First look: iPlayMusic Chords for iTunes

You may recall that when Apple announced iLife ’09 last winter, it made a biggish deal about GarageBand ’09’s Learn to Play feature that provided basic and artist lessons for users interested in learning to play the guitar or piano. When first released, GarageBand offered 10 artist lessons. Half a year later there are now just 15 artist lessons.

Where some see ball dropped, others see opportunity. Specifically, iPlayMusic—a company I’ve covered in the past that offers computer- and Web-based music lessons—has just released a beta version of its Chords for iTunes, an application that helps you play along with popular songs by displaying chords from popular tracks in your iTunes library.

It works this way: You download the iPlayMusic application and select a Chords for iTunes entry at the bottom of the application window. A list of genres appears to the right. Currently there are just Pop, R&B Soul, and Rock genres. Select a genre and you see a list of artists in the next column. Click an artist and available songs by that artist appear to the right. (There’s also a Search field should the catalog ever get large enough to make such a thing useful.)

These songs aren’t audio files. Rather, they’re chord charts that flash the currently-playing and next chord on the screen as the song plays. Currently there are 26 songs available—free through the end of summer. These include such popular tracks as Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Tom Petty’s “Refugee,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” iPlayMusic hasn’t yet determined track pricing for when the program moves out of beta.

You download one of these tracks to the iPlayMusic application. When the download is complete a sheet appears offering you three options—Search, Buy Song, and Sync Later. The idea is that the application will play songs to accompany the chords, but those songs must be in your iTunes library. Click Search and a Search iTunes Library window appears with the name of the song in the Search field. Press the Return key and if that song is in your library, it appears in a list below. Click the Sync button at the bottom of the window and you’re now able to play the song within the iPlayMusic application and watch its chords flash by.

If you don’t own the song, click Buy Song and iTunes opens, taking you to the track on the iTunes Store where you can purchase it. Sync Later does exactly that—dismisses the sheet so you can deal with this later by selecting the track at another time and choosing File -> Sync File to iTunes.

To play a track, just select it and press the Play button. Synced songs will accompany the chords that appear in the viewer pane. In that pane you see the currently playing chord on the left and the next chord to play on the right. The song’s lyrics appear below. Any performance notes—where you should place a capo, for example—appear at the top of the viewer pane.

If you find the song plays too fast for your fingers, you can use a speed slider to slow it down (or speed it up if you’re good enough and want to get through it quickly). The tempo changes, but not the pitch, allowing you to continue playing the song in the correct key. Extreme tempo changes, as is typical, do unpleasant things to the sound.

You’re welcome to export a movie that contains both the music and chords by clicking the Export button. Do that and you’re offered the option to create a movie compatible with an iPod, iPhone/iPod touch, or Apple TV, thus allowing you to work on the song away from your computer. If you click the program’s Create button, GarageBand opens, the chords appear as a movie track and the song appears in an audio track. At this point you can record your performance in another audio track or accompany it with a MIDI controller in a software instrument track.

I’ve played around with it a bit and it’s a good first effort. The chords are easy to read and the integration with iTunes is nice. I hope that chord synchronization will get better—chords don’t always change exactly on the beat. And it would be nice if you could see different views—all the chords in the upcoming two bars, for instance—so you had some notion on which beat the upcoming chords fall. Finally, an expert mode would be welcome, one where more advanced players could see tablature as well as the “real” chord the artist plays versus the “dumbed down” version—Csus4, for example, versus just C.

And, of course, I hope that, unlike Apple, the folks behind iPlayMusic continue to feed their library.

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