By George Litterst
If you have a technology-equipped piano and have never connected it to a music app running on a mobile device or laptop computer, you haven’t come close to exploiting your instrument’s capabilities.
Do you want to learn how to play the piano? Imagine connecting your piano to an app that will guide your practice and evaluate your playing.
Are you an advanced player who’s never had the opportunity to perform a piano concerto with an orchestra? Imagine playing your piano while a realistic-sounding virtual orchestra not only accompanies you, but follows your playing.
Do you teach piano? Imagine connecting your piano to your student’s piano over the Internet. Then, using an app such as Skype or FaceTime, you can see and speak with your student. When your student plays his or her instrument, (s)he’ll actually play your instrument simultaneously—as though you were both in the same room.
Have you ever wished that your piano had additional sounds, or better sounds—or both? Imagine adding an amazing library of cathedral pipe organs, historic harpsichords, and other instrumental sounds—and carrying these sounds around in your pocket, on your smartphone. Just pull out your phone, connect to your piano and speakers, and you’re now playing a brand-new instrument.
How is this possible?
It Starts with MIDI
For the purpose of this discussion, a technology-equipped piano is an acoustic or digital piano with MIDI capabilities (see sidebar, “How MIDI Works”). This category of instrument typically includes:
full-featured player pianos
acoustic pianos with a Silent feature
acoustic pianos with a MIDI strip placed under the keys (A MIDI strip can be added to any piano.)
virtually any model of digital piano
MIDI makes it possible to send musical-performance information from your fingers to a computer or mobile device, where a smart app receives that information and responds directly to your playing. This amazing capability is available on most new pianos today—technology-equipped pianos have been outselling straight, acoustic pianos for some time now.
MIDI also makes it possible for your instrument to receive MIDI performance data. Although any technology-equipped piano can send MIDI data, these instruments differ in how they respond to the MIDI data they receive. For example, an acoustic piano with a full-featured player system will respond to incoming MIDI data by moving the keys, causing the hammers to strike the strings; a digital piano will receive incoming MIDI data and respond by generating sound produced through built-in speakers or headphones.
Most technology-equipped pianos include digital samples of the sound of one or more acoustic pianos that can be triggered during MIDI playback. Some go further, providing an industry-standard library of instrumental sounds—orchestral, pop, even a category called Ethnic—known as General MIDI (GM). Typical educational apps take advantage of GM sounds, but don’t worry if your instrument lacks them; many apps will provide GM sounds, which are even built into the Mac and Windows operating systems.
When marketing these instruments, manufacturers typically focus on built-in features that distinguish their products from those of their competitors. For example, a maker of electronic player-piano systems will emphasize the entertaining library of available recordings that are unique to its system. The retailer of a hybrid piano will focus on the realistic touch and tone that distinguish the model sitting on the showroom floor. And companies that make digital pianos will advertise amazing built-in sounds, automatic accompaniments, even apps that work only with that company’s instruments.
Regrettably, there is an industry-wide tendency to overlook the deeply meaningful—even transformative—customer experiences that are available when these technology-equipped pianos are connected by MIDI to an intelligent, interactive app running on a mobile device or laptop computer.
Many music apps on the market interact only minimally with the performer. For example, there are dozens of sheet-music apps that are interactive in the sense that you can use a stylus or finger to annotate the score, or turn the page by swipe or Bluetooth pedal. However, they don’t respond to the performer’s playing. Some apps will respond to your playing by, for example, animating an onscreen keyboard display, but are not “intelligent” in the sense of being able to tell you, for example, whether you played in time or expressively. The apps I consider most compelling are those that, by virtue of their ability to truly respond to the performer’s playing in an intelligent fashion, have the potential to raise the experience of performing music to a higher level. Some of my favorite compelling apps are described below.
Learning to Play
The options range from game-like experiences that motivate and evaluate your performance to interactive sheet music that responds to your playing. Here are some examples:
Piano Maestro, an iPad app from Joy Tunes, has been popular with many teachers and families. Designed for beginners, it focuses on sight-reading, rhythm, technique, and playing with both hands. It provides a library of more than 2,800 songs and exercises, all presented in an upbeat, simplified, game-like environment.
Piano Marvel is another app with embedded lessons. In addition to being available as an iPad app, it can be used on other computing devices in a web browser. Like Piano Maestro, it can evaluate your playing and determine whether you should proceed to the next level.
