The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

Musical pitches rise and fall linearly, but pitch class is circular. When you go up or down the chromatic scale, the note names “wrap around” every twelve notes. This naming convention reflects the fact that we hear notes an octave apart as being “the same”, probably because they share so many overtones. (Non-human primates hear octaves as being equivalent too.)

chromatic circle

The note names and numbers are all based on the C major scale, which is Western music’s “default setting.” The scale notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B (the white keys on the piano) are the “normal” notes. (Why do they start on C and not A? I have no idea.) You get D-flat, E-flat, G-flat, A-flat and B-flat (the black keys on the piano) by lowering (flatting) their corresponding white key notes. Alternately, you can get the black key notes by raising or sharping the white key notes, in which case they’ll be called C-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp, and A-sharp. (Let’s just briefly acknowledge that the imagery of the “normal” white and “deviant” black keys is just one of many ways that Western musical culture is super racist, and move on.)

You can represent any scale on the chromatic circle just by “switching” notes on and off. For example, if you activate the notes C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat and B, you get C harmonic minor. (Alternatively, you could just deactivate D-flat, E, G-flat, A, and B-flat.) Here’s how the scale looks when you write it this way:

C harmonic minor - monochrome

This is how I conceive scales in my head, as a pattern of activated and deactivated chromatic scale notes. As a guitarist, it’s the most intuitive way to think about them, because each box on the circular grid corresponds to a fret, so you can read the fingering pattern right off the circle. When I think “harmonic minor,” I don’t think of note names, I think “pattern of notes and gaps with one unusually wide gap.”

Another beauty of the circle view is that you can get the other eleven harmonic minor scales just by rotating the note names while keeping the pattern of activated/deactivated notes the same. If I want E-flat harmonic minor, I just have to grab the outer ring and rotate it counterclockwise a few notches:

E-flat harmonic minor

My next thought was to color-code the scale tones to give an indication of their sound and function:

C harmonic minor scale necklace

Here’s how the color scheme works:

  • Green – major, natural, sharp, augmented
  • Blue – minor, flat, diminished
  • Purple – perfect (neither major nor minor)
  • Grey – not in the scale

Scales with more green in them sound “happier” or brighter. Scales with more blue sound “sadder” or darker. Scales with a mixture of blue and green (like harmonic minor) will have a more complex and ambiguous feeling.

My ambition with the pitch wheels is not just to make the aQWERTYon’s scale menu more visually appealing. I’d eventually like to have it be an interactive way to visualize chords too. Followers of this blog will notice a strong similarity between the circular scale and the rhythm necklaces that inspired the Groove Pizza. Just like symmetries and patterns on the rhythm necklace can tell you a lot about how beats work, so too can symmetries and patterns on the scale necklace can tell you how harmony works. So here’s my dream for the aQWERTYon’s future theory visualization interface. If you load the app and set it to C harmonic minor, here’s how it would look. To the right is a staff notation view with the appropriate key signature.

When you play a note, it would change color on the keyboard and the wheel, and appear on the staff. The app would also tell you which scale degree it is (in this case, seven.)

If you play two notes simultaneously, in this case the third and seventh notes in C Mixolydian mode, the app would draw a line between the two notes on the circle:

If you play three notes at a time, like the first, fourth and fifth notes in C Lydian, you’d get a triangle.

If your three notes spell out a chord, like the second, fourth and sixth notes in C Phrygian mode, the app would recognize it and shows the chord symbol on the staff.

The pattern continues if you play four notes at a time:

Or five notes at a time:

By rotating the outer ring of the pitch wheel, you could change the root of the scale, like I showed above with C harmonic minor. And if you rotated the inner ring, showing the scale degrees, you could get different modes of the scale. Modes are one of the most difficult concepts in music theory. That is, they’re difficult until you learn to imagine them as rotations of the scale necklace, at which point they become nothing harder than a memorization exercise.

I’m designing this system to be used with the aQWERTYon, but there’s no reason it couldn’t take ordinary MIDI input as well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this in a window in your DAW or notation program?

Music theory is hard. There’s a whole Twitter account devoted to retweeting students’ complaints about it. Some of this difficulty is due to the intrinsic complexity of modern harmony. But a lot of it is due to terminology and notation. Our naming system for notes and chords is a set of historically contingent kludges. No rational person would design it this way from the ground up. Thanks to path dependency, we’re stuck with it, much like we’re stuck with English grammar and the QWERTY keyboard layout. Fortunately, technology gives us a lot of new ways to make all the arcana more accessible, by showing multiple representations simultaneously and by making those representations discoverable through playful tinkering.

Do you find this idea exciting? Would you like it to be functioning software, and not just a bunch of flat images I laboriously made by hand? Help the MusEDLab find a partner to fund the developer and designer time. A grant or gift would work, and we’d also be open to exploring a commercial partnership. The aQW has been a labor of volunteer love for the lab so far, and it’s already one of the best music theory pedagogy tools on the internet. But development would go a lot faster if we could fund it properly. If you have ideas, please be in touch!

Update: Will Kuhn’s response to this post.

Affordances and Constraints

Note-taking for User Experience Design with June Ahn

Don Norman discusses affordances and constraints in The Design of Everyday Things, Chapter Four: Knowing What To Do.

Don Norman - The Design of Everyday Things

User experience design is easy in situations where there’s only one thing that the user can possibly do. But as the possibilities multiply, so do the challenges. We can deal with new things using information from our prior experiences, or by being instructed. The best-designed things include the instructions for their own use, like video games whose first level act as tutorials, or doors with handles that communicate how you should operate them by their shape and placement.

We use affordances and constraints to learn how things work. Affordances suggest the range of possibilities, and constraints limit the alternatives. Constraints include:

  • Physical limitations. Door keys can only be inserted into keyholes vertically, but you can still insert the key upside down. Car keys work in both orientations.
  • Semantic constraints. We know that red lights mean stop and green lights mean go, so we infer that a red light means a device is off or inoperative, and a green light means it’s on or ready to function. We have a slow cooker that uses lights in the opposite way and it screws me up every time.
  • Cultural constraints. Otherwise known as conventions. (Not sure how these are different from semantic constraints.) Somehow we all know without being told that we’re supposed to face forward in the elevator. Google Glass was an epic failure because its early adopters ran into the cultural constraint of people not liking to be photographed without consent.
  • Logical constraints. The arrangement of knobs controlling your stove burners should match the arrangement of the burners themselves.

The absence of constraints makes things confusing. Norman gives examples of how much designers love rows of identical switches which give no clues as to their function. Distinguishing the switches by shape, size, or grouping might not look as elegant, but would make it easier to remember which one does what thing.

Helpful designs use visibility (making the relevant parts visible) and feedback (giving actions an immediate and obvious effect.) Everyone hates the power buttons on iMacs because they’re hidden on the back, flush with the case. Feedback is an important way to help us distinguish the functional parts from the decorative ones. Propellerheads Reason is an annoying program because its skeuomorphic design puts as many decorative elements on the screen as functional ones. Ableton Live is easier to use because everything on the screen is functional.

When you can’t make things visible, you can give feedback via sound. Pressing a Mac’s power button doesn’t immediately cause the screen to light up, but that’s okay, because it plays the famous startup sound. Norman’s examples of low-tech sound feedback include the “zzz” sound of a functioning zipper, a tea kettle’s whistle, and the various sounds that machines make when they have mechanical problems. The problem with sound as feedback is that it can be intrusive and annoying.

The term “affordance” is the source for a lot of confusion. Norman tries to clarify it in his article “Affordance, Conventions and Design.” He makes a distinction between real and perceived affordances. Anything that appears on a computer screen is a perceived affordance. The real affordances of a computer are its physical components: the screen itself, the keyboard, the trackpad. The MusEDLab was motivated to create the aQWERTYon by considering the computer’s real affordances for music making. Most software design ignores the real affordances and only considers the perceived ones.

Designers of graphical user interfaces rely entirely on conceptual models and cultural conventions. (Consider how many programs use a graphic of a floppy disk as a Save icon, and now compare to the last time you saw an actual floppy disk.) For Norman, graphics are perceived affordances by definition.

Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho try to nail the concept down harder in “Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept.” The term was coined by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. For Gibson, affordances exist independent of the actor’s ability to perceive them, and don’t depend on the actor’s experiences and culture. For Norman, affordances can include both perceived and actual properties, which to me makes more sense. If you can’t figure out that an affordance exists, then what does it matter if it exists or not?

Norman collapses two distinct aspects of design: an object’s utility of an object and the way that users learn or discover that utility. But are designing affordances and designing the information about the affordances the same thing? McGrenere and Ho say no, that it’s the difference between usefulness versus usability. They complain that the HCI community has focused on usability at the expense of usefulness. Norman says that a scrollbar is a learned convention, not a real affordance. McGrenere and Ho disagree, because the scrollbar affords scrolling in a way that’s built into the software, making it every bit as much a real affordance as if it were a physical thing. The learned convention is the visual representation of the scrollbar, not the basic fact of it.

