Learn to play the piano or ....?

I’ve always written my songs on the guitar, because that’s what I can play. But I’m getting into electronic music, and the biggest hurdle I’m facing is that I can’t write chord progressions (with anything other than first position triads) on the piano. I can figure out a chord, and I can play it, but I can’t transition over to other chords to try out different progressions. I can’t even take a hand off the keyboard to hit record and then know what keys to play back again. I just don’t have that mental model to be able to do it.

One thing that I do to make it easier is to shift the MIDI output from my keyboard so that I can just use the white keys, no matter what key I’m in. I have a possibly stupid question about this though: I would think that if I’m in the key of C# major, then I want the C# to be where the C normally is, and everything would line up right? But that doesn’t seem to always work. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

I’ve been thinking about buying a plugin such as Captain Chords or Scaler (or something else?) that will let me experiment with different chords and chord progressions in a bearable amount of time. Has anyone used something like this before? I’m concerned that it will be more trouble than its worth. And my second question is for the piano players: how hard would it be for me to learn to write chord progressions on a piano, using complex chords and voicings? It seems impossible to me at this point. There’s some kind of musical mental model that I just don’t have. I know a decent amount of music theory, but I don’t have it at my fingertips.

I would have assumed that all the notes would line up accordingly if you shifted the MIDI pitch. I don’t work with MIDI hardly at all, so I don’t understand why that doesn’t work.

Regarding your main question…I would advise you to not worry too much about having the finger dexterity or familiarity with the keyboard. A novice piano player will potentially be able to write great songs regardless of any specialized knowledge. You might not be able to express the songs like a skilled piano player but you can definitely write great songs using a piano. I believe the piano is one of the easiest instruments to understand from a visual standpoint…Everything is laid out so simply. From C to the next octave C…Much easier than the notes of a guitar or violin. That’s why learning piano can be an easy and productive introduction into music theory. Of course learning to be proficient on piano is another story, as it is with most instruments.

You spoke of triad chords. Maybe you can simplify things by just doing chords with 2 notes…Or, simply do notes instead of chords…When your song is further along in the development phase you can add thirds, fourths, etc., and arpeggios. Do the fine tuning later, maybe. I guess I’m saying, try to simplify things if you don’t have the technical ability yet.

1 Like

Yay!! That’s awesome!

Yes. Best to think of this in terms of a relative pitch and concert pitch. In your case, C# is the concert pitch. You want to hear concert pitch C# when you play the midi piano key C♮.
So you would set your transpose to plug one half-step (+1) because C♮is a half step lower than C#.

You could buy a midi guitar pickup. I would recommend the one by Roland. It installs on an electric guitar like a normal pickup. Then converts anything you play on the guitar into MIDI audio as you play it.

Basic voice leading (which is what I think you mean when you say transitions) is the same for any instrument, whether it be a guitar, piano, or ensemble of singers. The notes follow and chords connect one to another the same way. So is the question whether its worth the time to learn to block or chunk them with your hands on piano?

This part is pretty simple. Its sort of like learning to use bar chords on guitar, then just figuring out which ones fit together. If I’m not understanding the question let me know.

1 Like

I can play first position triads fairly easily. My problem is that I can’t play complex chord progressions, which is a staple of the genre that I’m going for. I want to be able to quickly audition different chords and decide what I’d like to use. I’ve tried turning my simple triads into more complex chords, but it’s a real pain in the butt. I want it to be easy and fun.

1 Like

What do you mean by complex?

Do you mean long progressions? As in C - G - F - Dm - Am - Bb - G - F - D - G

Or do you mean structurally complex like Cm/M7add9 - G7 (♭9/♯13) - F+5/G - Dø7?

…rereading your post a second time, you might not have to get super fluent with your midi controller in order to get where you want to go. The goal might be easier to achieve than it feels like at the moment, but again, I don’t entirely understand what you’re after.

1 Like

I personally think that the more instruments you can learn, the better.

I use the transpose function all the time. I tend to play different styles depending on what key I’m playing, mostly because I fall into the same patterns, so if I write a song in one key and I like the way it sounds, I have a hard time translating it to another key.

It should all work out by transposing, so if the notes aren’t coming out right, I think something else is wrong somewhere.

I think tools like this are great as long as you take the time to sit down and learn how to use them. The biggest problem with tools like that is they tend to be seen as an easy fix when the reality is that learning how to use it can be quite complicated. But once you do know how to use it well, they can be a great tool for coming up with chords and patterns that you wouldn’t have thought of playing.

I think if you just start out by learning the basic chords, they will start to feel more natural to play. Once they feel natural, you can start to explore more complex chords or inversions and you start to get the hang of what different sounds note combinations can play.

My only suggestion (and this may be bad advice, but it’s what works for me) is to not try to view the piano as a guitar replacement. A chord that sounds good on the guitar might sound bad on the piano, and the other way around.

1 Like

The second one.

Yeah I think that’s one of the things that draws me to a chord VST. I play the same chords a lot!

Yeah I think that’s true as well. They’re such different instruments. Piano is so lovely! I bought a Udemy course a while ago on how to play the piano. My brother’s really good at it actually. I tried to recruit him for “the band” but he wasn’t interested lol.

If you want to consider midi guitar you should take a look at this. It’s software based ( no guitar pickup required ) and works pretty well for me. There’s a free trial and it’s $99 to buy. You can record a midi track and edit it to add complexity or whatever, I use it to get weird harmonies etc. for lead guitar riffs. but it works with any audio track. Just a thought.


