Improvising Your Own Music With Audio Files

You can improvise your own music with the audio music you're accustomed to playing (using a regular audio player), regardless whether it comes from an audio CD, or a download.

On the surface, the process of improvising your own music with music from audio files is easy. Just load the piece you want into the audio player, and click its “Play” button, then start playing your music using the KeyMusician Keyboard.

But there are a number of things with doing this that can give you problems.

The biggest difference that makes it more difficult than MIDI files, is that the software has no way of knowing what notes are used, so it can't tell you the key-signature, and it certainly can't show you the notes.

The integrated MIDI Player will only play MIDI files, so you can't use it for audio files. You need to use the audio player you normally use on your computer.

If you're using the typing keyboard, not being able to use the integrated MIDI Player adds an additional complication. After clicking the “Play” button of your audio player, the audio player window retains focus, and whatever keys you type on the keyboard will go to the audio player.

In order to play along with the music played by the audio player, you must (after clicking the player's “Play” button) click on the KeyMusician Keyboard window (giving it focus, and access to the keyboard) before the keys you press will produce music.

The following sub-sections list the problems you need to overcome in order to improvise your own music along with music played from an audio file, and how you solve them.

1. Not Knowing The Key-Signature

There are two ways of dealing with this. The obvious 'brute-force' method, is just to learn what notes of the piece need to be black-keys (instead of white-keys), and just play them. If you're using a MIDI keyboard (instead of the typing keyboard), this is a reasonable approach. It's also reasonable if there are no more than one sharp, or one flat, in the key-signature.

If you've already invested the hours of practice playing scales in all of the key-signatures, the brute-force method works just fine, because you already know which keys are black-keys in each key-signature.

You can use the 'brute-force' approach using the typing keyboard as well, but it's more difficult because it takes two key-strokes to play a black-key. With the typing keyboard, it's well worth your time trying to figure out the key-signature, so the software can play the black-keys when necessary, and you don't have to worry about it.

So as you may have guessed, the other approach, is to figure out the key-signature (or key-signatures) the piece uses, and set up a performance pane for each of those key-signatures.

There are a number of ways you can determine the key-signature. We'll start with the quickest and easiest ways, and proceed to cover the other ways that require more effort.

1.1 Look At The Sheet-Music For The Piece

Most pieces performed will use the same key-signature(s) as in the sheet-music the composer created for the piece. This is especially true if the piece was played from music. But it is not always true. Some singers will transpose it to another key-signature to better-fit their singing range.

With that in mind, you could purchase the sheet-music for the piece (or even just look at it in a music store), and notice the key-signature(s) it uses. If it's a piece you like, you might want to purchase the sheet-music anyway.

1.2 Match The Beginning Or Ending Chord Of The Piece

Often, a piece will start with the chord based on the starting note of its key-signature.

Also, a piece of music will often end with a chord based on the starting note of its key-signature. Beware, though, that a piece that is mainly in a minor key, may resolve to its major key at the very end (and its major key will have a different number of flats/sharps than its minor key).

Also, for a piece that uses more than one key-signature, it will only tell you the last key-signature used.

With that in mind, matching the beginning (or ending) chord is still often the quickest and easiest way to determine the key-signature of a piece.

Before doing this, select (in the F1 pane) the use of standard chords (the “Standard” radio button), then switch to the “Chords” performance pane so you can play chords, and see the chord-notes played.

Then the strategy is to play (on your audio player) just the beginning (or ending) of the piece, and play chords, seeing which one matches the sound of the beginning (or ending) chord most closely.

If you're matching the ending chord, it will most likely end with a major chord, so just specifying the root note of the chord will be all you need (it assumes major if no other chord-attributes are selected).

If the chord of the piece you are matching has a 'sad' sound, you might need to select the 'minor' chord-attribute.

When you play a chord that matches the sound of the first (or last) chord of the piece, the name of the chord is the name of the key-signature, and the root-note of the chord is the note the key-signature's scale starts with.

In trying different chords, be aware that the chord you need may be a flat (half-step lower) or sharp (half-step higher) version of the note. So if you try all of the notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B), and don't find a matching chord, try those same notes with the page-down key held-down when you select the root-note of the chord (for flats).

Similarly, you will hold-down the page-up key when selecting the root-note of the chord (for sharps).

If you find a flat-chord that matches, write it down, and also try the sharp-chord possibilities. You will probably also find a sharp-chord that matches, so write it down too. You'll need to try both of them in setting the key-signature, choosing the key-signature that requires the least number of half-steps to be transposed (closest to the “none” entry).

In setting the key-signature (using the “Transpose” button), use the “Major Key Name” (or “Minor Key Name” if it's a minor chord) drop-box to select the key-signature.

This method can also be used to determine the key-signature of a piece that uses more than one key-signature, if you can recognize the beginning & end of different-sounding sections of the piece.

1.3 Figuring Out The Key-Signature From The Notes Played

You can figure out the key-signature of a piece by playing along-with the piece, matching the notes played by-ear.