The best reason to distinguish affordances from their communication or representation is that sometimes the communication gets in the way of the affordance itself. For example, novice software users need graphical user interfaces, while advanced users prefer text commands and keyboard shortcuts. A beginner needs to see all the available commands, while a pro prefers to keep the screen free of unnecessary clutter. Ableton Live is a notoriously beginner-unfriendly program because it prioritizes visual economy and minimalism over user handholding. A number of basic functions are either invisible or so tiny as to be effectively invisible. Apple’s GarageBand welcomes beginners with photorealistic depictions of everything, but its lack of keyboard shortcuts makes it feel like wearing oven mitts for expert users. For McGrenere and Ho, the same feature of one of these programs can be an affordance or anti-affordance depending on the user.

Designing a more welcoming aQWERTYon experience

This post documents my final project for User Experience Design with June Ahn

The best aQWERTYon screencap

Overview of the problem

The aQWERTYon is a web-based music performance and theory learning interface designed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. The name is a play on “QWERTY accordion.” The aQWERTYon invites novices to improvise and compose using a variety of scales and chords normally available only to advanced musicians. Notes map onto the computer keyboard such that the rows play scales and the columns play chords. The user can not play any wrong notes, which encourages free and playful exploration. The aQWERTYon has a variety of instrument sounds to choose from, and it can also act as a standard MIDI controller for digital audio workstations (DAWs) like GarageBand, Logic, and Ableton Live. As of this writing, there have been aQWERTYon 32,000 sessions.

One of our core design principles is to work within our users’ real-world technological limitations. We build tools in the browser so they will be platform-independent and accessible anywhere where there is internet access. Our aim with the aQWERTYon was to find the musical possibilities in a typical computer with no additional software or hardware. That question led us to investigate ways of turning the standard QWERTY keyboard into a beginner-friendly instrument.

While the aQWERTYon has been an effective tool in classrooms and online, it has some design deficiencies as well. It is difficult for unassisted users to figure out what the app is for. While its functionality is easily discovered through trial and error, its musical applications are less self-explanatory. Some of this is due to the intrinsic complexity of music theory and all the daunting terminology that comes with it. But some of it is the lack of context and guidance we provide to new users.

The conjecture

This assignment coincided with discussions already taking place in the lab around redesigning the aQW. Many of those focused on a particular element of the user interface, the scale picker.

aQWERTYon scale picker

The user has a variety of scales to choose from, ranging from the familiar to the exotic. However, these scales all have impenetrable names. How are music theory novices supposed to make sense of names like harmonic minor or Lydian mode? How would they know to choose one scale or another? We debated the least off-putting way of presenting these choices: should we represent them graphically? Associate each one with a well-known piece of music? Or just list them alphabetically? I proposed a system of graphical icons showing the notes comprising each scale. While novices will find them no more intelligible than the names, the hope is that they would be sufficiently visually appealing to invite users to explore them by ear.

aQW scale picker interactive wireframe

Conversations with June helped me understand that there are some broader and more profound user experience problems to solve before users ever get to the scale picker. What is the experience of simply landing on the app for the first time? How do people know what to do? From this conversation came the germ of a new idea, a landing page offering a tutorial or introduction. We want users to have a feeling of discovery, a musical “aha moment”, the chance to be a musical insider. The best way to do that seemed to be to give users a playlist of preset songs to jam with.

User characteristics and personas

There are three major user groups for the aQWERTYon, who I will describe as students, teachers, and explorers.

Students and teachers

Students use the aQW in a guided and structured setting: a classroom, a private lesson, or an online tutorial. There are several distinct user personas: elementary, middle and high school students, both mainstream and with special needs; college students; and online learners, mostly adults. Each student persona has its corresponding teacher persona. For example, I use the aQW with my music technology students at Montclair State University and NYU, and with some private students.

The aQW’s biggest fan is MusEDLab partner Matt McLean, who teaches at the Little Red Schoolhouse and runs a nonprofit organization called the Young Composers and Improvisors Workshop. Matt uses the aQW to teach composition in both settings, in person and online. He has documented his students’ use of the aQW extensively. Some examples:


I use the term explorers to describe people who use the aQW without any outside guidance. Explorers do not fit into specific demographic groups, but they center around two broad, overlapping personas: bedroom producers and music theory autodidacts. Explorers may find the aQW via a link, a social media posting, or a Google search. We know little about these users beyond what is captured by Google Analytics. However, we can make some assumptions based on our known referral sources. For example, this blog is a significant driver of traffic to the aQW. I have numerous posts on music theory and composition that link to the aQW so that readers can explore the concepts for themselves. My blog readership includes other music educators and some professional musicians, but the majority are amateur musicians and very enthusiastic listeners. These are exactly the users we are trying to serve: people who want to learn about music independently, either for creative purposes or to simply satisfy curiosity.

While I am a music educator, I have spent most of my life as a self-taught bedroom producer, so I identify naturally with the explorers. I have created several original pieces of music with the aQW, both for user testing purposes and to show its creative potential. While I have an extensive music theory background, I am a rudimentary keyboard player at best. This has limited my electronic music creation to drawing in the MIDI piano roll with the mouse pointer, since I can not perform my ideas on a piano-style controller. The aQW suits my needs perfectly, since I can set it to any scale I want and shred fearlessly. Here is an unedited improvisation I performed using a synthesizer instrument I created in Ableton Live:

My hope is that more would-be explorers feel invited to use the aQW for similar creative purposes in their own performance and composition.

Tasks and Scenarios

It is possible to configure the aQWERTYon via URL parameters to set the key and scale, and to hide components of the user interface. When teachers create exercises or assignments, they can link or embed the aQW with its settings locked to keep students from getting lost or confused. However, this does not necessarily invite the user to explore or experiment. Here is an example of an aQW preset to accompany a Beyoncé song. This preset might be used for a variety of pedagogical tasks, including learning some or all of the melody, creating a new countermelody, or improvising a solo. The harmonic major scale is not one that is usually taught, but it a useful way to blend major and minor tonalities. Students might try using more standard scales like major or harmonic minor, and listen for ways that they clash with Beyoncé’s song.

Tasks and scenarios for explorers might include creating a melody, bassline or chords for an original piece of music. For example, a self-taught dance music producer might feel limited by the scales that are easiest to play on a piano-style keyboard (major, natural minor, pentatonics) and be in search of richer and more exotic sounds. This producer might play their track in progress and improvise on top using different scale settings.

One of the users I tested with suggested an alternative explorer use case. He is an enthusiastic amateur composer and arranger, who is trying to arrange choral versions of pop and rock songs. He is a guitarist who has little formal music theory knowledge. He might use the aQW to try out harmonic ideas by ear, write down note names that form pleasing combinations, and then transfer them to the guitar or piano-based MIDI controller.

Understanding the problem

In the age of the computer and the internet, many aspects of music performance, composition and production are easy to self-teach. However, music theory remains an obstacle for many bedroom producers and pop musicians (not to mention schooled musicians!) There are so many chords and scales and rules and technical vocabulary, all of which have to be applied in all twelve keys. To make matters worse, terminology hangs around long after its historical context has disappeared. We no longer know what the Greek modes sound like, but we use their names to describe modern scales. C-sharp and D-flat were different pitches in historical tuning systems, but now both names describe the same pitch. The harmonic and melodic minor scales are named after a stylistic rule for writing melodies that was abandoned hundreds of years ago. And so on.

Most existing theory resources draw on the Western classical tradition, using examples and conventions from a repertoire most contemporary musicians and listeners find unfamiliar. Furthermore, these resources presume the ability to read standard music notation. Web resources that do address popular music are usually confusing and riddled with errors. I have worked with Soundfly to fill this vacuum by creating high-quality online courses aimed at popular musicians. Even with the best teaching resources, though, theory remains daunting. Exploring different chords and scales on an instrument requires significant technical mastery, and many musicians give up before ever reaching that point.

The aQW is intended to ease music theory learning by making scales and chords easy to discover even by complete novices. Our expectation is that after explorers are able to try theory ideas out in a low-pressure and creative setting, they will be motivated to put them to work playing instruments, composing or producing. Alternatively, users can simply perform and compose directly with the aQW itself.

Social and technical context

Most computer-based melody input systems are modeled on the piano. This is most obvious for hardware, since nearly all MIDI controllers take the form of literal piano keyboards. It is also true for software, which takes the piano keyboard as the primary visualization scheme for pitch. For example, the MIDI editor in every DAW displays pitches on a “piano roll”.

Some DAWs include a “musical typing” feature that maps the piano layout to the QWERTY keyboard, as an expediency for users who either lack MIDI hardware controllers, or who do not have them on hand. Apple’s GarageBand uses the ASDFG row of the keyboard for the white keys and the QWERTY row for the black keys. They use the other rows for such useful controls as pitch bend, modulation, sustain, octave shifting and simple velocity control.

