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Just wondering what pianists think about synthesia. You can type Synthesia followed by just about any song name you can think of on Youtube. ex "Synthesia bach minuet in g" and you'll get a Synthesia video that shows you exactly how to play it. I try to mainly figure songs out by ear so when I use Synthesia I feel like I'm "cheating", nonetheless it helps me sometimes. But is it bad practice to use or is it respected and used by advanced musicians for learning songs?

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    It's about the same as learning to speak a language vs. learning phrases from a phrase book. It can help you order your breakfast, but people can be disappointed when they realize that breakfast is all you can talk about. – Kilian Foth Feb 7 '18 at 8:38
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It isn’t bad practice. However you win your war you win. Whether it is the best idea or not in the long term depends on your goals. Just like learning guitar music with tabs rather than traditional notation there are advantages and disadvantages.

Some obvious advantages include:

  • You don’t have to learn standard notation now

  • You get to hear the song while you go along

  • What ever other reasons you can think of for why you do it now.

The disadvantages are numerous.

  • you can only learn pieces that somebody bothers to prepare for YouTube. While you think just about any song is there I am willing to bet that that’s not true. Also there would probably be only one or two arrangements of the song.

  • you aren’t necessarily exposing yourself to technique building exercises. You might be but assuming you rely on this format only I doubt you’ll be doing many scales and études

  • You’ll be limited in what you can play with other musicians or even strangers. By learning standard notation and conventional methods for you chosen genre and instrument you develop the ability to get started with others with relative ease. Guitar players generally know how to follow a song by ear. Jazz players generally know how to follow a lead sheet etc.

  • Time - the biggest most significant disadvantage. Using any non written prerecorded format for learning music severely slows you down. If you miss something you have to manually use whatever interface to seek the point you missed. And repeating sections can only happen at the pace of the playback. Jumping along to similar passages based on similarity is slow. When reading you can basically instantly get to any point you want. You can also get an ‘Aerial view’ that would allow you to spot patterns and such.

If none of those advantages matter to you and you only want the easy way now so you can play a short piece for a talent show or something then you have the right tool in Synthesia.

Otherwise you really should put in the effort now and learn to at least kind of read written music. You’ll be better for it in the medium/long term.

As for the respect part... I don't know for sure but I am willing to bet ‘serious musicians’ would shake their heads in disapproval. That’s an obvious generalization but the music world is pretty well known for snobbery of all types. I recommend you don’t worry about that.

When you are performing a piece literally nobody in the audience cares how you learned it. They just care how you play it there and then.

Edit Apparently it just uses MIDI files. Which reduces the impact of the first disadvantage. However one must still be able to either find MIDI files or prepare them for themselves. If you're going to go through the effort of converting transcribed music to MIDI, you'll be at least learning the note names of standard notation.

  • I remember having seen notation very similar to tablature on ancient partitions (Baroque or Renaissance IIRC), which makes it quite unclear to me what you understand as traditional notation. ;) – Michael Le Barbier Grünewald Feb 7 '18 at 10:39
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    Regarding the first disadvantage, note that we can also generate such videos from MIDI file, which can be generated from music notation software such as Musescore. So at least it has slightly more available songs than just those on Youtube, which now includes songs available in some music notation software. =) (also there is also Linthesia, a free version of Synthesia for Linux, if price is a concern). – justhalf Feb 7 '18 at 11:55
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    @Michael Le Barbier Grünewald I'm a big fan of tabs myself. I find them easier to read and just as information rich as standard notation. I'm making a case for written notation in general. I wish tabs were more popular, they're the bees knees. I've never seen what you describe. Have any links? – xerotolerant Feb 7 '18 at 12:31
  • @justhalf I put an edit in there, thanks for the info. I figured it used midi, because why wouldn't it? But the op didn't mention it so I assumed I was missing something. – xerotolerant Feb 7 '18 at 12:32
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    @xerotolerant Wikipedia but I am not so much into that stuff that I can provide easily more example, but they exist. (My comment was a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour BTW ;) ) Also I think that baroque musicians used something similar to accord numbering, esp. for harpsichord accompaniment – but I was not able to find pictures displaying this again. – Michael Le Barbier Grünewald Feb 7 '18 at 13:04
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Synthesia is a program that plays and visualizes MIDI notes as "piano roll". The MIDI file itself is created based on a (supposedly original) sheet music, or otherwise arranged by its creator.

As a self-learner, between a sheet music and Synthesia, I'd separate learning into 3 types:

  • Sheet music: I think most won't argue that this is the best media to use if you want to learn and play a music. Sheet music is very expressive with their musical notations (e.g. dynamics, tempo, articulations), that are usually lost when translated into a MIDI file (read: the expressions themselves aren't lost per se, but human players will have a hard time to guess if a note is a staccato or just a very short 1/32 note.)
  • MIDI file: For auditory learners, MIDI file can help translate the sheet music into a sound that auditory players can "see" in their mind (or alternatively, "play by ear"). Players might be able to play the music without having the skill to read sheet music. However, they are locked into a certain playstyle depending on the creator of the MIDI file.
  • Synthesia/MIDI visualizer: For visual learners, these programs might certainly help them to know which notes to play without knowing to read the sheet music at all! However, just like with MIDI files, they are now locked into a certain playstyle; they won't know if a group of 5 notes is actually a trill, or actually just as-is on the sheet music (while Synthesia is capable of showing a sheet music based on MIDI, it's still only based on the final MIDI data. Compared to music notation softwares, it isn't capable to show musical notation like trills). Worse, Synthesia only shows the piano roll without any volume/tempo marking. This will only help them to know which notes to play, but not how.

