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Music theory on your fingertips

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By Julius P. Azucena

Musicians approach their craft in many ways, dictated for the most part by personality, experience, and instrument of choice. What we then hear as a result is language spoken across all barriers, deftly stirring our emotions with just a few notes. Most would argue that a deeper understanding of music theory isn’t required to speak this language. Just play often and true and you’ll get better. Why bother with complex rules dating back to the common practice period of 1650 to 1900?

You don’t actually need to (say I while strumming through the simple chords of Masaya from tabs I found online). But having a few scales up our sleeves can greatly improve our ability to play, improvise, and compose. Knowledge of different chords and keys will grant us a sort of roadmap in negotiating familiar songs, while bringing some of our own to life. Music theory in general will also give us a means by which to communicate with other enthusiasts, hear music critically, and provide intelligent insights among other things. So why are a lot of us intimidated to dive in, yet remain interested in playing on a higher level? Surely the benefits speak for themselves.

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One reason I can point to is the steep learning curve. And to that, TheoryBoard promises an answer.

Irijule (a San Francisco based start-up in consumer electronics) is the team behind this innovative product. TheoryBoard is essentially a robust MIDI controller that according to its fully funded Kickstarter—packages the world of scales, chords, inversions, melody, and harmony into an easy-to-use, simplified form.  It is also compatible with any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), VST (Virtual Studio Technology), and hardware one would use in music production. This addresses a limitation with other devices out in the market that are locked exclusively to a single software, like Ableton Push with Ableton.

The Board itself is divided into two sections: Right of the central control is the Melody Side, where four octaves of a single note within a selected scale is loaded. These octaves can also be shifted up and down, enabling the user to play leads, plucks, or bass lines with relative ease. Did I mention that the user can choose from any scale known to man? Left is the Chord Side, where we can find every possible chord (a group of notes played at the same time) within the loaded scale.

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With the laws of music theory prohibiting certain note combinations while allowing others, the TheoryBoard has effectively taken out the guesswork when playing. It also assigns a color for every root note, making the whole experience synesthetic and easier to navigate. The demo video found in irijule.com was pretty thorough in explaining these features.

“It literally took me over three years to wrap my head around the language of music theory.” Irijule founder Evan Swanson said when asked what drove him to create the TheoryBoard. “When it finally clicked,” he continued, “I couldn’t believe it took me so long to understand these concepts. At the end of the day music theory, scales, and chords are just math.” Evan wanted a MIDI controller that could generate all these functions but was surprised when there wasn’t any on the market. This void prompted him to team up with a childhood friend named Scott O’Hair (who is brilliant at writing code), in an effort to build a working prototype. It took them two and a half years to complete the project.

It’s also interesting to note that Evan is not classically trained in music. He has this to say on acquiring the knowhow—“All of the information I have gathered has been self-taught from the internet. It’s wonderful how much you can learn from the internet if you take the time to sift through the vast amount of information. I feel that the internet is empowering creatives. If you have a great idea and the discipline to make it come to fruition, the universe seems to align in a way to aid the process. Everything has come together in an oddly synchronistic manner.”

(Photo credits:  www.kickstarter.com)

(Photo credits: www.kickstarter.com)

For the most part, people seem to love the core concept behind TheoryBoard. Evan told of novices who thought the device was a godsend, and of classically trained musicians who saw it as a means to speed up their work flow. But there were also naysayers. Some Evan described as “the same musical elitist archetype” who told him (with some profanity) that his invention was ruining music.

In spite of their most vocal critics, Irijule’s goal to raise $100,000 USD on Kickstarter was reached in just 17 days. What’s more impressive was that the pledges have already doubled as of this writing with very little spent on .

And Evan had this to say for those passionate individuals who are grinding to bring their noble ideas to life, “Keep pushing! You have to be resilient and strong. You are the bi-product of 3.8 billion years of successful evolution. You are powerful, you are divine. Don’t let weak minded people or those who lack perception hinder you’re vision. You must cultivate the creative energy within you… It is a beautiful force to align with. I don’t come from money. I have been through dark times and have had negative dollars in my bank account numerous times. I’ve been robbed and ripped off by people that I trusted, but I continued to keep moving forward. When I would try to explain my idea for the TheoryBoard, most people acted like I was stupid. If I would have listened to them I would have never created this thing. Have tunnel-vision for your ideas and don’t let anybody tell you anything different. KEEP PUSHING!”

I would also like to emphasize having a smart approach in any venture. Study the field well and learn from your heroes. You’ll find a lot of cool stuff to apply in breaking new ground. But the grind is real, and one’s grit and creativity will have a big say in achieving overall success. We Filipinos are more than capable of this. We should keep pushing to innovate as well.

The mass market version of TheoryBoard is expected to be released by 2018. If you are now developing an idea you are passionate about and would like to share your start-up story, hit me up at juliusazucena.com

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