I was always drawn to music, but studying composition, music theory and practicing an instrument every single day? I never cared for that. I’m not lazy, I just knew I didn't want to be a musician, so the effort to reward ratio was illogical.
The pull was strong though, I had diffuse musical ideas that demanded to be made concrete, so I tried a couple of experiments.
First I had to pick an instrument, and for the sake of flexibility, it had to be polyphonic. A piano is ungodly expensive and you better mean to learn it if you buy one, so it seemed like a guitar was the way to go.
That’s when I realized chords were going to be a problem.
Given a few months you can pick up the basic vocabulary for writing and reading music, understanding scales, rhythm, etc. But chords? That's a ninja skill. It takes years of muscle memory training to effortlessly hop around a piano keyboard or a guitar fingerboard putting four fingers in just the right spot and at the right time.
So my experiments began with trying to bring that difficulty down a notch. Aiming for the guitar, I wondered why chords had to be these awkward finger positions on top of bland utilitarian tuning. Plenty of reasons I suppose, but none convincing enough to choose the years long road, so I changed the tuning.
Having the guitar tuned to a given key meant having a harmonious open string base chord to build upon, and sliding fingers along the guitar fingerboard in simple transposable patterns to get to different chords within that key and put a tune together. I would eventually pile up about a dozen tunings and dozens of songs written on fret grids.
When I eventually thirsted for more complexity, I started experimenting with musical notation software.
I knew enough notation to transcribe my guitar tunes, so I began using those transcriptions as scaffolding, which I’d then fill with more and more notes, dragging them one by one into the pitch I’d imagine or whistle over the transcribed tune.
It was world of fun hacking music like this and spawned about two dozen musiclings over the years.
Then I met the accordion, and in the wake of working around chords for so long, it was a revelation.
The accordion has a dedicated chords keyboard, which means no more contrived hand yoga flexing your fingers into weird positions. Each key simply sounds all 4 simultaneous notes for either a bass, major, minor, dominant seventh or half diminished chord, for all 12 notes from C to B.
These aren’t all the chords of course, but they don’t have to be, they’re the ones you’d use the most to nail an idea down, play a popular song or more importantly, the ones you need to become conversational in the language of music.
I could taste the awesome, but two things irked me.
First, putting aside the fact that the accordion has to be pumped, and that the way you hold it is optimal for that motion, why should the keyboards face away from the player? Requiring the player to be as if blindfolded and mechanically memorizing the keyboard layout seems like unnecessary complexity.
Second, progression by fifths kills me. I know it makes sense for shorter hand travel when you know the layout by heart, but until you do, it’s completely counter-intuitive.
These two things kept the awesome at bay for me, but that’s when it hit me… I can easily solve these issues, I just need to make my own instrument.
So I teamed up piano craftsmen Hugo and Pedro, and we did.
Right now it’s called Music Starter, and it aims to do just that, get people started on music in the most intuitive and least time consuming way possible.
It’s an Arduino powered MIDI instrument that couples two keyboards, a custom 72 key chords keyboard, and a 3 octave piano keyboard.
The chords keyboard focuses on usability, featuring large comfortable keys, printed with the chord they sound, ordered in chromatic progression.
The piano keyboard aims to provide the best touch action in the market featuring a top notch Fatar weighted keybed.
Tying it all together is an Arduino Mega, a MIDI control unit for changing program, channel and octave, a sustain pedal input, MIDI compliant USB output and good old legacy 5-pin MIDI output.
We’re nearing on prototype completion meaning much has happened so far, but in coming posts we’ll look back on some of the more interesting development episodes, and share updates on the prototype.