SuperScore Music takes a more traditional approach. This iPad app focuses on presenting music of all levels, from beginning to advanced, in traditional music notation. The score itself is liquid—that is, the music is reformatted on the fly when you resize it or rotate your iPad. Most of the scores come with embedded, model MIDI performances that can be played back on your piano, and many scores even contain MIDI backing tracks. Special interactive modes, called Learn, Jam, and Perform, respond to your playing through MIDI.
Piano Adventures Player is an iPhone/iPad app that provides access to the large library of learning material from the Faber Piano Adventures series. Music is presented in standard music notation, and the app provides interactive options (Learn, Jam, Perform) that are similar to the similarly named features in SuperScore Music.
Playing for Pleasure
A large number of apps, especially for iPad, offer for purchase scores for music ranging from classical to contemporary. Many of these apps contain play-along features that let you change the tempo, mute instrumental parts, or add a metronome. Few, however, respond to your playing on a technology-equipped piano. A small number may respond in a general way through a microphone, but audio-based apps aren’t nearly as accurate in tracking your playing as MIDI-based apps.
As mentioned above, SuperScore Music offers a large and growing library of interactive scores that go well beyond the needs of someone who is only taking piano lessons, and thus fits this category nicely.
Another good option for someone who’s playing for pleasure is an app that works with MIDI files. A MIDI file can contain up to 16 instrumental music tracks, and over the years, publishers and hobbyists have created tens of thousands of fun, play-along MIDI files for all types of music. Typically, these files use General MIDI sounds.
Home Concert Xtreme (HCX), for iPad/Mac/PC, is an app that works with MIDI files. It features the same, interactive play-along modes found in SuperScore Music and Piano Adventures Player. And if your piano doesn’t have its own set of General MIDI sounds, this app will provide them for you.
When you open a MIDI file in HCX, the app will transcribe any one or two tracks into music notation. Typically, you’d choose the left- and right-hand piano tracks. If the file is organized into logical beats and barlines, as most published MIDI files are, the notation will be readable, though not as fancy as a published score.
Used in Learn mode, HCX waits for you to play each note correctly. In Jam mode, the app plays at the tempo you choose; in Perform mode, it follows the tempo established by your playing. In all modes, HCX also responds to how loudly you play, adjusting the volume of the backing tracks accordingly.
These days, it has become common for teachers to give long-distance piano lessons from their studios, connecting with students who are at home or school, either as their usual way of teaching or as an occasional convenience when student and teacher can’t get together in the same physical location. Typically, a video-conferencing app such as Skype or FaceTime is used to let student and teacher see and hear each other.
A major drawback of this practice has been the inferior sound quality of Skype and FaceTime. Video-conferencing apps normally compress the audio to speech levels, which leaves much to be desired for musical performances.
Internet MIDI overcomes the sound-quality problem by connecting the student’s and teacher’s instruments to each other. When the student plays his or her piano, the teacher’s piano is also played, just as if the student were sitting next to the teacher on the teacher’s bench. And vice versa.
The interactivity doesn’t stop there. Internet MIDI can record, play back, and save a performance by student or teacher, open and play a previously recorded performance, transmit 16-track play-along files, mute and unmute the local microphone as needed, and even display an animated onscreen keyboard that features moving keys, pedals, and velocity meters.
With the addition of the Classroom Maestro add-on component, student and teacher can also enjoy an interactive musical staff that illustrates in real time notes, intervals, chords, scales, and hand positions.
Playing Other Instruments
The iOS App Store offers many virtual-instrument products from a number of companies. These products include contemporary and historic pianos, harpsichords, organs, keyboard percussion, and even standard orchestral instruments.
To use one of these virtual-instrument apps, connect your iPhone or iPad to your piano’s speakers or to external speakers. Then, decide whether you want to layer the virtual sounds atop the sound of your piano, or whether you want the virtual sounds to replace the sound of your piano. In the latter case, look through your piano’s owner’s manual for a feature called Local Control. (If your piano is acoustic, enable the Silent feature, if available.) When you turn off Local Control, your piano’s own sound won’t be generated; your playing will send MIDI data to your mobile device, where it will trigger the virtual sound you’ve chosen.
