Review — Tonic: The Card & Dice Game For Musicians

Today, I’d like to share with you a game that has over the past two years become a favorite during my monthly group classes for my piano students (which we fondly call “Piano Parties”). The game is called “Tonic.”

This game is an effective way to encourage students to explore and be playful with sound. It opens doors of possibility for future improvisation and composition activities of a more structured nature. And it’s fascinating and just plain fun to hear what students come up with during the game.

On your turn, you choose a card from the deck and then improvise on your instrument music that is based on the prompt. There are many different kinds of prompts in the deck, as you can see pictured below.

My favorite cards are the “play this” cards that ask you to interpret the graphic shown on the card.

Other cards ask students to create using just one to three tones (rolling the music dice to determine which ones). Some of the cards ask students to choose a partner or two to aid them with their improvisation.

Although I believe the cards were created with advanced players in mind, I have found the game works quite well for young musicians with a few simple modifications. For example, I allow students to choose a different card if they seem stumped or overly challenged by a prompt they’ve randomly drawn. And I ask students to keep their improvisation short and sweet (30 to 60 seconds) instead of the 3 or 4 minutes some of the cards encourage.

I find that some students are naturally comfortable with improvising. Others are more hesitant. I’ve learned those students find it helpful if you begin the game by taking the first turn, providing a model.

I have a video to share of two of my students, improvising in response to the following card:

In this improvisation, I can hear both students drawing upon pieces they have learned in the past. (There’s even some “Heart and Soul” mixed in there…did you catch it??) It’s wonderful to hear students create something new using “ingredients” they’ve learned from other examples of music.

Here is the video:

Interesting in buying the game? Order it HERE. On his website, you’ll find that the game author, Scott Hughes, offers a free PDF version of Tonic that you can print out yourself. After testing out the game, be sure to purchase the real thing as shown in my pictures above. In my opinion, it’s worth every penny!

Thanks for reading my unsolicited review.

GIVEAWAY: Scott has generously offered to give away a bundle consisting of the Tonic game PLUS his more advanced Tonic Theory game! To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post before Sunday, March 25, 2018 at midnight EST, sharing either (1) your favorite improv activity for students, or (2) what you like most about the Tonic game. The winner will be randomly selected the following day. Good luck!

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83 thoughts on “Review — Tonic: The Card & Dice Game For Musicians”

  1. This looks SO fun! I love how this would be so fun to include a group ranging from kindergarten through high school because creativity levels differ so much at each age and everyone would learn a lot from each other. 🙂

    1. I have not done much with improvising with my students and this would be an awesome tool to get more of it in my lessons.

  2. Whoa!! So cool! I’d love it just for myself but see how this is doable for children as well. I love all the ideas such as rhythm, pitch etc that it gives.

  3. This sounds like a great game!
    One of my favorite introductory activities with students who are hesitant to improv is to give them 3-5 notes with the instruction to make a melody that sounds bad while I play a duet part below. It makes them laugh and has helped many students get through their anxiety and come to love improvising on their own.

  4. This looks so awesome!! I love that this gets students improvising together (especially with the call and response card) and makes it such an exciting group activity. Improvising can be scary to some, and this looks like it makes it more fun and less scary!

  5. Once my students learn cadences, I love to have them come up with a 4 chord progression in the LH and then improvise a melody in the RH! Sometimes, I will sub in for one of the hands to make it easier. They find this challenging, but it always inspires them to do some composition and improv!

  6. I love the versatility of this game, especially in light of the fact that you have made it accessible to all ages and levels of students. That is a definite plus when working with multi-level students. Improv, composition, etc. Love this!

  7. I love the challenge variety offered via the cards. Thank you for the positive review. I’ve been looking for a more advanced group game.

  8. This looks like a great game! For beginners I have them improvise using only the black keys, for older students I have them add an A natural to make an Eb blues scale. Fun to see how their faces light up when they hear how that changes the sound.

  9. Hi there! This sounds so cool! What I love about it is prompting kids to improvise! (all the way from South africa?)

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful introduction/review! I love the variety of cards in this game and the opportunities for sound exploration. Thank you!