GarageBand musical typing

Useful and expedient though it is, Musical Typing has some grave shortcomings as a user interface. It presumes familiarity with the piano keyboard, but is not very playable for users do who possess that familiarity. The piano layout makes a poor fit for the grid of computer keys. For example, there is no black key on the piano between the notes E and F, but the QWERTY keyboard gives no visual reminder of that fact, so it is necessary to just remember it. Unfortunately, the “missing” black key between E and F happens to be the letter R, which is GarageBand’s keyboard shortcut for recording. While hunting for E-flat or F-sharp, users are prone to accidentally start recording over their work. I have been using GarageBand for seven years and still do this routinely.

Ableton’s Push controller represents an interesting break with MIDI controller orthodoxy. It is a grid of 64 touch pads surrounded by various buttons, knobs and sliders.

Ableton Push

The pads were designed to trigger samples and loops like a typical drum machine, but Ableton also includes a melody mode for the Push. By default, it maps notes to the grid in rows staggered by fourths, which makes the layout identical to the bottom four strings of the guitar. This is quite a gift for guitarists like me, since I can use my familiar chord and scale fingerings, rather than hunting and pecking for them on the piano. Furthermore, the Push can be set so that the pads play only the notes within a particular scale, giving a “no wrong notes” experience similar to the aQWERTYon. Delightful though this mode is, however, it is imperfect. Root notes of the scale are colored blue, and other notes are colored white. While this makes the roots easy to distinguish, it is not so easy to visually differentiate the other pitches.

Touchscreen devices like the iPhone and iPad open up additional new possibilities for melodic interfaces. Many mobile apps continue to use the piano keyboard for note input, but some take advantage of the touchscreen’s unique affordances. One such is Thumbjam, which enables the user to divide the screen into slices of arbitrary thickness that can map to any arbitrary combination of notes.


The app offers hundreds of preset scales to choose from. The user may have a small range of notes, each of which is large and easy to distinguish, or a huge range of notes, each of which occupies a narrow strip of screen area. Furthermore, the screen can be split to hold four different scales, played from four different instruments. While all of this configurability is liberating, it is also overwhelming. Also, the scales are one-dimensional lines; there is no easy way to play chords and arpeggios.

Evaluation criteria

Is the aQW’s potential obvious enough to draw in explorers and educators? Will it be adopted as a tool for self-teaching? Does it invite playful exploration and experimentation? Is it satisfying for real-world musical usage? Is the UI self-explanatory, or at least discoverable? Is the music theory content discoverable? Have we identified the right user persona(s)? Is the aQW really a tool for beginners? Or is it an intermediate music theory learning tool? Or an advanced composition tool? Is the approach of a “playlist” of example songs the right one? Which songs, artists and genres should we include on the landing page? How many presets should we include? Should we limit it to a few, or should we offer a large, searchable database? And how do we deal with the fact that many songs require multiple scales to play?

Proposed solution

I tested several interactive wireframes of this landing page concept. Click the image to try it yourself:

aQWERTYon landing page interactive wireframe

The first wireframe had nine preset songs. I wanted to offer reasonable musical diversity without overwhelming the user. The tenth slot linked to the “classic” aQW, where users are free to select their own video, scale, root, and so on. I chose songs that appealed to me (and presumably other adult explorers), along with some current pop songs familiar to younger users. I wanted to balance the choices by race, gender, era, and genre. I was also bound by a musical constraint: all songs need to be playable using a single scale in a single key. The initial preset list was:

  • Adele – “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
  • Mary J Blige – “Family Affair”
  • Miles Davis – “Sssh/Peaceful”
  • Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On”
  • Björk – “All Is Full Of Love”
  • Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”
  • Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream”
  • AC/DC – “Back In Black”
  • Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”

After a few test sessions, it became apparent that no one was clicking Mary J Blige. Also, the list did not include any current hip-hop. I therefore replaced her with Chance The Rapper. I initially offered a few sentences of instruction, but feedback from my MusEDLab colleagues encouraged me to reduce the prompt down to just a few words: “Pick a song, type, jam.”

Further testing showed that while adults are willing to try out any song, familiar or not, children and teens are much choosier. Therefore, I added two more presets, “Hotline Bling” by Drake and “Formation” by Beyoncé. The latter song proved problematic, however, because its instrumental backing is so sparse and minimal that it is difficult to hear how other notes might fit into it. I ultimately swapped it for “Single Ladies.” I had rejected this song initially, because it uses the idiosyncratic harmonic major scale. However, I came to see this quirk as a positive bonus–since one of our goals is to encourage users to explore new sounds and concepts, a well-known and well-loved song using an unusual scale is a rare gift.

User testing protocol

I used a think-aloud protocol, asking testers to narrate their thought processes as they explored the app. I recorded the one-on-one sessions using Screenflow. When testing with groups of kids, this was impractical, so instead I took notes during and after each session. For each user, I opened the interactive wireframe, and told them, “This is a web based application for playing music with your computer keyboard. I’m going to ask you to tell me what you see on the screen, what you think it does, and what you think will happen when you click things.” I did not offer any other explanation or context, because I wanted to see whether the landing page was self-explanatory and discoverable. I conducted informal interviews with users during and after the sessions as well.

User testing results

I tested with ten adults and around forty kids. The adults ranged in age from early twenties to fifties. All were musicians, at varying levels of ability and training, mostly enthusiastic amateurs. Sessions lasted for twenty or thirty minutes. There were two groups of kids: a small group of eighth graders at the Little Red Schoolhouse, and a large group of fourth graders from PS 3 who were visiting NYU. These testing sessions were shorter, ten to fifteen minutes each.

User testing the aQWERTYon with fourth graders

Discovering melodies

It is possible to play the aQW by clicking the notes onscreen using the mouse, though this method is slow and difficult. Nevertheless, a number of the younger testers did this, even after I suggested that it would be easier on the keyboard.

An adult tester with some keyboard and guitar experience told me, “This is great, it’s making me play patterns that I normally don’t play.” He was playing on top of the Miles Davis track, and he was quickly able to figure out a few riffs from Miles’ trumpet solo.

Discovering chords

Several testers systematically identified chords by playing alternating notes within a row, while others discovered them by holding down random groups of keys. None of the testers discovered that they could easily play chords using columns of keys until I prompted them to do so. One even asked, “Is there a relationship between keys if I play them vertically? I don’t know enough about music to know that.” After I suggested he try the columns, he said, “If I didn’t know [by ear] how chords worked, I’d miss the beauty of this.” He compared the aQW to GarageBand’s musical typing: “This is not that. This is a whole new thing. This is chord oriented. As a guitarist, I appreciate that.” The message is clear: we need to make the chords more obvious, or more actively assist users in finding them.

Other theory issues

For the most part, testers were content to play the scales they were given, though some of the more expert musicians changed the scales before even listening to the presets. However, not everyone realized that the presets were set to match the song. A few asked me: “How do I know what key this song is in?” We could probably state explicitly that the presets line up automatically.

In general, adult testers found the value of the aQW as a theory learning tool to be immediately apparent. One told me: “If I had this when I was a kid, I would have studied music a lot. I used to hate music theory. I learned a lot of stuff, but the learning process was awful… Your kids’ generation will learn music like this (snaps fingers).”


The aQW comes with a large collection of SoundFonts, and users of all ages enjoyed auditioning them, sometimes for long periods of time. Sometimes they apologized for how fascinating they found the sounds to be. But it is remarkable to have access to so many instrument timbres so effortlessly. Computers turn us all into potential orchestrators, arrangers, and sound designers.

Screen layout

The more design-oriented testers appreciated the sparseness and minimalism of the graphics, finding them calming and easy to understand.

Several testers complained that the video window takes up too much screen real estate, and is placed too prominently. Two commented that videos showing live performers, like “Back In Back,” were valuable because that helped with timekeeping and inspiration. Otherwise, however, testers found the videos to either be of little value or actively distracting. One suggested having the videos hidden or minimized by default, with the option to click to expand them. Others requested that the video be below the keyboard and other crucial controls. Also, the eighth graders reported that some of the video content was distracting because of its content, for example the partying shown in “Teenage Dream.” Unsuitable content will be an ongoing issue using many of the pop songs that kids like.

Technical browser issues

Having the aQWERTYon run in the browser has significant benefits, but a few limitations as well. Because the URL updates every time the parameters change, clicking the browser’s Back button does not produce the expected behavior–it might take ten or fifteen clicks to actually return to a previous page. I changed the links in later versions so each one opens the aQW in a new tab so the landing page would always be available. However, web audio is very memory-intensive, and the aQW will function slowly or not at all if it is open in more than one tab simultaneously.

Song choices

The best mix of presets is always going to depend on the specific demographics of any given group of users. However, the assortment I arrived at was satisfying enough for the groups I tested with. Miles Davis and Björk do not have the wide appeal of Daft Punk or Michael Jackson, but their presence was very gratifying for the more hipster-ish testers. I was extremely impressed that an eighth grader selected the Miles song, though this kid turns out to be the son of a Very Famous Musician and is not typical.

Recording functionality

Testers repeatedly requested the ability to record their playing. The aQW did start out with a very primitive recording feature, but it will require some development to make it usable. The question is always, how much functionality is enough? Should users be able to overdub? If so, how many tracks? Is simple recording enough, or would users need to able to mix, edit, and select takes?

