Interesting iPhone App With a Musical Bent

April 22, 2012 by  

I don’t often find inspiration for articles from Time magazine, but I sure did this time. The November 22, 2010 issue included a feature on the 50 best inventions of the year. Mixed in with yet another car that can be converted into an airplane, and a boat made from discarded plastic bottles, were a couple of Apple-related items.

First was already ubiquitous iPad, which the article states, “is the fastest-selling non-phone gizmo in consumer-electronics history.”

The other was a really interesting iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch application called iRealB. Desktop and laptop computer users with a musical bent have long had an application called Band in a Box (although I’m sure the folks at PGMusic would not like the comparison) for a long time, but nothing this portable. This program makes it easy for musicians and music fans to type in a few musical chords, like Fm, Bb, G7, etc. (or just use the hundreds of supplied tunes) and the program builds an instrumented rhythm section. These programs can be relatively inexpensive because the chords of a song cannot be copyrighted—only the melody and lyrics (which are not provided). That’s the part you provide. You can purchase printed music books, real books (the legal version of fake books, which were handwritten collections of melody and chords for professional musicians who used them on the job when they got a request for a tune they didn’t know—the musicians were able to quickly review the tune in the fake book and if they were any kind of musicians at all, they would then be able to play a simple arrangement of a tune they didn’t even know five minutes before), and other materials, and transcribe the chords into Band in a Box’s easy to use editor.

Why would you want to do this, one might ask? Well, as a professional musician, this is an invaluable tool to help build your repertoire of tunes. It allows you to practice and retain your proficiency with tunes you already know. For a jazz musician, it provides an opportunity to really learn a tune and how to improvise around it. Finally, it’s a great tool for budding or practiced vocalists to sing over the chords of a tune, the way they would with live musicians.

What makes programs like this even more valuable is the ability to change the style of the rhythm tracks: tempo (beats per minute), type of beat (swing, latin, etc.), the ability to change the key of the tune (everyone sings in different keys due to their own vocal range), the number of choruses (the number of times the tune repeats), and a countdown (counting down the tempo of the tune—1-2-3-4).

The beauty of iReal B is that you can now carry thousands of tunes in a wide variety of styles (for now, most of the tunes and styles are jazz-oriented, but the publishers promise more styles in the coming months).

iReal B doesn’t come with any tunes, due to a take-down order from a music publisher, who doesn’t completely understand that chords of songs are not copyrightable–only the melody and lyrics, but the folks at iReal B are a small business who can’t afford to fight this in court. Instead, the same song pack, and a bunch more tunes (chords only!) posted by users, can be downloaded for free from their user forum site, which is directly linked in the iReal B IOS app. Oh, yeah, did I mention that iReal B is also available for Android phones, too? The price is only $7.99. There’s no hardware to add. It uses the sound capabilities built into the Apple i-devices, as well as the competing Android devices.

How do I use it? While not a professional musician, I am a music junkie—especially jazz, and know the lyrics to hundreds of musical standards, and I continue to learn the lyrics to others. With this application, I can quickly select a tune, and can sing my heart out in the privacy of my own home (clearly protecting the music-loving public from my out-of-tune shrieks and groans).

This program can provide hours and hours of entertainment and musical education, not to mention perhaps providing a little more exposure to the Great American Songbook. More fun than a barrel of monkeys, and a lot cleaner, too.