I'm a professional software developer and a perpetual novice guitar player. I've also recently started to learn to play (piano) keyboard. I enjoy my playing, but even after years of torturing my guitars (yes, I have three) I'm still not good enough to confidently play in front of an audience.

I know some will consider this blasphemous, but I would love to learn to apply my computer skills to my musical performance. I am familiar with MIDI in concept, but I don't really have an idea how software like Abelton Live is used in practice by musicians.

What I have in mind is somehow augmenting my guitar or keyboard playing live, not simply pre-recording and playing a MIDI sequence. Is there software out there for this? Where can I go to learn what's out there?

  • 2
    You know what, you are good enough to play in front of an audience. Look around for jam nights / etc., somewhere you'll find people strumming at an incredibly low standard -- but having fun in an accepting environment. Pluck up the courage, and join in. Having an audience is a real motivator when it comes to practice too. You can achieve amazing things with computers, but bear in mind that operating these things is an overhead. You need to be able to perform with just a guitar, before adding complexity.
    – slim
    Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 12:34
  • As a computer professional, I suspect you'd pick up music theory very quickly. Find a book or website tutorial and learn about music. This will give you a good head for understanding what you're playing and make it less difficult to play well.
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 16:29

9 Answers 9


First of all, you don't need to be able to play keyboards, guitars, or other traditional instruments great. There are plenty of musicians out there who can't play instruments very well, and have no clue about music theory, yet created beautiful music, just by using their ears and having very basic instrument skills.

If you are getting into electronic music and live performance, then I would not invest my time into traditional instruments. Most electronic music is not performed by playing all the individual parts of the songs, because that would require a 10 person band, and it sounds like you're going to perform alone.

Ableton Live is a good start, I would get into that software more, and then look for input devices to use with that software. If you are looking for a low level device to start and stop sounds or adjust volume levels, you can get something like the ACP40 by Akai. If you are looking to do more advanced stuff, and add visual elements to your show, and also like to develop your own software and work with automatically generated music, arpeggiators and sequencers, then something like AudioCubes by Percussa will be a great investment. This tool even comes with free software so you might not need to buy much more than that to get started.

The Overtone suggestion here is a very good one, since you are a developer. Also look into Supercollider and Max/MSP, two well known tools for computer music.


A wonderful proponent of technology with guitar is K T Tunstall. She uses a range of looping kit in order to accompany herself with sounds, vocals and guitar.

Have a quick look at this video for an example of what she gets up to.

  • She is fantastic! I saw a similar live performance where Eddie Vedder did a fantastic number using only his own voice and a looping rig of some sort. I will definitely spend some time looking into this… But I am still curious if there's a more software-centric approach out there somewhere. Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 19:14
  • @Kaelin - you can definitely do this sort of thing with looping tools, either free or commercial ones like Cubase, ProTools etc
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 20:01
  • Awesome! A similar looping act is Theresa Andersson. Commented Aug 25, 2012 at 21:55

I am very happy to hear that you want to apply a skill you've mastered to something like music! Welcome.

I think I can only give you a direction in this matter, but since you are a professional, I'd personally like to hear what you do with this info.

I think the concept of using a text editor to write music is a great place to start. I just discovered lilypond and am trying to write music as I travel. As for midi, Its is far down on my todo list. but I'm sure you would be creative enough to think of something you can do for performance.

It's not an easy answer, but reading music is good for midi, and good for a musician in any situation.

Go Straight to the docs!


Use a wiimote to control midi effects on your guitar.

Technically, this is still a theoretical project, as I'm not done yet, however, I'm working on it and it all seems imminently doable. A wiimote connects to your computer by bluetooth. GlovePie provides a scripting language to turn your wiimote in to a midi controller (or OSC). MidiOx / Yoke serves as your internal plumbing. Attach your wiimote to your guitar (zip tie, duck tape, or screws depending on the love of your guitar and your commitment to the project), and you now have 6 buttons, a four direction pad, and 3 accelerometers.

