Books promising to teach how to play the guitar have been around since forever. They show how to hold one’s fingers on the neck of a guitar in order to play familiar songs. The trouble is that new players won’t have the ear to know that they have placed their fingers quite right. Ira Robbins, a music writer and longtime guitarist, said that when he’s dabbled in helping friends with their playing, he finds himself physically grabbing their fingers and moving them to the correct spots. That’s what live guitar teachers do, he said. They hear what you’re playing and tell you what’s wrong.
Uberchord, a new startup out of Germany, has built a free iPhone app that can not only hear if a player has hit the right chord, but, when it isn’t right, it can also tell which finger is in the wrong spot on the neck. This week, the company released the first part of its new guitar education system, which builds on that technology. It hopes to bring the insights of online language instruction to music education by mixing skillbuilding with practice in ways learners find enjoyable. In other words, a DuoLingo for music, according to co-founder and CEO Eckart Burgwedel, whom the Observer spoke to via phone.
“500,000 years ago, music arose,” Mr. Burgwedel said. “Only 200,000 years ago, language started to arise. So the structure is very similar, if not the same.” He says that both have grammar, syntax and vocabulary. Uberchord wants to help amateur musicians put those components together. The company is starting with guitar, but it doesn’t intend to stop there.
“We have reached a point where repeating notes like a robot is the standard of learning music,” Mr. Burgwedel said.
Uberchord released two new features this week, the learning path and the composition engine. The learning path evaluates a musician’s mastery of different chords, helping them to find what to work on next. “Progressing in the learning path, you will learn more and more. To be able to put new things and old things together in a way that surprises,” he said.
The composition engine makes practicing those skills fun, by creating an effectively endless song on the fly, using exactly what the student knows and making fun to play tune that they can practice with. Along the way, the system will show them just what they did wrong whenever the student makes a mistake.
“The one thing that pretty much everyone will tell you about learning guitar,” Mr. Robbins said. “You don’t really want to learn how to play. You want to learn how to play the songs you like. For me, in the sixties, it was learning to play ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Secret Agent Man.’” Uberchord can also help students who just want to imitate rock stars, too, as this video demonstrates:
Mr. Burgwedel’s company has a larger aim: it hopes to inspire aspiring guitar players to really become musicians. “The concept of DuoLingo is that they hide the complexity of grammar and theory and break it apart into small handy excercises that are easy to do. This is exactly what Uberchord is all about.” He’s the first to admit the company isn’t there yet, at this early stage, but he believes it’s on the right track.
Uberchord went live on the app store in April. Right now, Uberchord works for learners who have had at least a couple hours of basic guitar instruction, Mr. Burgwedel said. The team hopes to be able to close that gap, shortly, with a total beginner’s onboarding. At the moment, it’s curriculum can’t take learners further than learning a lot of chords.
It also wants to get deeper into musical theory, so that musicians could practice on a jam on the composition engine that sounds like something one of their favorite bands might play.
Even now, the composition engine can keep generating more tune, designed entirely using chords the student knows, for as long as he or she wants to play. The song could go on forever, or at least as long as the battery holds out.
It’s all made possible by the company’s fundamental technology: chord identification. The team spent two years developing software that could accurately decipher exactly what a student had done wrong when playing a guitar chord.
“The problem is when you have a vibrating string, it doesn’t produce only one frequency. It produces dozens of different frequencies, that are stacked on top of each other. That actually makes the timbre of the whole guitar,” Mr. Burgwedel explained. “Those harmonics make it very difficult to identify the base note. So when you have six vibrating strings, it becomes a signal processing nightmare.”
Because the company is seeking a patent on its underlying software, Mr. Burgwedel declined to comment on the insight that made it possible to solve that problem.
The company started with iPhones because precision has been so key to how the software works. Mr. Burgwedel said that a number of factors make the device optimal for this application. For example, every iPhone is more or less the same, due to Apple’s high production standards. He also cited Apple’s audio software development kit, which makes real time audio effective, simple and robust. The microphone also works really well. “This is one major thing that Apple did is they made audio perfect for iPhones,” he said. Uberchord requires a lot of processing power, so it works best on the iPhone 5 and above.
The app is strictly chords now, but lessons in the rhythm side of playing are a couple months away. Each skill set requires careful thinking around organizing building blocks in a way that makes them small enough to put them together in enjoyable ways. The company has two musical theory experts on staff to help think this process through.
Once more of the pieces get put together, Uberchord should be able to move a dedicated student from playing U2’s songs to riffing in way that sounds like U2. “The kind of stuff that gets played today is much more sophisticated than three chords we learned as kids,” Mr. Robbins said.
Just don’t try playing Weezer’s “Hash Pipe,” or face the wrath of Rivers Cuomo.