Beyond Guitar Hero: Learning Music Theory on Your iDevice

I used to tell people that I’ve played guitar since high school. Truth be told, I’ve owned a guitar since high school. The difference being that I haven’t actually played consistently over the years. Despite the decades, I am an admittedly novice player.  Scales, picking out a melody, open and bar chords are fairly easy, but progressing to the next level of intuitive playing and transposing on the fly has eluded me.  So of course, rather than practicing, I turn to technology.

Critics of game consoles have long belabored the detrimental effect of today’s youth playing virtual instruments versus live performance.  Instead of playing Guitar Hero, play the guitar, they cry.  And I wholeheartedly agree.  However, some music theory and concepts do transfer well, and are more easily grasped, when presented in an interactive format, rather than read or studied in a book (at least by novices like me).

(Read on if you’re interested how your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad can help you learn musical theory.)

The circle of fifths is one such example.  It is a complicated graphical representation of the relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys.  (Thank you, Wikipedia.)  How is it helpful and why should any aspiring musician care?  Many blues and rock songs are built around the I, IV and V chords of (usually) major keys.  In the key of C, the chords would be C, F and G.  With a firm grasp of the circle of fifths, and an ear for the I chord, many songs can be deciphered fairly easily with a little memorization and ear training.  

 ChordWheel has just been released this past week, and while it has a few minor issues, it does a fine job of teaching the major chords for all twelve keys, with relative minors in the inner circle.  Flick (a bit tricky) the wheel to change the tonic (I chord).  This app has some nice features, including hearing the chords when you press the corresponding icon.  Additionally, if you press the ancient Egyptian symbol for Osiris in the center of the wheel, the user gains access not only to the history of the software and soon-to-be released updates, but a rather nice history of musical harmony as well.  The author has admitted to problems with the display of this information on smaller screen devices, and fixes are on the way.  It is pleasantly accessible on the iPad.

The app is free, and compatible with the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, running iOS 3.2 or later.

The Animated Cirlce of Fifths app, at first glance, seems to be a simpler app.  It does not have accompanying sounds for the chords, and the musical theory behind the app is not detailed.  However, it is not limited to major scales.  The user can choose to switch between seven scale modes including Ionian (major) and Aeolian (minor).  Switching between scales and rotating the circle to change the tonic is effortless and intuitive.  It works on all platforms equally well.

The app is 99 cents, and compatible with the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, running iOS 2.0 or later.

Off to go practice some twelve bar blues in various keys.  Happy transposing!

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