You could use that to control Ableton Live, guitar effects, or anything else you wanted really (lighting rig?).

One of the cool things about GlovePIE is that you can create more complex routing of your input message (i.e. set up the A button as a tap tempo, have the buttons act differently based on the position of the guitar, or use complex gestures). If you use the led reader, add a nunchuck, or add wimotion plus, you can get even more control.

  • I took apart a 12$ dual analog stick gamepad and hacked up some momentary switches from radio shack and put them on a footboard. 12 buttons, dpad + 2 analogs. Freeware joy2midi. I wound up getting a stealthPedal for use as an expression pedal because my hacked attempts at making a wah pedal using an analog stick were too fragile.
    – horatio
    Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 16:10

The first step I would take would be to record and hear yourself play. Get an audio interface to your computer such as a Presonus FireStudio Mobile. That one comes with a very simple DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and a trial of Guitar Rig so you can record yourself, add a drumbeat, rip to mp3 and share with everyone.


I would say that you should keep it simple, there are good tools to improve your playing of the guitar, I like TuxGuitar as a guide, Audacity to record tracks and edit them so I can hear and even improve what I play or write, and an online metronome to learn to play new guitar pickings and know the rithm of them.

This way you can apply what you know on a computer without taking the essence of the instrument playing.

That should help you improve and gain confidence, It's unbelievable how a simple session of playing by following a metronome can improve your playing, after that it's even easier to follow a battery or a bass when not playing alone.

And after that then... well... just ensure you are having fun, there's no need to perfection when playing to make a very fun environment through music, sometimes even the mistakes you make are the ones that define your style, so just go and have fun!


Buy some good music theory book that starts from beginner level, and try to understand the theory well. This will allow you to use your skill of imagination that is needed so much in learning and understanding complex programming, mathematical concepts and sophisticated algorithms.

Music theory is both system and language. It may be somewhat aside from your standard C or Java skills, but assuming that Turing machine code is a language, and XPath is a language, and electric circuit diagram is a language, many similarities can be found.


Let me get the disappointing parts of my message out first: garbage-in, garbage-out. In other words: whatever you are trying to enhance using electronics and programming needs to be good to start with. If you are still aiming for an individual performance, you don't want most of the play to be produced independent of you.

Disappointing part #2: don't reinvent the wheel. Arranger keyboards are annoyingly effective for getting complete results from just providing a single melody line and basic chord information (and in fact, that's basically the input to the purely acoustic instrument "accordion" as well). I have an old thing from the 90s here (a Solton MS80 arranger with button accordion keyboard, but they exist without keyboard/harddisk as MS40 or with piano keyboard as MS100 or as MS60 as well), and it is irksome just what kind of stuff it will crank out automatically from rather sparse input. The downside is that speed and rhythm are fixed. Once you are good enough to keep speed, they kick ass. Also, they tend to be a better Midi expander (though noisier) than what is available as cheap software.

So I'd really recommend to get something in that line, even if it's a vintage box, and learn working with it. It covers a lot of ground, it's fun, and most certainly you will get a better impression about what kind of ground it does not actually cover.

Also it helps for practising stuff with headphones in the night.

Which brings us back to point #1: whatever is supposed to be individual in your performance needs to be played by yourself, and you want it to be good. So if your work is going to end up 95% programming and 5% instrument practice, the results are going to suck.

There is other trickery people employ to good measure: distortion, delay lines, multitrack recordings, lots of stomp boxes. A lot of that stuff is quite effective, but it requires mastery as well and you won't have it do heavy lifting without you investing a lot of time and practice, either.

Also using it for masking deficiencies is coming back to bite you eventually: you'll still have to compete with good players employing the same trickery.


You can certainly use technology to improve your playing, particularly the timing element. Play something at what you think is a steady tempo, look at what you ACTUALLY played. Don't hide behind concepts of "human feel". They aren't an excuse for not being ABLE to play accurately. And certainly don't justify playing the hard bits slower than the easy bits!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.