Friday, November 27, 2015

Learning Piano with Yousician

I've wanted to play the piano for pretty much my entire life. Unfortunately, while I've owned a series of keyboards, I've always been in the position where I couldn't afford lessons and had a really hard time learning completely on my own from books.

Well, recently a Youtube ad pointed me in the direction of 'Yousician', a bit of piano teaching software, so I decided to have another run at it. I bought decent mid-range digital piano, downloaded the software and gave it a try.

The first thing I'll say about Yousician is that, while there is a free version, the 'premium' version is an absolute must. I don't mind the advertisements present in the free version, it's also time limited, where you only get to use it for about half an hour a day. At best, the free version is basically a demo. If you want to learn, get out your credit card.

To be completely fair, it's not too expensive. It's about 20 Euros a month subscription (about £15 gbp or $21 USD), or half that if you want to pay a year's subscription in advance. It's a bit of sticker shock shelling out nearly a hundred quid for a subscription...but considering the going rate for piano lessons (at least near where I live) is around £25 per hour, I'd say it's worth it.

So how does Yousician work?

You download the app to your laptop or device, and the app listens to your playing through your microphone. You start with the very basics and as you progress, you pick a 'path' to suit what you want to play: Classic, Pop and Knowledge/Creativity if you want to learn music theory and how to write your own music.

It's actually very slick. For example, you start with a very basic right-hand only melody, and the screen shows a keyboard showing what keys to hit as well as a musical stave...starting out with coloured bars showing the notes, then advancing to actual musical notation.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried at first. I was going through the exercises, passing the skill challenges...but I didn't feel like I was really learning anything. I was learning that my index finger is on the 'red' key, and when there's a red note to press that key...but it felt like I wasn't actually learning the actual notes or how to read music... It reminded me a bit of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Sure, I was learning to play that very specific simple song, but it felt like if someone sat me at a piano without Yousician open and told me to play an A minor chord, I wouldn't have a clue...but then, after a good few hours, I had a weird experience.

I went onto a skill challenge, the notes were flowing across the screen, I was getting a bit lost, then my fingers just sort of moved to the right notes on their own. I wasn't looking at the keyboard diagram...somehow, I looked at a note on the stave and muscle memory sent my hands to the right place.

I think that's the coolest thing about Yousician. I don't know if it was specifically designed that way, but by showing you the 'easy' way and the 'hard' way at the same time, you pick up a lot without realising it.

I do have a few complaints about it, however.

The first and most obvious is that the piano version isn't available for android yet. It's available for iOS and PC, but only the guitar version is on Android. Given that it's exactly the same technology that works exactly the same way, there's no reason why there shouldn't be an android version. In fact, it's backwards...you can take a guitar anywhere, and there's nothing to stop you sitting in front of a laptop or desktop PC with a guitar in your lap. Arranging a full sized, 88 key piano or keyboard in front of a screen is a lot more difficult.

After rearranging furniture to get a setup where I could sit at my piano, and see the screen, and have the piano close enough to the microphone...it was really annoying that I couldn't just put my tablet on my sheet-music stand.

Secondly, and my biggest complaint, is the audio recognition. It's good enough, but it gets a bit frustrating when you know you hit the right note or played the right chord and the software tells you you did it wrong. It's accurate enough that you won't fail an exercise because of it, but given that the big selling point is that it turns learning music into a game...it's really annoying when you know you've aced an exercise and get a lower score than you should have. I'll point out that I got this problem using both my laptop's internal mic, and an expensive Blue Yeti USB mic. There's also no support for MIDI keyboards, which is a shame because this would bypass the issue all together.

Finally, it would be nice if it included more 'classroom' type exercises. There are a few quizzes, but as someone who wants to eventually write my own music, it would be nice if there was more of a focus on theory.

However, in the end, I've attempted to learn the piano at least 5 or 6 times over the course of my life and either hit a brick wall without lessons or just got frustrated and gave up. I learned more and advanced more in two hours with Yousician than I have over weeks and weeks trying to learn from a book.

It's far from perfect, but for people like me, who can't really justify spending thousands of pounds a year on lessons, it's a good start. It's fun, there's a real sense of progression, and while it doesn't make learning the piano 'easy', it certainly makes it easier.

I'd highly recommend Yousician for anyone starting out on Piano. If you can afford one-on-one lessons, I'd definitely suggest that would be the way to go, and maybe use Yousician to help you practice...but it's fun, relatively cheap and great way to get into piano.

3 comments:

Graham said...

Yousician rocks! I'm using it to revitalise my learning guitar and keyboard, and making great progress. I agree with your points about needing the subscription, and that proper USB keyboard support would be great. Cheers, Graham

Gadgetchina.es said...

I have also just started using Yousician for keys and piano and it works flawlessly with my MIDI Keyboard. I am using the PC version. Maybe it's a new feature in the more recent versions of the application?

Jade Graham said...

The annual Europe-wide event brings together the public, academics and artists, to celebrate research and show how it can change and improve lives. Digital Piano Reviews