Summer is a time of year when we can enjoy our free time: reading, go for walks, chat with friends, and why not, learn to play a musical instrument.
Thanks to Personal Computers and new technologies, we can learn to play different musical instruments from the comfort of home and without making large investments.
In this case let's see how to learn to play the piano in a fun and simple way making use of a program called Synthesia.
To use this program, it is not necessary to have a MIDI music keyboard, although, obviously, is something recommended, because we will be able to practice with the real instrument. Even so, if we practice using computer keyboard, it will help us to to familiarize ourselves with the position of the keys on the piano.
This program is available to Windows, Mac and iPad. We can download it from the following links:
The program proposes learning to play piano as a game. Just as other games like “Guitar Hero”, where notes are represented in the form of bars that drops vertically, in Synthesia we have to synchronize the piano pressed keys with the vertical bars that are falling on the screen. In this way, each vertical bar corresponds to a piano key, and pressing the keys corresponding to vertical bars, we will create a melody.
Thanks to this simple game mechanism, we can start to learn to play the piano easily, we don't need to learn how to read a sheet music score.
Note: This game is free and give us the option to unlock a learning pack which includes certain game's improvements. These improvements are focused to acquire a deep understanding of how to play piano. If we buy the learning pack we will be able to see music sheet scores of songs, and also it will show the fingers used to press piano keys, and more options.
Downloading free version we can play some songs that include all pack of learning features , so we can evaluate if we are interested in purchasing the pack.
When we open the game for the first time, we have to create a user, in this way it will save our progress and evolution in the game. To create the user we must click on the rectangle below the software's name and click on “Manage Profiles”, and add a new user by clicking on sign “+” button.
It's time to connect the MIDI piano to computer and configure the program. Go to Settings->Music Devices. In this screen the connected MIDI keyboard will be displayed. In our case appears with the name “Medeli e-Drum” that corresponds to the electronic piano “Medeli SP5500”. We are using Windows 8.1 and we have not had to install any kind of driver for the piano to be recognized by the operating system and the program. So it is very likely that in the vast majority of cases, only will be necessary to connect the MIDI piano and begin to play.
We can choose the piano as a source of input and output. That is to say, we will be able to use the MIDI piano to play the notes of the game, and in addition, we can use the sounds of the piano itself for play the notes of the game.
When we select the MIDI piano as the input source, we will have to play lower notes (left) and higher notes (right) of the piano, so the game can recognize the number of available keys in the piano. In our case it is a piano with 88 keys.
If we do not have a MIDI piano, we can use computer keyboard to play the notes of the game. If we use the computer keyboard, we will have 18 keys that correspond to one scale and a half. We must use the keys ASDFGHJKL; that correspond to the white keys of the piano (beginning by the Do central or C4), and the keys WE TYU OP, which correspond to the piano black keys (beginning by the sustained Do4 or C4#).
If we're going to play a song that has notes that are out of the 18 keys range, the notes that are outside of this range will be played automatically by the game.
iPad version has the advantage of can be placed on top of the MIDI piano as if it was a music sheet score, being able to easily follow the notes that are falling in the game. To be able to connect iPad to the MIDI piano we must have the appropriate device connection.
After the basic program configuration, we can start to play. To do that, click on “Play a song!” green button.
We'll access a screen with various songs categories. These categories represent the songs difficulty. In the “Easiest” category there are songs easier to play, and in the “Harder” category there are the songs that are more complicated. This classification makes it easier for all types of user to play this game, as most newbies won't be overwhelmed by the complexity of playing the piano, and more advanced players will be able to access and practice the songs of major difficulty.
In addition, the game has 2 special categories one of which includes classical piano songs as: Ludwig van Beethoven's Fur Elise, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Minuet in G Major; and the other category is composed of exercises to practice major scales, minor melodic scales, harmonic minor scales, and major arpeggios.
The program includes more than 160 songs to practice. That quantity of songs is more than enough to spend few hours in front of the piano.
We're going to play a song to see how the game works.
The first thing is to choose the category, in our case we will choose the “Easier” category, which includes low difficulty songs.
We'll see a songs list sorted alphabetically. At the bottom we can press any of the buttons (Scores, Title, Last play, etc.), to change the order in which songs are listed. If we have a lot of songs, we will be able to make use of the search engine located at the top right of the screen.
At the side of each song are a stars and a level bar.
The stars are for used to rate the song. If we liked the song, we can give it 4 stars, and if we don't liked it we can give only one star.
The bars allows to know the songs difficulty, the greater the difficulty the greater number of bars, and vice versa.
These rates allow us to quickly know which songs we have enjoyed the most, and which ones are the most difficult. In addition, we use these qualifications to organize the songs in function of the difficulty or rated stars.