  11. This looks fantastic! I love finding fun and exciting ways for my students to express their creative selves! And I love how versatile it is for all levels! I will be offering group lessons for the first time this summer and looking for ideas such as this! Thank you for the great review!!!

  12. What I love most about this game is that there is no theory knowledge necessary! It is purely creative and therefore imaginations can soar!!!

    1. I love “random” ideas for getting kids to improvise. It’s so helpful for them to have an idea as a springboard for their improvisation. I have a student who really has a hard time with improvising, and I think I’ll try this game with him!

  13. This looks like so much fun! Thanks for telling us about it and *PLEASE* enter me in the giveaway!! Thanks.

  14. This is genius! I often have my advanced students improv to my beginner students and it’s a blast! This would be good visual prompts for really, everyone!

  15. I hadn’t heard of Tonic before but now I’m intrigued!

    I love doing improv activities with students and often use Forrest Kinney’s “Pattern Play” and “Create First” ideas with students of various ages.

  16. Looks like such a fun game! Love that it can be adjusted slightly for younger students as that is what I mostly have in my own studio right now. But also looks fun to participate in myself! Love using games like this as a fun closer to a lesson!

  17. I think this game encourages students to get out of their comfort zones in a controlled, safe, and fun way. Thanks for running the giveaway!

  18. This looks like so much fun! I love the variety of actions to get students improvising in many ways.

  19. My students love paint chip improv! There’s something about a huge stack of gorgeous colors and funny paint names that encourages maximum creativity 🙂

  20. So cool looking! My favorite improv activities usually involve taking a lead sheet of a popular song and putting it in a different style. It helps students learn the differences in rhythm grooves and song genres and they have fun with it. This week, one student mixed Amazing Grace and Bumble Boogie and it came out really neat!

  21. I think that the game looks great because it takes a lot of the hard things out of improvising which would make it feel “safe” for students who don’t improvise as naturally.

  22. Thank you for sharing! I love hearing new ideas that can give someone like me, who doesn’t know where to start with improvising/creativity, the perfect tools to nurture my students in this area.

  23. My favorite way to have students improvise is the following sequence:
    Echo patterns – I play, they copy me
    Echo patterns – they play, I copy them
    Question and Answer patterns – I ask the question, they answer
    Question and Answer patterns – they ask the question, I answer
    Then from there, I give them an accompaniment and they invent a melody to go with it. By this time, they usually have a lot of ideas because of the Echo & Q+A patterns. They get to pick the key and I pick the meter. 🙂

  24. So clever!! I especially love that this could be used with any instrument/voice, I could even see general classroom music application!

  25. Looks like fun! We’ve recently done some improvising by selecting a topic from a creative list of “titles”. I like to hear how my students think about how to create the music. I also have an advanced student who was quite uncomfortable with the idea. So I think we need to do more! 🙂

  26. This sounds like so much fun! I love using Pattern Play with my students…all of the improvisations sound super cool and the kids find the patterns interesting. Thanks so much for the giveaway!

  27. Right now I use Forrest Kinney PatternPlay and prompts in the Hal Leonard Adult methods for improvisation. This game sound amazing!

  28. My favorite improv activity is one I use at a student’s very first lesson. I have them play black keys up high while I play a lyrical accompaniment then I show them how you can play completely different music just by moving to another place on the keyboard. I move down low and play an American Indian drum sounding accompaniment while they play in the middle register of the black keys. It’s such a fun easy way for them to experience the joy of immediately making music at their first lesson. It always brings lots of smiles. It makes me happy to see their joy in making music from their heart.

  29. What a great game- in addition to private students, this game might work well with my school band and guitar students as well! Love the creativity!

  30. This game looks awesome! I think my favorite thing about it so far is that it is so adaptable to a range of ages. The students can use their current level of knowledge and still be successful and learn while playing the game. Thanks for sharing!

  31. The Tonic game is an absolutely wonderful introduction to free improvisation for students. It gives students a chance to explore their creativity through improvising on their instrument in different ways as guided by the cards, and gives a sense of freedom in what they play as there are no wrong notes. As a musician who has spent several years playing free improvised music I have experienced the benefits it has brought me, and I can see that this game would be a fun and valuable learning tool for students. Thanks for sharing!