Practicing a Piano Concerto with a Virtual Orchestra
This is one of the most advanced applications of a technology-equipped piano, and it requires a bit of assembly. You need:
a technology-equipped piano
a Mac or PC
Garritan Personal Orchestra from MakeMusic
A MIDI connection between piano and computer
Home Concert Xtreme (HCX)
Concerto MIDI files created for Garritan Personal Orchestra
With this setup, you can enjoy an amazingly realistic virtual orchestra that can play at any tempo. This virtual orchestra, Garritan Personal Orchestra, resides on your computer. When you activate Home Concert Xtreme’s Perform mode, this virtual orchestra will actually follow the tempo of your playing. You get best results when your computer is connected to external speakers.
HCX’s Perform mode also offers many ways to adjust the play-along experience using markers. You can use markers to cause HCX to wait for you to play, to restore the tempo to the default tempo, to ignore your playing for a certain section of the piece, to wait for a special MIDI signal, and to set boundaries for the playback tempo. Think of these markers as your way of having a conversation with the virtual conductor.
Intelligent Interactive Experiences
What’s truly amazing about the technology-equipped piano is the opportunity it offers to have meaningful, interactive musical experiences that come with the use of intelligent MIDI apps. You already know how compelling the act of playing the piano can be. When you play, you meld the creativity of the composer with your own personal artistry. In doing so, you put beautiful sounds into the air and simultaneously receive powerful sensory feedback through your eyes, ears, and fingers. Indeed, playing the piano (or any other instrument) is a unique activity that integrates many fundamental qualities that define our humanity.
When your piano is connected to an intelligent MIDI app, the powerful experience of playing the piano can go to an entirely new level. The app can provide you with musically meaningful feedback in real time, such as scrolling music on the screen, instrumental accompaniments that respond to your playing, and more.
Best of all, MIDI apps future-proof your investment in a technology-equipped piano. For example: Did you purchase a floppy-disk–based player piano in the late 1980s? If so, does its floppy drive still work? Can you find compatible floppies? You probably think your “ancient” piano that cost so much money is now obsolete. Not true! Today, you can modernize that 30-year-old instrument by adding a Bluetooth MIDI adapter, an iPad, and a few intelligent MIDI apps, then take that old piano where few pianos of that age have gone before!
How MIDI Works
The scenarios mentioned in this article are enabled by an old but versatile and reliable computer protocol called Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI—a way of sending musical data in real time between MIDI-capable musical instruments and computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers.
MIDI was defined as an industry standard in 1983, when keyboard manufacturers felt the need to achieve some level of compatibility among competing keyboard instruments. Fortunately, this standard has been continuously supported by the music industry ever since, and virtually all pianos and keyboards that have any built-in electronics include support for MIDI communications. Today, the MIDI Association (midi.org) oversees the evolving MIDI specification and actively works to keep it up to date.
The traditional method of connecting a technology-equipped piano to a computer or mobile device involves a special cable: the MIDI interface. At one end, the cable plugs into the MIDI In and MIDI Out ports of your piano. At the other end is the appropriate connector for your computer or mobile device, such as a USB or Lightning connector.
Alternatively, some technology-equipped pianos have a To Host USB port, which lets you use a standard USB device cable to connect the instrument to a computer. To connect the To Host port to a mobile device, you simply add the appropriate USB adapter to the USB device cable.
In the last few years, a wireless MIDI standard has emerged: Bluetooth LE MIDI. If your computer, mobile device, or keyboard supports this feature, you can establish MIDI connections wirelessly within a range of 30 feet. If your technology-equipped piano lacks built-in Bluetooth MIDI, you can add this capability with a third-party Bluetooth MIDI adapter that plugs into your piano’s MIDI ports or To Host port.
Although you can find compelling apps for Mac and PC, there’s now a lot of industry focus on creating MIDI apps for iOS devices, especially the iPad. Apple has provided developers with excellent tools for creating MIDI apps—and an iPad fits on a piano’s music desk so much more easily than a laptop.
If you’d like more information about how to connect an iPad to your technology-equipped piano, I recommend a free guide produced by my company, TimeWarp Technologies.—G.F.L.
George F. Litterst (www.georgelitterst.com) is a nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer, and software developer. He is the co-author of the interactive sheet-music viewer SuperScore, the intelligent accompaniment program Home Concert Xtreme, the electronic music-blackboard program Classroom Maestro, and the remote-lesson teaching program Internet MIDI, all from TimeWarp Technologies (www.timewarptech.com).