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This firm teaches music through a gaming experience: Inside China’s Startups

Mint Muse’s family of apps lets user learn to play guitar, ukulele, and piano, and have gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Have you ever bought a guitar, only to put it in the corner to collect dust after a few difficult chords? That situation might be familiar to many, and this startup, aware of the problem, has developed an online app to provide an easy and efficient learning experience powered by your phone.

“Just like drinking a cup of coffee,” says his founder Xiang Yipei.

Xiang launched his first startup together with his wife Liu Kexi, named Mint Muse Technology, in 2016, after working for almost ten years as an audio engineer for US-based fabless semiconductor company Qualcomm. Prior to that, Xiang graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and got his Ph.D. in computer music at UC San Diego. Born into a family of musicians, Xiang grew up with instruments and learned to play the oboe and piano very young, he explained to KrASIA in a recent interview.

At first, Mint Muse ventured into the area of virtual reality (VR) spatial sound design but shifted its target to online instrument education in 2018 as the VR market didn’t take off as quickly as expected, Xiang said.

In the past two years, Xiang and his team released two apps: guitar and ukulele learning app Mira Music for adults, and Mira Piano, which mainly targets kids. According to Xiang, there are currently more than five million registered users on the two apps, which have been featured on the main page of Apple’s App Store as a creative learning application.

Earlier in August, the company raised an undisclosed amount from long-time backer Freesfund in its A+ Series round.

Xiang Yipei, founder of Mint Muse Technology. Source: provided by the interviewee

Tech can unlock musical talent

“Music can move us and help us unlock the beauty of the world,” Xiang said. His main goal behind Mint Muse is to help more people acquire musical skills through an enjoyable experience.

The Mira Music app lets users choose an instrument between a guitar or a ukelele, leveraging the phone’s microphone to detect the musical notes while the users play the real instrument, ranking user’s performances in real-time. The platform arranges the learning experience into three parts. First, it provides basic instrument knowledge, then, it allows the user to practice various skill points, and finally, it lets the user play songs from the app’s catalog.

The bit-sized tutorials provided on the app are self-produced by the company and curated by professional musicians to allow users to develop different skills, according to Xiang.

In order to keep users engaged, the app also integrates game dynamics while it tracks learners’ progress through ranks, levels, and the collection of virtual coins. The platform also has a “music” feature, which provides information about the history of different music genres.

Mira Music adopts a freemium model, where users have free access to a certain number of classes and levels, while for more classes, it charges a fee. A “lifetime access” to a suite of entry-level ukulele or guitar classes is priced at RMB 198 (USD 28.92). To unlock more advanced lessons, users can buy a “premium” suite for RMB 328 (USD 47.91).  

The Mira Piano app focuses on teaching kids aged between 3 and 12 years. The platform leverages entertaining elements to engage young students, such as two furry speaking digital puppets named Kaka and Bubu, who act as “piano teachers.” It offers 36 lessons in total, divided into three packages. Each package, containing 12 lessons, costs RMB 388 (USD 56.78) for a lifetime access. 

Kaka and Bubu, the two “piano teachers” Mira Piano app. Source: provided by the interviewee

The startup has been profitable since last year, according to Xiang.

“We started from guitar and ukulele, since they are easier to begin with, and customers are usually adults who can make purchase decisions by themselves,” Xiang said. “While for teaching kids, we have direct customers and indirect customers: their parents. We decided to enter this market because piano lessons usually have a more expensive per customer transaction and are essential to learning the fundamentals of music.”

However, Xiang admits that the app cannot completely replace real teachers. Yet, it can be used as an “assistant” for professional piano teachers, and can be used by kids to practice, he said.

Music education in the Chinese education system used to be quite relevant, as many schools counted instrument skills as extra points for entrance exams, indulging parents to let their kids learn to play musical instruments from a young age.“But now it is changing in Chinese society—people learn instruments with less utilitarian ideas. It’s not only for entering a better school but also for the music itself,” Xiang said.

The map of Mira’s guitar senior-level lessons.  Source: provided by the interviewee

A growing online music education market

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a wealth of obstacles to traditional offline classes, giving a boost to the online education sector. Xiang said that during the pandemic, the number of users on his company’s platforms has soared as people had found more time to pursue hobbies such as guitar and piano.

Yet, Mira Music is not alone, as there is an array of competitors including guitar learning app Finger, AI Music Academy, Chongchong Music, and piano tutoring app VIP Peilian. As more learners turn to apps and online platforms, the internet music education market was estimated to reach RMB 14.5 billion in 2019, per research firm Analysys’ stats.

However, Xiang says that the gamification provided by Mint Muse’s apps and the music guidelines refined by professional musicians, as well as the friendly music lover community, differentiate his products from other players.

Looking forward, the firm plans to introduce more instrument lessons, such as the Zheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. The company is also seeking partnerships with offline musical instrument stores, while it has plans to expand to other Asian markets. A version of the app providing lessons in traditional Chinese characters is already available for Taiwanese and Hong Kong users.

This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country.