  32. This sounds great! I use games a lot and other activities to keep students interested and teach them concepts that might otherwise be dry and boring. I love games that work for different levels and ages and Tonic seems like a great addition!

  33. This looks really wonderful! Thanks for letting us all know about it. I would love to enter the giveaway. Thank you! ?

  34. This game would be a perfect icebreaker for my next piano workshop! My favorite improv game is my introductory one: I only let them play one key and explore playing rhythms while I play a comping pattern. I love that moment when they realize how much one note can do – when played with attitude and purpose – and improv doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

  35. From improvisation activities, you learn a lot about students and yourself, as a teacher. For an example, some students challenge to apply their music knowledge and skills at the spot, and for me, as their teacher, there is always a search on my part how to reach their deep of themselves.
    As an immigrant to this country, finally I made a decision to continue my music career and I don’t have yet so many music games, I’d be happy to have this game. It will be very helpful and fun for my students and me. Thanks.

  36. I hold monthly “piano parties” with my students and love to find new activities to make learning theory fun. This looks so fun and a great motivator for improv on reluctant students . Thanks Joy. I love your blog Pamela

  37. Great game. It’s been on my list to get but haven’t gotten there yet. Teach Piano Today has several Improv activities I’ve used over the years like Halloween-themed improv or Back-to-school improv.

  38. Wow! I’ve never heard of this before. I have so many games – but they mostly focus on theory – a few on ear training. I have NONE that encourage creativity. It’s an area that I’m working to improve in my studio. I LOVE that with a bit of tweaking, this will work great for any age/ skill level. Thanks for sharing!

  39. This looks awesome! I’m still working on getting over my own fear of improvising, but I’ve been working through Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play and Create First with some of my students and gradually getting more confident 🙂

  40. I have a student pick 8 rhythm cards to use for the improv song. We pick a key and then go over primary chords. Then pick a style pattern for the left hand and add the right hand melody to match. I am in the background with a drum or resonator bars in the selected key keeping the rhythm. A duet with a twist.

  41. This looks like a great game to help students tap into their more creative side with the help of specific prompts. My favorite improv activity in group is using improvisation & composition inspiration picture cards(your activity from July 2011 post) ) and have students create a musical story. It is amazing what they come up with…serious to comedic! They love it!

  42. It’s sounds like it gives some structure which is necessary to help people be free! I wish I had something like this for myself, I would defintely play it on my own to help release my own improvisation!

  43. I love the concept of this game and the fact that any level can participate! I would use this for my monthly piano group. I’ve used Musical Improvisation for Children by Alice Kanack, but it’s best for the young ones. I need this game for teens! I hope I win one!

  44. What a creative idea for a game! I really liked how in the context of a game, with students watching others having fun by improvising, it will encourage the hesitant ones to give it a try. I’m very interested in purchasing this!

  45. I love the clean look for the card designs! Can’t wait to try this game. My new recent favorite improv/composing game was made up by my student: roll the yahtzee die and use the numbers on the die to create a melody–each number on the die correlates to the scale degree. We had so much fun notating what we rolled! Then we could move the dice around and see what it sounded like in other ways.

  46. Joy, so good to meet you at the MTNA Conference and I’m (finally) enjoying your blog! Love this game. Have been on the hunt for studio games and this fits the bill!

  47. Super great game for giving students the confidence to create their own music!! We already play with dice, so my students should adapt pretty easily to this one!! Thanks for sharing!!

  48. I would love to try this game with my students! At my group classes, we like to improvise music from different countries by using various scales, such as a Middle Eastern scale or Chinese scale. The students enjoy playing the different styles and learning about the musical culture in various countries.

  49. I came across Tonic while I was in the Moog store in Asheville, NC a year ago… I LOVE it! I too was thinking about applications for younger students. Thanks for sharing this, Joy! Carol Matz

  50. Looks like a great group class game. I think I will try it with my older students first. They like things which expand their horizons.

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