One reason that recording has been a low development priority is that users can easily record their performances via MIDI into any DAW or notation program. The aQW behaves as if it were a standard MIDI controller plugged into the computer. With so many excellent DAWs in the world, it seems less urgent for us to replicate their functionality. However, there is one major limitation of recording this way: it captures the notes being played, but not the sounds. Instead, the DAW plays back the MIDI using whatever software instruments it has available. Users who are attached to a specific SoundFont cannot record them unless they use a workaround like Soundflower. This issue will require more discussion and design work.

New conjectures and future work

One of my most significant user testers for the landing page wireframe was Kevin Irlen, the MusEDLab’s chief software architect and main developer of the aQW itself. He found the landing page concept sufficiently inspiring that he created a more sophisticated version of it, the app sequencer:

aQWERTYon app sequencer v1

We can add presets to the app sequencer using a simple web form, which is a significant improvement over the tedious process of creating my wireframes by hand. The sequencer pulls images automatically from YouTube, another major labor-saver. Kevin also added a comment field, which gives additional opportunity to give prompts and instructions. Each sequencer preset generates a unique URL, making it possible to generate any number of different landing pages. We will be able to create custom landing pages focusing on different artists, genres or themes.

Songs beyond the presets

Testing with the fourth graders showed that we will need to design a better system for users who want to play over songs that we do not include among the presets. That tutorial needs to instruct users how to locate YouTube URLs, and more dauntingly, how to identify keys and scales. I propose an overlay or popup:


Testing with fourth graders also showed that helping novice users with keyfinding may not be as challenging as I had feared. The aQW defaults to the D minor pentatonic scale, and that scale turns out to fit fairly well over most current pop songs. If it doesn’t, some other minor pentatonic scale is very likely to work. This is due to a music-theoretical quirk of the pentatonic scale: it happens to share pitches with many other commonly-used scales and chords. As long as the root is somewhere within the key, the minor pentatonic will sound fine. For example, in C major:

  • C minor pentatonic sounds like C blues
  • D minor pentatonic sounds like Csus4
  • E minor pentatonic sounds like Cmaj7
  • F minor pentatonic sounds like C natural minor
  • G minor pentatonic sounds like C7sus4
  • A minor pentatonic is the same as C major pentatonic
  • B minor pentatonic sounds like C Lydian mode


We are planning to revamp the root picker to show both a larger piano keyboard and a pitch wheel. We also plan to add more dynamic visualization options for notes as they are played, including a staff notation view, the chromatic circle, and the circle of fifths. The aQW leaves several keys on the keyboard unused, and we could use them for additional controls. For example, we might use the Control key to make note velocities louder, and Option to make them quieter. The arrow keys might be used to cycle through the scale menu and to shift the root.

Built-in theory pedagogy

There is a great deal of opportunity to build more theory pedagogy on top of the aQW, and to include more of it within the app itself. We might encourage chord playing by automatically showing chord labels at the top of each column. We might include popups or links next to each scale giving some explanation of why they sound the way they do, and to give some suggested musical uses. One user proposes a game mode for more advanced users, where the scale is set to chromatic and players must identify the “wrong” or outside notes. Another proposes a mode similar to Hooktheory, where users could sequence chord progressions to play on top of.

Rhythmic assistance

A few testers requested some kind of help or guidance with timekeeping. One suggested a graphical score in the style of Guitar Hero, or a “follow the bouncing ball” rhythm visualization. Another pointed out that an obvious solution would be to incorporate the Groove Pizza, perhaps in miniature form in a corner of the screen. Synchronizing all of this to YouTube videos would need to be done by hand, so far as I know, but perhaps an automated solution exists. Beat detection is certainly an easier MIR challenge than key or chord detection. If we were able to automatically sync to the tempo of a song, we could add the DJ functionality requested by one tester, letting users add cue points, loop certain sections, and slow them down.

Odds and ends

One eighth grader suggested that we make aQW accounts with “musical passwords.”

An adult tester referred to the landing page as the “Choose Your Own Adventure screen.” The idea of musical adventure is exactly the feeling I was hoping for.

In addition to notes on the staff, one tester requested a spectrum visualizer. This is perhaps an esoteric request, but real-time spectrograms are quite intuitive and might be useful.

Finally, one tester made a comment that was striking in its broader implications for music education: “I’m not very musical, I don’t really play an instrument, so these kinds of tricks are helpful for me. It didn’t take me long to figure out how the notes are arranged.” This person is a highly expert producer, beatmaker and live performer using Ableton Live. I asked how he came to this expertise, and he said he felt compelled to learn it to compensate for his lack of “musicianship”. It makes me sad that such a sophisticated musician does not realize that his skills “count”. In empowering music learners with the aQW, I also hope we are able to help computer musicians value themselves.

Learning music from Ableton

Ableton recently launched a delightful web site that teaches the basics of beatmaking, production and music theory using elegant interactives. If you’re interested in music education, creation, or user experience design, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

Ableton - Learning Music site

One of the site’s co-creators is Dennis DeSantis, who wrote Live’s unusually lucid documentation, and also their first book, a highly-recommended collection of strategies for music creation (not just in the electronic idiom.)

Dennis DeSantis - Making Music

The other co-creator is Jack Schaedler, who also created this totally gorgeous interactive digital signal theory primer.

If you’ve been following the work of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, you might notice some strong similarities between Ableton’s site and our tools. That’s no coincidence. Dennis and I have been having an informal back and forth on the role of technology in music education for a few years now. It’s a relationship that’s going to get a step more formal this fall at the 2017 Loop Conference – more details on that as it develops.

Meanwhile, Peter Kirn’s review of the Learning Music site raises some probing questions about why Ableton might be getting involved in education in the first place. But first, he makes some broad statements about the state of the musical world that are worth repeating in full.

I think there’s a common myth that music production tools somehow take away from the need to understand music theory. I’d say exactly the opposite: they’re more demanding.

Every musician is now in the position of composer. You have an opportunity to arrange new sounds in new ways without any clear frame from the past. You’re now part of a community of listeners who have more access to traditions across geography and essentially from the dawn of time. In other words, there’s almost no choice too obvious.

The music education world has been slow to react to these new realities. We still think of composition as an elite and esoteric skill, one reserved only for small class of highly trained specialists. Before computers, this was a reasonable enough attitude to have, because it was mostly true. Not many of us can learn an instrument well enough to compose with it, then learn to notate our ideas. Even fewer of us will be able to find musicians to perform those compositions. But anyone with an iPhone and twenty dollars worth of apps can make original music using an infinite variety of sounds, and share that music online to anyone willing to listen. My kids started playing with iOS music apps when they were one year old. With the technical barriers to musical creativity falling away, the remaining challenge is gaining an understanding of music itself, how it works, why some things sound good and others don’t. This is the challenge that we as music educators are suddenly free to take up.

There’s an important question to ask here, though: why Ableton?

To me, the answer to this is self-evident. Ableton has been in the music education business since its founding. Like Adam Bell says, every piece of music creation software is a de facto education experience. Designers of DAWs might even be the most culturally impactful music educators of our time. Most popular music is made by self-taught producers, and a lot of that self-teaching consists of exploring DAWs like Ableton Live. The presets, factory sounds and affordances of your DAW powerfully inform your understanding of musical possibility. If DAW makers are going to be teaching the world’s producers, I’d prefer if they do it intentionally.

So far, there has been a divide between “serious” music making tools like Ableton Live and the toy-like iOS and web apps that my kids use. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can integrate them all together, but it takes some skill. One of the most interesting features of Ableton’s web site, then, is that each interactive tool includes a link that will open up your little creation in a Live session. Peter Kirn shares my excitement about this feature.

There are plenty of interactive learning examples online, but I think that “export” feature – the ability to integrate with serious desktop features – represents a kind of breakthrough.

Ableton Live is a superb creation tool, but I’ve been hesitant to recommend it to beginner producers. The web site could change my mind about that.

So, this is all wonderful. But Kirn points out a dark side.

The richness of music knowledge is something we’ve received because of healthy music communities and music institutions, because of a network of overlapping ecosystems. And it’s important that many of these are independent. I think it’s great that software companies are getting into the action, and I hope they continue to do so. In fact, I think that’s one healthy part of the present ecosystem.

It’s the rest of the ecosystem that’s worrying – the one outside individual brands and what they support. Public music education is getting squeezed in different ways all around the world. Independent content production is, too, even in advertising-supported publications like this one, but more so in other spheres. Worse, I think education around music technology hasn’t even begun to be reconciled with traditional music education – in the sense that people with specialties in one field tend not to have any understanding of the other. And right now, we need both – and both are getting their resources squeezed.

This might feel like I’m going on a tangent, but if your DAW has to teach you how harmony works, it’s worth asking the question – did some other part of the system break down?

