I was recently contacted by the developers of Musiclock, an app that was written to help people (students and adult musicians) develop skills with improvisation. Improvisation was an element of the old National Standards of Music (one of the standards that was often left unmet). The new standards, which have been divided into various disciplines in music education (instead of having one set for all teachers), still include improvisation. While improvisation was historically at the center of all music (including the daily lives of Mozart and Beethoven), improvisation has (generally) become a part of the culture and experience of jazz music. Chances are that if you are not a jazz musician, you may not spend very much time with improvisation at all.
So how can we change this? It turns out, there is a (new) app for that.
Musiclock provides many background “jam” tracks (loops) that are written in a specific scale (e.g. Major, or Pentatonic Major). Those loops can be started on any note of the chromatic scale. As you choose a scale, you will see a piano keyboard (playable) that indicates the notes that are available for that scale. The scale itself shows itself on a staff at the top of the screen. You can also see guitar fretboards if the piano is not your instrument. While the piano can be played, the fretboards cannot. You can also touch the letter names of the “clock” if the piano is not an instrument that you play.
When using the app, one thing you can’t get away from is the importance of scales in improvisation. This is why guitar players who do not understand how to read a single note of music will know fifty different scales. This app is a great way to show kids the importance of learning their scales on piano or in band/orchestra.
Once you have selected a scale and an accompaniment/loop, you “hit” play on the clock, and you begin to “jam.” With the on-screen piano, if you limit yourself to the notes that are shown, you are guaranteed that your improvisation has the chance of sounding good–and as this is improvisation, there is no right or wrong. You can, of course, put headphones on, and practice on your instrument (or sing) using the app’s jam tracks.
I still remember sitting in junior high jazz band, and our director having the entire band play a blues progression. Every member was then expected to improvise a small melody on the spot. I remember how terrifying that was (as a tuba player and a pianist in jazz band), because I didn’t want to sound bad, and I didn’t understand scales as I do today. Here is a chance for you to invest in an app that can take that scary process away for your players.
There are some things I would like to see in the app, and I have shared these thoughts with the company. The app currently only functions in portrait mode, which is disappointing because the onscreen piano keyboard could encompass more octave or have larger keys in landscape mode. If you play a transposing instrument, it would be great if the app could show transposed keys while playing in the non-transposed key (it currently only shows the actual, non-transposed key). It would also be great to see the app include CoreMIDI functionality so you could connect a MIDI keyboard or JamStik. I would also like to see the ability to change tempos of each jam track.
The only thing I don’t like about the app is one of the screen shots provided on the app store, where the company says, “No more struggling with music theory…take your playing to the next level with Musiclock.” As a music teacher, I want people to struggle with music theory and music notation, regardless of what the Huffington Post says.
The app does a great job of letting you (or your students) improvise right now, regardless of your training in music. Still, as a music teacher, I want students to go deeper into theory and to avoid painting theory in a negative light.
At the moment, Musiclock is $3.79 on the app store. If you want to teach improvisation to students of any age, this is a wonderful app, and I hope more features are on the way. This app could be incorporated into a band lesson, or for an entire class. It could be used by individual musicians (with headphones) and they played their own instrument (or sang).
See my short video review below: