What if I don’t play piano?

What follows is thoughts spilling out of my head, prompted by several conversations I’ve had with students over the past week. If it sounds scattered, incomplete or just dumb, well, you’ve been warned.

In my life as a college teacher, I spend most of my time teaching “Music Technologies” classes. The content of the courses is mostly up to me, which is both great fun and a real challenge. This term I’m teaching a basic course in GarageBand and a more advanced Ableton Live class. We also cover notation software (Sibelius) in a different semester. One of the big challenges in these courses is trying to help the students develop some literacy in “Music Technologies” rather than just facility with a few specific programs.

While this really comes down to a problem of general musical literacy and musicianship, facility with the programs is a big issue, and wrapped up in it is another issue: piano playing. The problem is that the most obvious and natural method of getting notes into any mainstream sequencing program is to play them on a MIDI keyboard. If you’re a piano player. I’m lucky to be one of those, but many of my students are not. As the keyboard has effectively become the only metaphor for notation in mainstream music software, this can create a serious bottleneck in the creative process, if the goal is (as it is here) to make music with a computer.

So, no matter how well I teach the software itself, a lot of people still get hung up at, “What if I don’t play piano?” I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot, and I’ve got some thoughts; some are more technical, less conceptual and possibly less helpful suggestions, and some are less tied to procedure and have more to do with how you approach making music.

  1. Make it easier for you to play. Are you really *unable* to play piano, or just unable to play what you want to play? Can you record at a slower tempo? Can you play one hand at a time?
  2. What about all the tools built in that can make you sound better, like quantization and a detailed piano-roll editor? (Can you play one hand at a time, at half speed, then quantize?)
  3. Don’t play – click stuff in with the mouse.

These first three suggestions are completely solid, but kind of shift the responsibility to my students. You still need to be a good piano player, just less so. Even in the case of the last suggestion, you still need to think pianistically. So I got thinking about how we get around these issues in “the real world” (whatever that is), where it’s assumed that we’re good at what we do, instead of just learning.

  1. Ask somebody else to do it. That’s what musicians do when they make records. There are perhaps a handful of people who can really put together a track playing everything themselves. And even those people do some really crazy things, like playing a drum kit track one drum at a time. I’m a terrible drummer. I wouldn’t dream of trying to play a drum part. I have some friends who are great drummers and very generous with their time. I can reciprocate by playing piano, or buying beer.
  2. Sort of 1 part II: rework loops. Programs like GarageBand and Live come with some fantastic prerecorded loops. They probably don’t work perfectly for you, but they’re close enough that they will with a bit of editing. If you feel guilty about using stock loops as is, you’ve probably got good reason to, but it’s not difficult to rework them into something your own.
  3. 2, of course, comes out of a centuries-old and noble tradition of sampling, or recycling, or stealing, or whatever you want to call it. I think that if you’re doing something interesting or creative or new with somebody else’s material, then it’s a good thing to use it. Of course, there are issues of copyright etc. that you may or may not want to or have to deal with, but, especially in school, that’s a crummy reason to not try.
  4. Several times during class yesterday, I found myself having the same conversation with different students. Basically, they’d say, “I don’t play piano well enough to make this sound like I want it to.” After talking about it for a bit, invariably we’d decide to try changing the sound. All of a sudden, it sounded great, just because we weren’t trying to make the track sound like a piano part.

This is a GarageBand problem, or more generally, a problem with the metaphor that any software of this type uses. When you create a new instrument in GarageBand, you automatically get a piano, and you don’t think about why that is for all kind of reasons – you just accept it and deal with the consequences. It makes perfect sense to the tiny fraction of us who already know how to use music production software, but maybe less so to most other people, especially those who don’t know how to play piano, and are maybe even a bit intimidated by the idea. We found in class that the best way around this is to just switch gears, to use something that doesn’t ask you to sound like a piano. Even recording with an electric piano sound can be enough of a change that you don’t feel like you have to play “pianistically”.

Sort of related: My favourite class in the Ableton Live course is the one where I show how you can get a complex arpeggiated pattern or rhythmic chord pattern in any chord diatonic to a key, complete with uneven (i.e. less mechanical) touch, out of a single whole note clicked into the piano roll (there it is again). My students have way less trouble understanding what ends up being a pretty complicated interplay of MIDI effects (not an easy concept itself) than they do some of the simpler parts of GarageBand.

So I wonder why it is that Live makes that stuff easy but GarageBand, which is supposed to be the tool that helps anybody make music, doesn’t. A big part of it is the piano metaphor, but Live is also successful where GarageBand isn’t because it encourages us to give up control. Live wants us to let it do things for us, like arpeggiate, choose notes, generate patterns, choose which pattern to play. Every edit we make in GarageBand is aimed at tightening control – autotune, fix timing, edit modulation. This approach comes out of the way traditional sequencers work, and gets in the way of helping “the average” person create music of their own.

Robert Rowe, in Machine Musicianship, quotes Todd Machover:

Traditional instruments are hard to play. It takes a long time to [acquire] physical skills which aren’t necessarily the essential qualities of making music. It takes years to get good tone quality on a violin or play in tune. If we could find a way to allow people to spend the same amount of concentration and effort on listening and thinking and evaluating the difference between things and how to communicate musical ideas with somebody else, how to make music with somebody else, it would be a great advantage. Not only would the general level of creativity go up, but you’d have a much more aware, educated, sensitive, listening, and participatory public.

GarageBand does a pretty good job of moving us in the right direction. Anybody can spend half an hour with the program and come out with a 3-minute track built from stock loops that actually sounds pretty good. But for most people, the next step is a tough one. I think getting out of that piano headspace is a start in the right direction, but I’m only just beginning to realize how much the tools get in the way.

One thought on “What if I don’t play piano?

  1. Dafydd asked if I’d post this as a comment:

    Good thoughts on the blog! The one more I would throw in for amateur
    piano players is “why play in any key but the key of C?” Makes
    chording and solos super easy. They can even start with a bass line
    and build chords on top. Then just transpose it later before recording

    One reason why I think Garageband hasn’t included some of the Ableton
    elements yet is that I think they hold back features knowing they want
    to sell a new version each year. Why include everything this year
    when there’s going to be a Garageband 12, 13, 14….