Yes it did! Sure, you can learn the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, and form from any of a thousand schools, courses, or books. But there aren’t many places you can go to learn about it in the context of Beyoncé, Daft Punk, or A Tribe Called Quest. Not many educators are hip enough to include the Sleng Teng riddim as one of the fundamentals. I’m doing my best to rectify this imbalance–that’s what my courses with Soundfly classes are for. But I join Peter Kirn in wondering why it’s left to private companies to do this work. Why isn’t school music more culturally relevant? Why do so many educators insist that you kids like the wrong music? Why is it so common to get a music degree without ever writing a song? Why is the chasm between the culture of school music and music generally so wide?

Like Kirn, I’m distressed that school music programs are getting their budgets cut. But there’s a reason that’s happening, and it isn’t that politicians and school boards are philistines. Enrollment in school music is declining in places where the budgets aren’t being cut, and even where schools are offering free instruments. We need to look at the content of school music itself to see why it’s driving kids away. Both the content of school music programs and the people teaching them are whiter than the student population. Even white kids are likely to be alienated from a Eurocentric curriculum that doesn’t reflect America’s increasingly Afrocentric musical culture. The large ensemble model that we imported from European conservatories is incompatible with the riot of polyglot individualism in the kids’ earbuds.

While music therapists have been teaching songwriting for years, it’s rare to find it in school music curricula. Production and beatmaking are even more rare. Not many adults can play oboe in an orchestra, but anyone with a guitar or keyboard or smartphone can write and perform songs. Music performance is a wonderful experience, one I wish were available to everyone, but music creation is on another level of emotional meaning entirely. It’s like the difference between watching basketball on TV and playing it yourself. It’s a way to understand your own innermost experiences and the innermost experiences of others. It changes the way you listen to music, and the way you approach any kind of art for that matter. It’s a tool that anyone should be able to have in their kit. Ableton is doing the music education world an invaluable service; I hope more of us follow their example.

Design for Real Life – QWERTYBeats research

Writing assignment for Design For The Real World with Claire Kearney-Volpe and Diana Castro – research about a new rhythm interface for blind and low-vision novice musicians


I propose a new web-based accessible rhythm instrument called QWERTYBeats.Traditional instruments are highly accessible to blind and low-vision musicians. Electronic music production tools are not. I look at the history of accessible instruments and software interfaces, give an overview of current electronic music hardware and software, and discuss the design considerations underlying my project.

QWERTYBeats logo

Historical overview

Acoustic instruments give rich auditory and haptic feedback, and pose little obstacle to blind musicians. We need look no further for proof than the long history of iconic blind musicians like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Even sighted instrumentalists rarely look at their instruments once they have attained a sufficient level of proficiency. Music notation is not accessible, but Braille notation has existed since the language’s inception. Also, a great many musicians both blind and sighted play entirely by ear anyway.

Most of the academic literature around accessibility issues in music education focuses on wider adoption of and support for Braille notation. See, for example, Rush, T. W. (2015). Incorporating Assistive Technology for Students with Visual Impairments into the Music Classroom. Music Educators Journal, 102(2), 78–83. For electronic music, notation is rarely if ever a factor.

Electronic instruments pose some new accessibility challenges. They may use graphical interfaces with nested menus, complex banks of knobs and patch cables, and other visual control surfaces. Feedback may be given entirely with LED lights and small text labels. Nevertheless, blind users can master these devices with sufficient practice, memorization and assistance. For example, Stevie Wonder has incorporated synthesizers and drum machines in most of his best-known recordings.

Most electronic music creation is currently done not with instruments, but rather using specialized software applications called digital audio workstations (DAWs). Keyboards and other controllers are mostly used to access features of the software, rather than as standalone instruments. The most commonly-used DAWs include Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic, Ableton Live, and Steinberg Cubase. Mobile DAWs are more limited than their desktop counterparts, but are nevertheless becoming robust music creation tools in their own right. Examples include Apple GarageBand and Steinberg Cubasis. Notated music is commonly composed using score editing software like Sibelius and Finale, whose functionality increasingly overlaps with DAWs, especially in regard to MIDI sequencing.

DAWs and notation editors pose steep accessibility challenges due to their graphical and spatial interfaces, not to mention their sheer complexity. In class, we were given a presentation by Leona Godin, a blind musician who records and edits audio using Pro Tools by means of VoiceOver. While it must have taken a heroic effort on her part to learn the program, Leona demonstrates that it is possible. However, some DAWs pose insurmountable problems even to very determined blind users because they do not use standard operating system elements, making them inaccessible via screen readers.

Technological interventions

There are no mass-market electronic interfaces specifically geared toward blind or low-vision users. In this section, I discuss one product frequently hailed for its “accessibility” in the colloquial rather than blindess-specific sense, along with some more experimental and academic designs.

Ableton Push

Push layout for IMPACT Faculty Showcase

Ableton Live has become the DAW of choice for electronic music producers. Low-vision users can zoom in to the interface and modify the color scheme. However, Live is inaccessible via screen readers.

In recent years, Ableton has introduced a hardware controller, the Push, which is designed to make the software experience more tactile and instrument-like. The Push combines an eight by eight grid of LED-lit touch pads with banks of knobs, buttons and touch strips. It makes it possible to create, perform and record a piece of music from scratch without looking at the computer screen. In addition to drum programming and sampler performance, the Push also has an innovative melodic mode which maps scales onto the grid in such a way that users can not play a wrong note. Other comparable products exist; see, for example, the Native Instruments Maschine.

There are many pad-based drum machines and samplers. Live’s main differentiator is its Session view, where the pads launch clips: segments of audio or MIDI that can vary in length from a single drum hit to the length of an entire song. Clip launching is tempo-synced, so when you trigger a clip, playback is delayed until the start of the next measure (or whatever the quantization interval is.) Clip launching is a forgiving and beginner-friendly performance method, because it removes the possibility of playing something out of rhythm. Like other DAWs, Live also gives rhythmic scaffolding in its software instruments by means of arpeggiators, delay and other tempo-synced features.

The Push is a remarkable interface, but it has some shortcomings for blind users. First of all, it is expensive, $800 for the entry-level version and $1400 for the full-featured software suite. Much of its feedback is visual, in the form of LED screens and color-coded lighting on the pads. It switches between multiple modes which can be challenging to distinguish even for sighted users. And, like the software it accompanies, the Push is highly complex, with a steep learning curve unsuited to novice users, blind or sighted.


Most DAWs enable users to perform MIDI instruments on the QWERTY keyboard. The most familiar example is the Musical Typing feature in Apple GarageBand.

GarageBand musical typing

Musical Typing makes it possible to play software instruments without an external MIDI controller, which is convenient and useful. However, its layout counterintuively follows the piano keyboard, which is an awkward fit for the computer keyboard. There is no easy way to distinguish the black and white keys, and even expert users find themselves inadvertantly hitting the keyboard shortcut for recording while hunting for F-sharp.

The aQWERTYon is a web interface developed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab specifically intended to address the shortcomings of Musical Typing.

aQWERTYon screencap

Rather than emulating the piano keyboard, the aQWERTYon draws its inspiration from the chord buttons of an accordion. It fills the entire keyboard with harmonically related notes in a way that supports discovery by naive users. Specifically, it maps scales across the rows of keys, staggered by intervals such that each column forms a chord within the scale. Root notes and scales can be set from pulldown menus within the interface, or preset using URL parameters. It can be played as a standalone instrument, or as a MIDI controller in conjunction with a DAW. Here is a playlist of music I created using the aQWERTYon and GarageBand or Ableton Live:

The aQWERTYon is a completely tactile experience. Sighted users can carefully match keys to note names using the screen, but more typically approach the instrument by feel, seeking out patterns on the keyboard by ear. A blind user would need assistance loading the aQWERTYon initially and setting the scale and root note parameters, but otherwise, it is perfectly accessible. The present project was motivated in large part by a desire to make exploration of rhythm as playful and intuitive as the aQWERTYon makes exploring chords and scales.


The QWERTY keyboard can be turned into a simple drum machine quite easily using a free program called Soundplant. The user simply drags audio files onto a graphical key to have it triggered by that physical key. I was able to create a TR-808 kit in a matter of minutes:

Soundplant with 808 samples

After it is set up and configured, Soundplant can be as effortlessly accessible as the aQWERTYon. However, it does not give the user any rhythmic assistance. Drumming in perfect time is an advanced musical skill, and playing drum machine samples out of time is not much more satisfying than banging on a metal bowl with a spoon out of time. An ideal drum interface would offer beginners some of the rhythmic scaffolding and support that Ableton provides via Session view, arpeggiators, and the like.

The Groove Pizza

Drum machines and their software counterparts offer an alternative form of rhythmic scaffolding. The user sequences patterns in a time-unit box system or piano roll, and the computer performs those patterns flawlessly. The MusEDLab‘s Groove Pizza app is a web-based drum sequencer that wraps the time-unit box system into a circle.

Groove Pizza - Bembe

The Groove Pizza was designed to make drum programming more intuitive by visualizing the symmetries and patterns inherent in musical-sounding rhythms. However, it is totally unsuitable for blind or low-vision users. Interaction is only possible through the mouse pointer or touch, and there are no standard user interface elements that can be parsed by screen readers.