Ah. I see. Learning to quickly and instinctively transition between chords is quite a bit different than learning how to build more sophisticated chords structures. Those are different jobs for your mind as it relates to auditory stimulus. Its like the difference in being able to write more clearly using simple words vs using more complex words. And its one of the reasons its difficult for some musicians to transition from styles that have dissimilar harmonic, motivic (and rhythmic) structures.

Ok - so are you able to find the chords and voicings you’re after if you pick up a guitar but struggling to translate on piano? In other words, do you have trouble with complex voicings in general, or more making it happen on piano?

I have limited chords and voicings that I can easily play on the guitar. I’ll often leave out notes or add notes to basic chords which I’m sure changes them in some way, but I don’t know what they’re called. I understand some of the music theory behind it and I could figure it out with enough time, but it’s not something I’m good at. Like someone who speaks another language well enough to understand someone if they talk really slowly and clearly, but is completely lost at full speed.

On piano it’s just that much worse, lol.

I’m looking into this Instachord plugin right now… it seems super useful, and somewhat more expressive than the other options because you can actually play the chords instead of just listening back. I wish I’d bought it when it was like $15, but oh well.

1 Like

I’ve been on this quest for a while, Christina :smiley:

Look into Sundog https://feelyoursound.com/sundog/
Also check out.

Check out Chordpulse also http://www.chordpulse.com/info.html

EzKeys is more expensive, but very powerful.

I have Instachord and Instascaler but I haven’t used them much b/c the others are easier.

Really expensive, I just bit the bullet and went for Band in a Box 2019 ultra. It’s improved A LOT and sounds awesome!
This was the best price I could find

Another option is to play and record your simple chords in your DAW and then choose a record function that adds or merges to the previous recorded midi instead of overwriting it. Then you can “build” complex chords; adding as few as one note a time on each recording, and have it loop around for the measure(s) while you record.

Happy exploring!

P.S. I know you directed your question to keyboard players, but I’m not qualified to answer. I’m a guitar player / wannabe keyboardist as well.

P.P.S. I have a midi guitar as well and it is awesome, but the other programs mentioned are much easier to enter complex chords into midi. However, I did use the midi guitar on my last jazz song b/c it was easier to play on than look up what chords I was doing.

1 Like

Thanks for the links! I checked some of those out, and I’m still thinking that Instachord might be best suited for me, but I’m definitely going to get the trial version first. Instascale doesn’t look very useful to me, but just my luck that’s the one that’s on sale right now lol.

I am also pretty into the Native Instruments ecosystem, and have been trying out the Komplete Kontrol software just recently. That can do some of what I want… I’ll give that another try too before I decide I need to buy anything.

Fun fact: I’ve been seeing ads for Captain Chords EVERYWHERE since I started searching for this stuff, haha.
Second fun fact: I applied to work at Mixed In Key (the company that makes the Captain plugins) 3-4 years back, and I bombed the coding challenge. I can’t remember exactly why… it was something to do with not being able to figure out how to import the data file they sent me, to even get started with it. In any case, it was pretty dumb and I was really embarrassed. But then the guy was super rude and condescending to me about it. “Our engineers were all able to do this task in the time allotted. The record was just 30 minutes. If you can’t do that then there’s no way you’ll be able to understand the complexity of our code.” :roll_eyes:

1 Like

Thanks for the fun facts. I looked at Captain Chords before, but had already used too many similar programs at that point.

There is a Chordpulse lite for free, but I don’t know if you can do advanced chords in the free version.

A bit off topic, As far as NI I don’t explore a lot of their plugins, but I did get In Session Audio’ riff generation

Which you may like for electronic music; not for typing/choosing complex chords.

1 Like

Same here!

1 Like

@Christina maybe get some music lessons? Theory will be beneficial.

I had 3 years of music theory before I did anything decent with the guitar, so it took some time. Then it took a lot more time to learn to break the rules, which I guess is what you’re asking for :slight_smile:

Going through some compositions might also be beneficial. For the most part, everything in music has been done by someone so we can only bring a certain amount of creativity to it, so looking up some classical composers and concepts, such as counterpoint for example, might help a lot.

1 Like

Are you using Cubase? The chord pad is pretty cool…


+1 for music theory and I think jazz theory can help pop musicians a lot too. Here’s good online source for classical theory.

1 Like

I’m curious as to why this is necessary for electronic music… the piano is my primary instrument but because I was classically trained, it always feels melody-based when I’m song-writing, rather than chordal.

Yeah I’m the same way, where melodies usually come first and the chords either occur to me at the same time, or I figure them out after. In this case I did have a melody already and was attempting to try out different chord progressions under it and pretty much failing.

Just as an update, I am actually finding this easier already, starting with basic chords and just adding different “flavors” in the piano roll. I realized that I sort of did this already. I don’t usually know what chords I want, but I can tell what notes I want, and they’ll just so happen to make a chord.

Also, my big issue was a really dumb one. I am entering another remix contest, and they said that the key of the song was “C#/Db min”. I know from music theory that every major key has a relative minor key, so when I read that I immediately thought “oh they’re just also listing the relative minor, for convenience,” instead of, “C# and Db are the same note.” Soooo I was tearing my hair out with my keyboard set to C# major, and eventually realized that it should have been in E major all along. Doh. Things got a lot easier from there!