This week I was introduced to a fantastic new website for learning songs on the piano, by a blog post over at Music Matters. It’s called OnlinePianist.com and the idea is to teach you songs visually by showing the keyboard fingering on screen while a MIDI version of the song plays.
Now the graphics and sound quality may be a little ’90s, but put aside any snooty reactions – because there’s real value here. The focus is on pop music, songs that are in the charts at the moment (which, sadly, makes me realise once again how little I pay attention to chart music!) But I managed to find some Nirvana, and some Green Day. Check out this example video of Green Day’s “When September Ends” for a glimpse of what the site’s all about:
Learn by seeing, learn by doing
As you’ll see from the video, the arrangement (marked “Intermediate” difficulty) is fairly simple, but clearly recognisable. The options to adjust tempo and isolate each hand’s part make it easy to dissect any tricky sections and break down learning into manageable chunks.
Every student learns differently, but I’d say there are two main camps of instrumentalist:
- Those who learn primarily from sheet music, and use remembered images of the notation when auralising or playing from memory
- Those who learn primarily by ear, and use remembered images of instrument fingering or abstract outlines of the music when auralising or playing from memory
Personally I was taught using the first approach but these days fall more into category #2. I tend to learn new pieces from sheet music, but once I reach a certain proficiency will rely on the abstract encoding of the musical shapes and patterns in my brain, and visual shapes of my hands on the keyboard to remember how to play the piece. As a particular example, I’ve recently found myself referring to my internal piano keyboard when figuring out the notes of chords for my Berklee music theory assignments. Rather than think through the key signature and work out what the third, fifth, seventh, etc. would be, I find it quicker to imagine myself playing the chord on piano, and look (in my mind) at what notes my fingers are hitting. This feels a little cheaty for somebody who was raised in camp #1, but I’m a believer in the “whatever works” approach to learning music.
The site seems to have been around for about a year, and has a fairly lively membership. There are currently about 250 songs available, with a “requests wall” where you can submit new song requests and vote on which songs will be turned into tutorials next. The same animated keyboard is also used to provide a chord dictionary, showing you how to play a wide range of chords. You can even submit your own tutorials, by supplying a MIDI file with a channel for each hand.
My initial concern with the idea of learning this way was that even simple arrangements can be overwhelming to the student if there’s too much material to take in without having an overall frame of reference (like printed music). A simple time slider doesn’t really give you meaningful context for what you’re learning! Fortunately, you can simply click the “Piano sheet” button to download a PDF of the arrangement in standard notation.
This, I fear may be the downfall of the site – I’d be a little surprised if they were really paying all the licence fees due to be able to distribute sheet music for current pop hits, even simplified arrangements. The footer does indicate the site is “legally licensed by ACUM,” an Israel-based musicians rights company. Perhaps they’re passing on licence fees to the appropriate US bodies – it would be great if an ad-supported website could afford that. Am I being too skeptical?
I still think a visual guide for the song’s structure would be helpful (e.g. showing “Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Outro” as blocks, highlighted to show the current section) but I can believe a dedicated student will manage with what’s there.
The future is alive and animated – not printed and static
What’s probably more important is that this site is offering animated, interactive tutorials for playing songs on piano – for free, for current pop songs. In the age of YouTube video tutorials for songs and instruments, and software to teach you your instrument in a personalised, interactive way, this site is a fantastic new addition to the exciting tools at the fingertips of the next generation of musicians.
So give it a try! You can watch two tutorials just by visiting the site, and after that you need to register (for free) or sign in with Facebook. If you’re looking for a way to liven up your piano practice, get simplified arrangements of current hits or contribute your own arrangements to the community, this site is definitely worth a look.