To do this, first make sure your key-signature (using the “Transpose” button) is set to “0 (none)”. This means you will try to play the piece without any transposition (no flats or sharps).

In doing this, the first question we need to answer is: Does the piece use flats, sharps, or neither?

To answer this question, play along with the music, trying to play the main tune by ear. As you play it, watch for the following:

  1. Every time you play a B, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a B-flat. Does that help? Yes=flats.

  2. Every time you play an F, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting an F-sharp. Does that help? Yes=sharps.

If only #1 applies, the key-signature uses flats. If only #2 applies, the key-signature uses sharps. If neither of them apply, then no worries – the piece works with no flats or sharps. If both 1 and 2 apply, the key-signature has at least 5 flats in it.

Now you've determined whether it's flats, or sharps, approach the problem in one of two ways (again, trying to play the tune by ear):

1.3.1 Flats

  1. Every time you play a E, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a E-flat. Does that help? Yes=2 flats.

  2. Every time you play an A, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a A-flat. Does that help? Yes=3 flats.

  3. Every time you play a D, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a D-flat. Does that help? Yes=4 flats.

  4. Every time you play a G, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a G-flat. Does that help? Yes=5 flats.

The key-signature is unlikely to have more than 5 flats, because it would use sharps instead.

1.3.2 Sharps

  1. Every time you play a C, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a C-sharp. Does that help? Yes=2 sharps.

  2. Every time you play a G, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a G-sharp. Does that help? Yes=3 sharps.

  3. Every time you play a D, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a D-sharp. Does that help? Yes=4 sharps.

  4. Every time you play a A, does it sound wrong/sour? Try substituting a A-sharp. Does that help? Yes=5 sharps.

The key-signature is unlikely to have more than 5 sharps, because it would use flats instead.

The above steps should work to figure out the key-signature. Yet there are two things that can lead you astray.

  1. The key-signature changes – this does happen – you'll have to figure out this new key-signature, and set up a separate performance pane for it. You switch performance panes by hitting the appropriate function key.

  2. There are just a few isolated notes that don't conform to the key-signature (such notes are called 'accidentals'). If this is the case, there's a key-signature that works for most of the notes (which you need to find), and you'll have to play the few 'accidentals' manually.

2. Slowing The Piece Down To Practice Difficult Sections

I don't know of any audio players that will let you do this. But there is an audio editor that will, and it's free, and has versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It also allows you to select sections for practicing over-and-over.

Do an Internet search for audacity download, using your favorite search engine. That should give you links to where you can get the Audacity audio editor. Download it, and install it according to its directions.

When you open an audio file using Audacity, you can select a specific portion of the piece for practicing. Then when you click the “Play” button, it will play just the selected section.

To slow down the selected section (or the whole piece, if you select the entire piece), click on the “Effect” menu, and select “Change Tempo” from the menu that appears. When you do this, don't save the project, or it will permanently slow down this section (unless that's what you really want).

3. Wrong-Speed (out-of-tune) Music Recorded from Cassette or Phonograph

If you are using an actual synthesizer to play the notes, the synthesizer will have a way (see its manual) to change its tuning. You can then tune the synthesizer to match the music that is out-of-tune. But beware that when you go to play with some other piece that isn't out-of-tune, the synthesizer will then be out-of-tune if you don't change the tuning back.

There's another way of making it in-tune, without changing the tuning of the synthesizer (which doesn't get out-of-tune on its own). That other way, is to slightly change the speed (not tempo) of the audio file.

Using the Audacity audio editor (obtained as described in the prior section), you can change the speed of the entire piece, which will change the pitch as well. Changing the tempo (what was described in the prior section) does not affect the pitch (intonation).

Before changing the speed, you need to know if you need to speed it up, or slow it down. To do this, play along with the piece. Do the notes you play sound just a little bit too high (sharp)? If so, you'll need to speed-up the piece.

If, on the other hand, the notes you play sound just a little bit too low (flat), you'll need to slow down the piece.

Since changing the speed involves a lot of computation, it takes a fair amount of time to do it. In light of that, you may only want to select the first part of the piece to experiment with different speeds. You can always 'undo' the speed change (from the edit menu). Later, when you know the speed change you need, you can select the entire piece, and change it to that speed.

To change the speed of the entire piece, to make it in-tune with your synthesizer, select the entire piece (Edit...Select...All). Then Click on the “Effect” menu, and choose “Change Speed” from the menu that appears. Change the speed the direction you think you need.

Then play the select section, and play along with it. Does it sound good, or at least better? You can undo the change, and change it differently.

When you get it so it sounds in-tune (not 'sour', or not-quite-right), select the entire piece, and choose “Change Speed” from the “Effect” menu. It will remember the speed change value you last used. Use it to change the speed of the entire piece.

Now you should be able to play along with the entire piece, and it will sound in-tune. If it does, you will want to save this version of the piece (or export it if you don't want it saved as an Audacity project, which no other player can read).

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