If the transcendent power of music hadn’t yet dawned on Nicolle Ruetz, it certainly did as she and her Iraqi taxi driver bonded over the Shakira song playing through the car stereo.
“We laughed,” said Ruetz, a Peru-born composer and inventor who has traveled around the world. “Music crosses borders.”
The idea that people of diverse backgrounds and cultures can connect through music is the driving force behind Ruetz’s latest professional project, a free educational app for children that she brought to life in Santa Monica.
NicoNotes, which is part of her digital Whistlers World collection, brings musical notes to life as owl-like creatures to make it simpler for kids to recognize sound patterns, compose their own melodies and share their love of music with others. The goal is to give young people a tool to realize, at least subconsciously, what they have in common with their peers.
“It’s a good way to get kids to connect, have fun, have a moment of playing and then, in the process, realize how similar we are,” Ruetz said.
As she traveled — to Uganda, Ethiopia, Cambodia and beyond — Ruetz started thinking about the common ground between the children she met and wondered how she could connect them.
In New York she tapped into a network of technology professionals to design a musical language for kids. She then moved to Southern California to start working on bringing the app to the masses.
After months of testing and tweaking, Ruetz visited children in the Middle East as well as Japan and South America to see how it would be received. With positive feedback, she returned to Santa Monica to work with developers at her local studio. She considered launching the app from New York or San Francisco but found Santa Monica to have the traits she coveted.
“It was really serendipitous,” she said. “It was a good place for me to create and have more freedom and more time to build a whole world. It’s been a wonderful place. I bought a bicycle, I love the small-town feel — it’s just been a perfect place. I really love it.”
Ruetz obtained two patents for her musical language, which enables children to put notes on a staff with relative ease. Through her app collection, kids can also learn about different instruments. NicoNotes is currently available in English and Spanish, and Ruetz said other languages will be added in the coming weeks.
“Music is a medium for me to get what I wanted, which is to get kids to connect and communicate and have a positive experience when they’re young so they know how similar we all are,” she said. “I hope it shows that it’s a work of love.”
Ruetz considered charging for the app but said even a small fee tends to keep people from giving it a try. Users can access the app for free, and additional features and instrument packages are available for purchase.
Although the app does not provide a traditional curriculum in music, Ruetz said it’s designed to help children explore sounds on their own.
“It’s something that will complement learning an instrument,” she said. “If a kid wants to learn to read music, they can get excited with this and then do more advanced learning later. This gives kids an opportunity to learn on their own.”