Before ever considering designing for the blind, the MusEDLab had already considered the Groove Pizza’s limitations for younger children and users with special needs: there is no “live performance” mode, and there is always some delay in feedback between making a change in the drum pattern and hearing the result. We have been considering ways to make a rhythm interface that is more immediate, performance-oriented and tactile. One possible direction would be to create a hardware version of the Groove Pizza; indeed, one of the earliest prototypes was a hardware version built by Adam November out of a pizza box. However, hardware design is vastly more complex and difficult than software, so for the time being, software promises more immediate results.

Haenselmann-Lemelson-Effelsberg MIDI sequencer

This experimental interface is described in Haenselmann, T., Lemelson, H., & Effelsberg, W. (2011). A zero-vision music recording paradigm for visually impaired people. Multimedia Tools and Applications, 5, 1–19.

Haenselmann-Lemelson-Effelsberg MIDI sequencer

The authors create a new mode for a standard MIDI keyboard that maps piano keys to DAW functions like playback, quantization, track selection, and so on. They also add “earcons” (auditory icons) to give sonic feedback when particular functions have been activated that normally only give graphical feedback. For example, one earcon sounds when recording is enabled; another sounds for regular playback. This interface sounds promising, but there are significant obstacles to its adoption. While the authors have released the source code as a free download, that requires a would-be user to be able to compile and run it. This is presuming that they could access the code in the first place; the download link given in the paper is inactive. It is an all-too-common fate of academic projects to never get widespread usage. By posting our projects on the web, the MusEDLab hopes to avoid this outcome.


Music education philosophy

My project is animated by a constructivist philosophy of music education, which operates by the following axiomatic assumptions:

  • Learning by doing is better than learning by being told.
  • Learning is not something done to you, but rather something done by you.
  • You do not get ideas; you make ideas. You are not a container that gets filled with knowledge and new ideas by the world around you; rather, you actively construct knowledge and ideas out of the materials at hand, building on top of your existing mental structures and models.
  • The most effective learning experiences grow out of the active construction of all types of things, particularly things that are personally or socially meaningful, that you develop through interactions with others, and that support thinking about your own thinking.

If an activity’s challenge level is beyond than your ability, you experience anxiety. If your ability at the activity far exceeds the challenge, the result is boredom. Flow happens when challenge and ability are well-balanced, as seen in this diagram adapted from Csikszentmihalyi.


Music students face significant obstacles to flow at the left side of the Ability axis. Most instruments require extensive practice before it is possible to make anything that resembles “real” music. Electronic music presents an opportunity here, because even a complete novice can produce music with a high degree of polish quickly. It is empowering to use technologies that make it impossible to do anything wrong; it frees you to begin exploring what you find to sound right. Beginners can be scaffolded in their pitch explorations with MIDI scale filters, Auto-Tune, and the configurable software keyboards in apps like Thumbjam and Animoog. Rhythmic scaffolding is more rare, but it can be had via Ableton’s quantized clip launcher, by MIDI arpeggiators, and using the Note Repeat feature on many drum machines.

QWERTYBeats proposal

My project takes drum machine Note Repeat as its jumping off point. When Note Repeat is activated, holding down a drum pad triggers the corresponding sound at a particular rhythmic interval: quarter notes, eighth notes, and so on. On the Ableton Push, Note Repeat automatically syncs to the global tempo, making it effortless to produce musically satisfying rhythms. However, this mode has a major shortcoming: it applies globally to all of the drum pads. To my knowledge, no drum machine makes it possible to simultaneously have, say, the snare drum playing every dotted eighth note while the hi-hat plays every sixteenth note.

I propose a web application called QWERTYBeats that maps drums to the computer keyboard as follows:

  • Each row of the keyboard triggers a different drum/beatbox sound (e.g. kick, snare, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat).
  • Each column retriggers the sample at a different rhythmic interval (e.g. quarter note, dotted eighth note).
  • Circles dynamically divide into “pie slices” to show rhythmic values.

The rhythm values are shown below by column, with descriptions followed by the time interval as shown as a fraction of the tempo in beats per minute.

  1. quarter note (1)
  2. dotted eighth note (3/4)
  3. quarter note triplet (2/3)
  4. eighth note (1/2)
  5. dotted sixteenth note (3/8)
  6. eighth note triplet (1/3)
  7. sixteenth note (1/4)
  8. dotted thirty-second note (3/16)
  9. sixteenth note triplet (1/6)
  10. thirty-second note (1/8)

By simply holding down different combinations of keys, users can attain complex syncopations and polyrhythms. If the app is synced to the tempo of a DAW or music playback, the user can perform good-sounding rhythms over any song that is personally meaningful to them.

The column layout leaves some unused keys in the upper right corner of the keyboard: “-“, “=”, “[“, “]”, “”, etc. These can be reserved for setting the tempo and other UI elements.

The app defaults to Perform Mode, but clicking Make New Kit opens Sampler mode, where users can import or record their own drum sounds:

  • Keyboard shortcuts enable the user to select a sound, audition it, record, set start and end point, and set its volume level.
  • A login/password system enables users to save kits to the cloud where they can be accessed from any computer. Kits get unique URL identifiers, so users can also share them via email or social media.

It is my goal to make the app accessible to users with the widest possible diversity of abilities.

  • The entire layout will use plain text, CSS and JavaScript to support screen readers.
  • All user interface elements can be accessed via the keyboard: tab to change the keyboard focus, menu selections and parameter changes via the up and down arrows, and so on.

Perform Mode:

QWERTYBeats concept images - Perform mode

Sampler Mode:


Mobile version

The present thought is to divide up the screen into a grid mirroring the layout of the QWERTY keyboard. User testing will determine whether this will produce a satisfying experience.

QWERTYDrum - mobile


I created a prototype of the app using Ableton Live’s Session View.

QWERTYBeats - Ableton prototype

Here is a sample performance:

There is not much literature examining the impact of drum programming and other electronic rhythm sequencing on students’ subsequent ability to play acoustic drums, or to keep time more accurately in general. I can report anecdotally that my own time spent sequencing and programming drums improved my drumming and timekeeping enormously (and mostly inadvertently.) I will continue to seek further support for the hypothesis that electronically assisted rhythm creation builds unassisted rhythmic ability. In the meantime, I am eager to prototype and test QWERTYBeats.

The evolution of the Groove Pizza

The Groove Pizza is a playful tool for creating grooves using math concepts like shapes, angles, and patterns. Here’s a beat I made just nowTry it yourself!

This post explains how and why we designed Groove Pizza.

What it does

The Groove Pizza represents beats as concentric rhythm necklaces. The circle represents one measure. Each slice of the pizza is a sixteenth note. The outermost ring controls the kick drum; the middle one controls the snare; and the innermost one plays cymbals.

Connecting the dots on a given ring creates shapes, like the square formed by the snare drum in the pattern below.

Groove Pizza - jazz swing

The pizza can play time signatures other than 4/4 by changing the number of slices. Here’s a twelve-slice pizza playing an African bell pattern.

Groove Pizza - Bembe

You can explore the geometry of musical rhythm by dragging shapes onto the circular grid. Patterns that are visually appealing tend to sound good, and patterns that sound good tend to look cool.

Groove Pizza - shapes

Herbie Hancock did some user testing for us, and he suggested that we make it possible to show the interior angles of the shapes.

Groove Pizza - angles

Groove Pizza History

The ideas behind the Groove Pizza began in my masters thesis work in 2013 at NYU. For his NYU senior thesis, Adam November built web and physical prototypes. In late summer 2015, Adam wrote what would become the Groove Pizza 1.0 (GP1), with a library of drum patterns that he and I curated. The MusEDLab has been user testing this version for the past year, both with kids and with music and math educators in New York City.

In January 2016, the Music Experience Design Lab began developing the Groove Pizza 2.0 (GP2) as part of the MathScienceMusic initiative.

MathScienceMusic Groove Pizza Credits:

  • Original Ideas: Ethan Hein, Adam November & Alex Ruthmann
  • Design: Diana Castro
  • Software Architect: Kevin Irlen
  • Creative Code Guru: Matthew Kaney
  • Backend Code Guru: Seth Hillinger
  • Play Testing: Marijke Jorritsma, Angela Lau, Harshini Karunaratne, Matt McLean
  • Odds & Ends: Asyrique Thevendran, Jamie Ehrenfeld, Jason Sigal

The learning opportunity

The goals of the Groove Pizza are to help novice drummers and drum programmers get started; to create a gentler introduction to beatmaking with more complex tools like Logic or Ableton Live; and to use music to open windows into math and geometry. The Groove Pizza is intended to be simple enough to be learned easily without prior experience or formal training, but it must also have sufficient depth to teach substantial and transferable skills and concepts, including:

  • Familiarity with the component instruments in a drum beat and the ability to pick them individually out of the sound mass.
  • A repertoire of standard patterns and rhythmic motifs. Understanding of where to place the kick, snare, hi-hats and so on to produce satisfying beats.
  • Awareness of different genres and styles and how they are distinguished by their different degrees of syncopation, customary kick drum patterns and claves, tempo ranges and so on.
  • An intuitive understanding of the difference between strong and weak beats and the emotional effect of syncopation.
  • Acquaintance with the concept of hemiola and other more complex rhythmic devices.

