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TOOLS FOR A MUSICIAN
Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in August 2006.

If you are serious about working on both playing by ear and sight reading, practising can be intensified and made extremely rewarding by using computer programmes dedicated to music. Here are a few of my favourites.

#1 iTunes
Described by Apple as # the #1 Digital Jukebox and Music Store, iTunes has more uses than simply importing, burning and cataloguing music. Here is an idea that is not in the manual but can be helpful to musicians who want to learn songs by ear. It is a refinement on the play-along method and involves sorting tunes by their key signatures. In iTunes, go to Edit/View Options and check an unused box, say, Comments or Grouping. This will give you an extra column for your library. When you enter the details of a song: Name, Artist, Album etc. use the extra column to note the tune’s key. Clicking on the Comments heading will now provide a list of keys in alphabetical order: A Ab B Bb . . . all the way to G (G#, for you purists.) If you decide that today is the day to improve your fingering of tunes in the key of Eb, scroll to the first tune in that key, hit Start and play all the tunes that are in Eb. Playing a bunch of songs in the same key gets your fingers, voice and muscle memory going; combined with practising scales, miracles can happen. iTunes is free and is available for Windows and Apple computers.
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There are one or two points to consider before you can enter the key signature precisely. Usually, the key is identified by the last note of the melody. Comparing by playing it on a keyboard, an electronic tuner or an instrument known to be in tune, can verify this. It helps with ear training, too. However, some songs on CDs or, especially from vinyl, may not be exactly in tune; they are in between the cracks. You may have to guess the key. That is where my second favourite application comes in.

#2 The Amazing SlowDowner
This neat application – I’ll call it ASD – can adjust the pitch of a song so that it sounds in tune. Using File/Open, you can import a sound file, say, a song from iTunes and correct the pitch to your satisfaction. Simple controls allow you to compare the melody with a keyboard or tuner. You may have to guess whether to correct up or down. Knowing the characteristics of the recording artist or band is a help. For instance, jazz musicians favour the flats – Eb, Bb, Ab. Guitars like A, D, G, E and F. Everyone plays in C. The greats play them all. For the basement musician, it is all good ear training.
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Another advantage of ASD, in fact the one that gives it its name, is its ability to slow down or speed up a song without changing the pitch. There are varying views on whether a musician should do this but if you absolutely cannot keep up with a fast tune, you can find out more about it by slowing it down, listening more carefully so as to catch the notes exactly. This technique can also be very helpful for transposing songs from a recording to sheet music.

Once the song is adjusted to your satisfaction, it can then be saved back to iTunes. There, you can enter the song as an alternative to the original file, or simply have it replaced. It is possible to change pitch drastically so that you could play along with the song in another key, if you don’t mind a Chipmunks or growly tones.

The Amazing SlowDowner is also a great tool for the play-along musician. It can open MP3 or WAV, AIFF (Mac only) files or WMA (Windows only) files. It costs US$44.95 from Roni Music at http:
//www.ronimusic.com/

#3 Harmony Assistant
I learned to read music with this notation and composition program. I am not fast but I can follow a melody line and that suits me just fine. Harmony Assistant cost US$70 seven years ago and is still the same price! There is also a shareware version called Melody Assistant (
www.myriad-online.com.) Other companies have similar – and more expensive – programs like Finale (www.codamusic.com) and Sibelius www.sibelius.com

When I began to get serious about playing an instrument, I spent many weeks with books and theory and I pretty much failed. Turning to my computer, however, I discovered many ways to improve my reading ability. When I found Harmony Assistant, it was in its early stages so there was a lot of learning to wade through. But it was worth it. It is produced in France by two brothers, both savvy in music and software. At first, the translation into English was distinctly odd. For instance, when the quality of a particular operation was assessed, instead of what we would call POOR, it would be announced as ATROCIOUS. Six years later, the English is excellent and there are regular free upgrades, video tutorials and a hefty subscriber base for sharing compositions and support. It has Recording mode and will convert almost any music file to another.

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I have especially found it useful with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files. These can be found for almost any song. Just Google something like “round midnight midi” and you will find a version of the song. Results will vary. There are hundreds of links to MIDI catalogues, some of dubious quality. MIDIs are simply digital files of songs as arranged by enthusiasts who transcribe, note-for-note, songs as performed by individual artists and bands and give them multi-part arrangements. They are not as accurately notated as the original sheet music, and because they are electronically produced, some can sound pretty bad. Piano and guitar tones render quite well; an authentic sounding saxophone is hard to find. But if you want a free and fairly accurate rendition of the original song, you will find it through MIDI. A major benefit of this kind of music production is that a song can be reworked into different keys, tempi, add lyrics, even a "Virtual Singer” that does what its name suggests.

#4 The computer itself

I am in awe of my computer. Sometimes, after it performs a particularly clever operation, I just gaze at the screen and take a moment to say, “You can do that?”

Learning music with electronics tools is not without its problems. First, there is a tendency for the user to spend as much time, if not more, using the computer than in actually playing music. That can be a trap but, after a while, a balance can be achieved. A second problem can be that over-using the mouse may develop carpal tunnel syndrome in the right hand by. That can be a physical strain that you don’t need. Be warned.