Clicking on any of the songs, it will begin a preview of the song so we can know if we want to play that song or another.
We are going to select the song Alouette, which tells the story of a unfortunate lark that is plucked. We double click on the song's name and we'ññ see a new screen with different options.
On this screen, there are 3 game modes:
Practice the Melody. This mode is disabled in most of the songs, if we want to play this mode, we must acquire the learning pack that will unlock this mode and other options. In this mode, the falling notes will stop until we press the correct key on the piano, in such a way that game speed will be adapted to our play speed.
Practice the Rhythm. In this game mode, the notes will fall and if we do not hit the correct piano key, it will counted as failure and, therefore, our score will be lower. In this mode we can vary the speed and lower the falling speed of notes, in this way we can practice the songs to our pace trying not to mess up when we press the piano keys. This mode is ideal for perfecting the songs and get used to not to make mistakes when playing. It is better to play slowly and without errors, that fast and with errors.
Song Recital. This game mode is the same as the previous but without the possibility of modifying the falling notes speed. We can say that this game mode is the most faithful to the “Guitar Hero” games style, because it turn off all aid and so we only have our ability to get a perfect interpretation free of errors.
In the above 3 game modes we can select to practice left hand, right hand or both hands. This option is available in virtually all of the songs, and allows us to focus on improve the skill of our hands, so when we dominated one hand, we can begin to practice the other. When master each one of the hands, we can begin to practice the use of the two hands at the same time.
The option of “Only watch and listen” allows us to view the interpretation of the song. Thanks to that we can look which will be the pattern of movement of the fingers.
When we play any game, statistics will be collected and we can see it in the left side of the start screen. By clicking on the “Progress Breakdown” or, “Line Chart”, we will see our progress.
In the section “Points Earned” we will see the Synthesia best local players scores ranking. Also we can see the global classifications of each of the game's songs. If we are good players, for sure that these rankings will motivate us to do the best possible.
We must choose a game mode (Practice the Rhythm, Song Recital, etc) and click on “Continue” button located at the top of the screen. In our case, we have selected “Practice the Rhythm->Both hands”.
When we start to play we can set the pace of the game. Clicking on the + and - signs we will increase or we will decrease the falling speed of the notes. We can also pause the song or move forward and backward.
Another very useful option is the possibility of activate the metronome, which will set the song's pace. This will help us to internalize song's rhythm and to synchronize better the keys played on the piano.
Once we finish to play the song, the score achieved will be shown.
Let's see briefly the features included in the learning package.
To test this, we must choose a song that has an open lock next to the song's name. In this case we will choose “Beethoven's Fifth Symphony” song that is located in “Songs->Easier”.
As we can see, “Practice Melody” game mode is unlocked, so that we can try this game mode, and see if we like it. We will choose the option “Practice the melody->Both hands”.
If we look closely, we will be able to turn on the music sheet score. So we just have to click on the “Score” button located on the middle right side of the screen.
When the game starts we'll see the music sheet score of the song, so if we know how to interpret musical notation, we can be guided by the notes that appear in the score.
Also, in the falling notes thera is a number that represents the finger used to play the note. The numbers represent the following fingers:
1 = big toe
2 = index finger
3 = middle finger
4 = ring finger
5 = little finger
We can choose the labels that are displayed on the keys of the piano and the notes that are falling. In the game screen we must click on the icon that is next to the magnifying glass that says: “La”. We can choose to display fingering numbers, names of the notes in English format (C, D, E, etc.), Italian format (Do, Re, Mi, etc.) and more.
When the game begins, we see that the notes stop falling until we press the correct piano key. This is very useful for beginners who do not yet have the speed to associate the keys of the piano with the notes that are falling.
As we can see, the pack of learning adds a number of features that make the game very useful to start to learn to play the piano in a simple and funny way.
The learning pack can be purchased from the official web for Windows and Mac versions:
Learning pack iPad version, must be purchased directly from Apple Store.
In case we want to add new songs, we have the option to visit the game store and acquire new songs: https://www.synthesiagame.com/store. The songs are ranked by difficulty and have a variable cost between $0.99 and $2.99.
In addition to the store songs, we can add any MIDI song. That makes the game virtually infinite, because we can add any song in that format, and play it in the game.
To add new songs we should go to “Settings->Songs” and add the directory where MIDI files are located. Once we have added the directory, the new songs will appear in the list of songs.
As we see, this complete program/game is an ideal company for those who enjoy the piano, or for those who want to learn how to play this instrument.
Don't forget that the game is completely free and features more than 160 full songs.
by Rubén Hernández