Marshall (2010) recommends “folding musical analysis into musical experience.” Programming drums in pop and dance idioms makes the rhythmic abstractions concrete.

Visualizing rhythm

Western music notation is fairly intuitive on the pitch axis, where height on the staff corresponds clearly to pitch height. On the time axis, however, Western notation is less easily parsed—horizontal space need not have any bearing at all on time values. A popular alternative is the “time-unit box system,” a kind of rhythm tablature used by ethnomusicologists. In a time-unit box system, each pulse is represented by a square. Rhythmic onsets are shown as filled boxes.

Clave patterns in TUBS

Nearly all electronic music production interfaces use the time-unit box system scheme, including grid sequencers and the MIDI piano roll.

Ableton TUBS

A row of time-unit boxes can also be wrapped in a circle to form a rhythm necklace. The Groove Pizza is simply a set of rhythm necklaces arranged concentrically.

Circular rhythm visualization offers a significant advantage over linear notation: it more clearly shows metrical function. We can define meter as “the grouping of perceived beats or pulses into equivalence classes” (Forth, Wiggin & McLean, 2010, 521). Linear musical concepts like small-scale melodies depend mostly on relationships between adjacent events, or at least closely spaced events. But periodicity and meter depend on relationships between nonadjacent events. Linear representations of music do not show meter directly. Simply by looking at the page, there is no indication that the first and third beats of a measure of 4/4 time are functionally related, as are the second and fourth beats.

However, when we wrap the musical timeline into a circle, meter becomes much easier to parse. Pairs of metrically related beats are directly opposite one another on the circle. Rotational and reflectional symmetries give strong clues to metrical function generally. For example, this illustration of 2-3 son clave adapted from Barth (2011) shows an axis of reflective symmetry between the fourth and twelfth beats of the pattern. This symmetry is considerably less obvious when viewed in more conventional notation.

Son clave symmetry

The Groove Pizza adds a layer of dynamic interaction to circular representation. Users can change time signatures during playback by adding or removing slices. In this way, very complex metrical shifts can be performed by complete novices. Furthermore, each rhythm necklace can be rotated during playback, enabling a rhythmic modularity characteristic of the most sophisticated Afro-Latin and jazz rhythms. Exploring rotational rhythmic transformation typically requires very sophisticated music-reading and performance skills to understand and execute, but doing so is effortlessly accessible to Groove Pizza users.

Visualizing swing

We traditionally associate swing with jazz, but it is omnipresent in American vernacular music: in rock, country, funk, reggae, hip-hop, EDM, and so on. For that reason, swing is a standard feature of notation software, MIDI sequencers, and drum machines. However, while swing is crucial to rhythmic expressiveness, it is rarely visualized in any explicit way, in notation or in software interfaces. Sequencers will sometimes show swing by displacing events on the MIDI piano roll, but the user must place those events first. The grid itself generally does not show swing.

The Groove Pizza uses a novel (and to our knowledge unprecedented) graphical representation of swing on the background grid, not just on the musical events. The slices alternately expand and contract in width according to the amount of swing specified. At 0% swing, the wedges are all of uniform width. At 50% swing, the odd-numbered slice in each pair is twice as long as the following even-numbered slice. As the user adjusts the swing slider, the slices dynamically change their width accordingly.

Straight 16ths vs swing 16ths

Our swing visualization system also addresses the issue of whether swing should be applied to eighth notes or sixteenths. In the jazz era, swing was understood to apply to eighth notes. However, since the 1960s, swing is more commonly applied to sixteenth notes, reflecting a broader shift from eighth note to sixteenth note pulse in American vernacular music. To hear the difference, compare the swung eighth note pulse of “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day (1958) with the sixteenth note pulse of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five (1969). Electronic music production tools like Ableton Live and Logic default to sixteenth-note swing. However, notation programs like Sibelius, Finale and Noteflight can only apply swing to eighth notes.

The Groove Pizza supports both eighth and sixteenth swing simply by changing the slice labeling. The default labeling scheme is agnostic, simply numbering the slices sequentially from one. In GP1, users can choose to label a sixteen-slice pizza either as one measure of sixteenth notes or two measures of eighth notes. The grid looks the same either way; only the labels change.

Drum kits

With one drum sound per ring, the number of sounds available to the user is limited by the number of rings that can reasonably fit on the screen. In my thesis prototype, we were able to accommodate six sounds per “drum kit.” GP1 was reduced to five rings, and GP2 has only three rings, prioritizing simplicity over musical versatility.

GP1 offers three drum kits: Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and Techno. The Acoustic kit uses samples of a real drum kit; the Hip-Hop kit uses samples of the Roland TR-808 drum machine; and the Techno kit uses samples of the Roland TR-909. GP2 adds two additional kits: Jazz (an acoustic drum kit played with brushes), and Afro-Latin (congas, bell, and shaker.) Preset patterns automatically load with specific kits selected, but the user is free to change kits after loading.

In GP1, sounds can be mixed and matched at wiell, so the user can, for example, combine the acoustic kick with the hip-hop snare. In GP2, kits cannot be customized. A wider variety of sounds would present a wider variety of sonic choices. However, placing strict limits on the sounds available has its own creative advantage: it eliminates option paralysis and forces users to concentrate on creating interesting patterns, rather than struggling to choose from a long list of sounds.

It became clear in the course of testing that open and closed hi-hats need not operate separate rings, since it is not desirable to ever have them sound at the same time. (While drum machines are not bound by the physical limitations of human drummers, our rhythmic traditions are.) In future versions of the GP, we plan to place closed and open hi-hats together on the same ring. Clicking a beat in the hi-hat ring will place a closed hi-hat; clicking it again will replace it with an open hi-hat; and a third click will return the beat to silence. We will use the same mechanic to toggle between high and low cowbells or congas.

Preset patterns

In keeping with the constructivist value of working with authentic cultural materials, the exercises in the Groove Pizza are based on rhythms drawn from actual music. Most of the patterns are breakbeats—drums and percussion sampled from funk, rock and soul recordings that have been widely repurposed in electronic dance and hip-hop music. There are also generic rock, pop and dance rhythms, as well as an assortment of traditional Afro-Cuban patterns.

The GP1 offers a broad selection of preset patterns. The GP2 uses a smaller subset of these presets.


  • The Winstons, ”Amen, Brother” (1969)
  • James Brown, ”Cold Sweat” (1967)”
  • James Brown, “The Funky Drummer” (1970)
  • Bobby Byrd, “I Know You Got Soul” (1971)
  • The Honeydrippers, “Impeach The President” (1973)
  • Skull Snaps, “It’s A New Day” (1973)
  • Joe Tex, ”Papa Was Too” (1966)
  • Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” (1972)
  • Melvin Bliss, “Synthetic Substitution”(1973)


  • Bembé—also known as the “standard bell pattern”
  • Rumba clave
  • Son clave (3-2)
  • Son clave (2-3)


  • Michael Jackson, ”Billie Jean” (1982)
  • Boots-n-cats—a prototypical disco pattern, e.g. “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc (1979)
  • INXS, “Need You Tonight” (1987)
  • Uhnntsss—the standard “four on the floor” pattern common to disco and electronic dance music


  • Lil Mama, “Lip Gloss” (2008)
  • Nas, “Nas Is Like” (1999)
  • Digable Planets, “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (1993)
  • OutKast, “So Fresh, So Clean” (2000)
  • Audio Two, “Top Billin’” (1987)


  • Pink Floyd, ”Money” (1973)
  • Peter Gabriel, “Solisbury Hill” (1977)
  • Billy Squier, “The Big Beat” (1980)
  • Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” (1975)
  • Queen, “We Will Rock You” (1977)
  • Led Zeppelin, “When The Levee Breaks” (1971)


  • Bossa nova, e.g. “The Girl From Ipanima” by Antônio Carlos Jobim (1964)
  • Herbie Hancock, ”Chameleon” (1973)
  • Miles Davis, ”It’s About That Time” (1969)
  • Jazz spang-a-lang—the standard swing ride cymbal pattern
  • Jazz waltz—e.g. “My Favorite Things” as performed by John Coltrane (1961)
  • Dizzy Gillespie, ”Manteca” (1947)
  • Horace Silver, ”Song For My Father” (1965)
  • Paul Desmond, ”Take Five” (1959)
  • Herbie Hancock, “Watermelon Man” (1973)

Mathematical applications

The most substantial new feature of GP2 is “shapes mode.” The user can drag shapes onto the grid and rotate them to create geometric drum patterns: triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon, and octagon. Placing shapes in this way creates maximally even rhythms that are nearly always musically satisfying (Toussaint 2011). For example, on a sixteen-slice pizza, the pentagon forms rumba or bossa nova clave, while the hexagon creates a tresillo rhythm. As a general matter, the way that a rhythm “looks” gives insight into the way it sounds, and vice versa.

