: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony hits the iPad

New to the modern classroom we call the app store is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. An app designed for iPads gives users the chance to go deeper into the work best known for its “Ode to Joy” movement.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the app has been downloaded by half a million people since its May release. A demo version is free, the full app is $13.99. (There are also iPod and iPhone versions.)

It's from Touch Press, a London-based company with a wide range of educational apps ranging from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the periodic table of elements.

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“Originally we got started with 'The Elements' and it did really well, which made us think there was a market for more in-depth apps,” says Theodore Gray, a Touch Press founder and current creative director.

This isn’t the company’s first musically inclined app. Last year it released "The Orchestra," which includes seven scores and music from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. (Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed wrote the text for "The Orchestra.")

That became a sort of testing ground for an app exploring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the composer's final, complete symphony and considered one of Beethoven's greatest works.

But the real inspiration for the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony app can be attributed to technology of the 1990s, and before that, the days of CD-ROMs. In the late 1980s the Voyager Co. released an interactive CD-ROM with a music analysis by UCLA professor Robert S. Winter. Gray and Touch Press CEO and co-founder Max Whitby each remembered it, even though they weren't working together at the time.

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“We thought that someday we should do something like that,” says Gray.

They both saw that the confluence of music and interactivity were a perfect match.

“It’s a topic that naturally lends itself to this medium,” says Gray. “The centerpiece is the music, and then you want to enhance that experience by letting people know what they’re listening to in a way that doesn’t interfere with the listening.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony app has a more acute focus than "The Orchestra." The main page allows users to choose renditions of the symphony from conductors Ferenc Fricsay, Herbert Von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and John Eliot Gardiner, who each represent a different decade.

While listening to the music, users can read an in-depth analysis from critic David Owen Norris. Or there's two hours of video with insight from musicians, writers and conductors.

Norris is a critic, pianist and musical academic who is a professor at the University of South Hampton in the U.K., a frequent guest on BBC radio and the monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine.

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Though Touch Press wanted a serious analysis to be included in the app, “you can go as deep as you want,” says Norris. “Even with little understanding you can find things to enjoy in it that will take you deeper than just listening to the radio.”

It has sparked his students’ interests too.

“Sometimes people in their 20s are resistant to classical music, and it’s amazing to use this technology to turn them onto it,” says Norris.

Norris’ students have been most taken by the app's so-called “Beatmap”: color coded dots laid out in an aerial view of the orchestra, that highlight when each  instrument is being played.

“Because it’s perfectly synchronized to the music, it allows your brain to pick the instrument out and learn what it sounds like,” says Gray. This helps users learn what instruments sound like when played with each other.

Touch Press plans to produce more music-based apps, Gray said. He likes the idea of focusing on show tunes, perhaps even the musical “Cats.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony app can be downloaded for iPhone, iPad or iPod and is available at the App Store.

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celine.wright@latimes.com

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