Because of the way it uses circle geometry, the Groove Pizza can be used to teach or reinforce the following subjects:

  • Fractions
  • Ratios and proportional relationships
  • Angles
  • Polar vs Cartesian coordinates
  • Symmetry: rotations, reflections
  • Frequency vs duration
  • Modular arithmetic
  • The unit circle in the complex plane

Specific kinds of music can help to introduce specific mathematical concepts. For example, Afro-Cuban patterns and other grooves built on hemiola are useful for graphically illustrating the concept of least common multiples. When presented with a kick playing every four slices and a snare playing every three slices, a student can both see and hear how they will line up every twelve slices. Bamberger and diSessa (2003) describe the “aha” moment that students have when they grasp this concept in a music context. One student in their study is quoted as describing the twelve-beat cycle “pulling” the other two beats together. Once students grasp least common multiples in a musical context, they have a valuable new inroad into a variety of scientific and mathematical concepts: harmonics in sound analysis, gears, pendulums, tiling patterns, and much else.

In addition to eighth and sixteenth notes, GP1 users can also label the pizza slices as fractions or angles, both Cartesian and polar. Users can thereby describe musical concepts in mathematical terms, and vice versa. It is an intriguing coincidence that the polar angle π/16 represents a sixteenth note. One could go even further with polar mode and use it as the unit circle on the complex plane. From there, lessons could move into powers of e, the relationship between sine and cosine waves, and other more advanced topics. The Groove Pizza could thereby be used to lay the ground work for concepts in electrical engineering, signal processing, and anything else involving wave mechanics.

Future work

The Groove Pizza does not offer any tone controls like duration, pitch, EQ and the like. This choice was due to a combination of expediency and the push to reduce option paralysis. However, velocity (loudness) control is a high-priority future feature. While nuanced velocity control is not necessary for the artificial aesthetic of electronic dance music, a basic loud/medium/soft toggle would make the Groove Pizza a more versatile tool.

The next step beyond preset patterns is to offer drum programming exercises or challenges. In exercises, users are presented with a pattern. They may alter this pattern as they see fit by adding and removing drum hits, and by rotating instrument parts within their respective rings. There are restraints of various kinds, to ensure that the results are appealing and musical-sounding. The restraints are tighter for more basic exercises, and looser for more advanced ones. For example, we might present users with a locked four-on-the-floor kick pattern, and ask them to create a satisfying techno beat using the snares and hi-hats. We also plan to create game-like challenges, where users are given the sound of a beat and must figure out how to represent it on the circular grid.

The Groove Pizza would be more useful for the purposes of trigonometry and circle geometry if it were presented slightly differently. Presently, the first beat of each pattern is at twelve o’clock, with playback running clockwise. However, angles are usually representing as originating at three o’clock and increasing in a counterclockwise direction. To create “math mode,” the radial grid would need to be reflected left-to-right and rotated ninety degrees.


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Inside the aQWERTYon

The MusEDLab and Soundfly just launched Theory For Producers, an interactive music theory course. The centerpiece of the interactive component is a MusEDLab tool called the aQWERTYon. You can try it by clicking the image below.

aQWERTYon screencap

In this post, I’ll talk about why and how we developed the aQWERTYon.

One of our core design principles is to work within our users’ real-world technological limitations. We build tools in the browser so they’ll be platform-independent and accessible anywhere there’s internet access (and where there isn’t internet access, we’ve developed the “MusEDLab in a box.”) We want to find out what musical possibilities there are in a typical computer with no additional software or hardware. That question led us to investigate ways of turning the standard QWERTY keyboard into a beginner-friendly instrument. We were inspired in part by GarageBand’s Musical Typing feature.

GarageBand musical typing

If you don’t have a MIDI controller, Apple thoughtfully made it possible for you to use your computer keyboard to play GarageBand’s many software instruments. You get an octave and a half of piano, plus other useful controls: pitch bend, modulation, sustain, octave shifting and simple velocity control. Many DAWs offer something similar, but Apple’s system is the most sophisticated I’ve seen.

Handy though it is, Musical Typing has some problems as a user interface. The biggest one is the poor fit between the piano keyboard layout and the grid of computer keys. Typing the letter A plays the note C. The rest of that row is the white keys, and the one above it is the black keys. You can play the chromatic scale by alternating A row, Q row, A row, Q row. That basic pattern is easy enough to figure out. However, you quickly get into trouble, because there’s no black key between E and F. The QWERTY keyboard gives no visual reminder of that fact, so you just have to remember it. Unfortunately, the “missing” black key happens to be the letter R, which is GarageBand’s keyboard shortcut for recording. So what inevitably happens is that you’re hunting for E-flat or F-sharp and you accidentally start recording over whatever you were doing. I’ve been using the program for years and still do this routinely.

Rather than recreating the piano keyboard on the computer, we drew on a different metaphor: the accordion.

The accordion: the user interface metaphor of the future!

We wanted to have chords and scales arranged in an easily discoverable way, like the way you can easily figure out the chord buttons on the accordion’s left hand. The QWERTY keyboard is really a staggered grid four keys tall and between ten and thirteen keys wide, plus assorted modifier and function keys. We decided to use the columns for chords and the rows for scales.

For the diatonic scales and modes, the layout is simple. The bottom row gives the notes in the scale starting on 1^. The second row has the same scale shifted over to start on 3^. The third row starts the scale on 5^, and the top row starts on 1^ an octave up. If this sounds confusing when you read it, try playing it, your ears will immediately pick up the pattern. Notes in the same column form the diatonic chords, with their roman numerals conveniently matching the number keys. There are no wrong notes, so even just mashing keys at random will sound at least okay. Typing your name usually sounds pretty cool, and picking out melodies is a piece of cake. Playing diagonal columns, like Z-S-E-4, gives you chords voiced in fourths. The same layout approach works great for any seven-note scale: all of the diatonic modes, plus the modes of harmonic and melodic minor.

Pentatonics work pretty much the same way as seven-note scales, except that the columns stack in fourths rather than fifths. The octatonic and diminished scales lay out easily as well. The real layout challenge lay in one strange but crucial exception: the blues scale. Unlike other scales, you can’t just stagger the blues scale pitches in thirds to get meaningful chords. The melodic and harmonic components of blues are more or less unrelated to each other. Our original idea was to put the blues scale on the bottom row of keys, and then use the others to spell out satisfying chords on top. That made it extremely awkward to play melodies, however, since the keys don’t form an intelligible pattern of intervals. Our compromise was to create two different blues modes: one with the chords, for harmony exploration, and one just repeating the blues scale in octaves for melodic purposes. Maybe a better solution exists, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

When you select a different root, all the pitches in the chords and scales are automatically changed as well. Even if the aQWERTYon had no other features or interactivity, this would still make it an invaluable music theory tool. But root selection raises a bigger question: what do you do about all the real-world music that uses more than one scale or mode? Totally uniform modality is unusual, even in simple pop songs. You can access notes outside the currently selected scale by pressing the shift keys, which transposes the entire keyboard up or down a half step. But what would be really great is if we could get the scale settings to change dynamically. Wouldn’t it be great if you were listening to a jazz tune, and the scale was always set to match whatever chord was going by at that moment? You could blow over complex changes effortlessly. We’ve discussed manually placing markers in YouTube videos that tell the aQWERTYon when to change its settings, but that would be labor-intensive. We’re hoping to discover an algorithmic method for placing markers automatically.

The other big design challenge we face is how to present all the different scale choices in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our core audience of non-expert users. One solution would just be to limit the scale choices. We already do that in the Soundfly course, in effect; when you land on a lesson, the embedded aQWERTYon is preset to the appropriate scale and key, and the user doesn’t even see the menus. But we’d like people to be able to explore the rich sonic diversity of the various scales without confronting them with technical Greek terms like “Lydian dominant”. Right now, the scales are categorized as Major, Minor and Other, but those terms aren’t meaningful to beginners. We’ve been discussing how we could organize the scales by mood or feeling, maybe from “brightest” to “darkest.” But how do you assign a mood to a scale? Do we just do it arbitrarily ourselves? Crowdsource mood tags? Find some objective sorting method that maps onto most listeners’ subjective associations? Some combination of the above? It’s an active area of research for us.

This issue of categorizing scales by mood has relevance for the original use case we imagined for the aQWERTYon: teaching film scoring. The idea behind the integrated video window was that you would load a video clip, set a mode, and then improvise some music that fit the emotional vibe of that clip. The idea of playing along with YouTube videos of songs came later. One could teach more general open-ended composition with the aQWERTYon, and in fact our friend Matt McLean is doing exactly that. But we’re attracted to film scoring as a gateway because it’s a more narrowly defined problem. Instead of just “write some music”, the challenge is “write some music with a particular feeling to it that fits into a scene of a particular length.

Would you like to help us test and improve the aQWERTYon, or to design curricula around it? Would you like to help fund our programmers and designers? Please get in touch.