My conclusion is, learn and read from sheet music, use MIDI file and/or Synthesia to help you, but don't fully depend on them.

As for "respect by advanced musicians", I don't have any data and can't answer that.

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As far as "respect by advanced musicians" goes. I know a few. Not many of them have heard of Synthesia, and those that have think it's "a cool idea, but I wouldn't use it." Judging by its original name, Piano Hero, Synthesia is meant to be a piano version of Guitar Hero. So, can you learn guitar through Guitar Hero? Somewhat, yes, but not fully. If you plan to have piano as a career, avoid Synthesia unless you are using it as a game, like you would Guitar Hero. If you are just an amateur pianist and want to learn how to play a few songs on your own, go ahead and use Synthesia. The other answers are quite helpful on this subject as well, going into more depth on the pros and cons of Synthesia.

TL;DR: If you want to play with a band, don't use Synthesia. If you want to learn a couple songs, and only that, use Synthesia. if you want a career in music, don't use Synthesia.

Post-Scriptum: If you learn to read sheet music, and/or play by ear, you can learn songs much faster than you can through Synthesia. I myself can learn a basic song through sheet music in under 3 hours. I can master it in a month. Using Synthesia, I could never master it, and it would take me weeks to learn it.

  • "So, can you learn guitar through Guitar Hero? Somewhat, yes, but not fully." Pointing out that Guitar Hero does not teach guitar, notes, or any type of music at all. ".. they're just little plastic controllers. You hit the colored buttons and it makes the guitar track on the game play." – Patrick Feb 7 '18 at 21:51
  • I have to agree with @Patrick here. Perhaps if you want to compare with the guitar/bass counterpart, there's Rocksmith which simulates... at least more than 5 buttons. Still, you got the point that these games are not the best learning tools. – Andrew T. Feb 8 '18 at 2:32
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I can offer my perspective as an old school music gamer and amateur musician. I began playing (konami) music games in the arcade before you could play these things at home. The difference is back then it was a full body experience. The first game I played was called "Para Para Paradise", which is more of a "dance to the symbols" type of game. Within a couple of years I was a high level DDR player and I competed in national tourneys with my feet. I ended up spending about 10k in dollar coins playing DDR during my college years.

Synthesia is basically a more refined UI on the Konami Keyboardmania game system. The mechanics are exactly the same. The arcade version of Keyboardmania even had a pretty decent electric keyboard, though the number of keys was quite limited. I remember playing against real-world pianists in that game, and being blown away. I could never move my fingers that fast; I was a DDR kid.

But in the context of your question, I think I can answer unequivocally NO, I do not believe that you can really figure out songs this way. And there is a fundamental reason why.

At a high level of play there are a lot of players that can do things like memorize very complex songs and even play them backwards (i.e. with the keys reversed, and hands behind the back). The reason they can do this is the brain is only really responding to one stimulus at a time: the next key, or the next pattern. It's like memorising a speech from cue cards. You can do it, sure, but a lot of fluency is lost in the process. You're reciting the cue card... you're not actually "owning" the whole performance.

In order to own a performance it has to have a level of improvisation, it has to be based off your own "feel" of the music. Memorizing music tracking software has the effect of "dulling" the song, reducing it to notes. "Well people memorise music tablature all the time! How is it any different than that?" you might ask. And you're right, it's virtually the same. There is a little bit more subtlety in music tablature, but ultimately if you're playing music off of tabs you're also not really "getting it". The real understanding happens when you forget about the tabs and let your mind take control. Tabs also have the additional benefit that they have abstracted the form. Music tracking software is so literal and so explicit in its visualization that it leaves nothing to the brain to figure out, and I believe that makes the brain more dependent on the software and less able to understand the actual music. It seems easier because it is easier, only you don't want it to be easy. You want to learn the music.

  • so, what's the solution, playing by ear? – foreyez May 27 '18 at 22:52
  • Repetition and study. Copying other people's music is not an exercise in musical expression, so if your goal is to copy a work faithfully, all that is required is that you see the patterns as they are. This requires a familiarity with the patterns in the first place, which are all derived from basic structures. Repeating and fully understanding "basic" musical structures reveals more advanced structures; makes them feel "obvious". You are playing by ear in the sense that you rely on your ear for judgement, but you ear must be trained at a level that it can recognize appropriate patterns. – Gavin Jun 5 '18 at 18:53
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No, 'advanced musicians' would prefer to see the sheet music. Synthesia would be considered a very cumbersome method. There may be occasions however where a notated version of a particular song was not easily available, Synthesia would certainly be better than nothing! So thank you for bringing it to our attention.

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I believe as long as you're able to learn a song, then you're good. In my case, I can read sheet music perfectly fine, but I can learn songs much faster by listening to them and using Synthesia. This is not cheating as long as you learn the song right.

Now, since I find it harder to read sheet music, I can do daily sight-reading exercises to help improve my skills. What I recommend is to learn all the main songs you want to learn any way that is the best for you, and find a small and simple score online once a day to help you with sight-reading. Just look at the score for a minute or two, and get an understanding of the notes, the fingerings, the articulations, and the dynamics. Then, play the song slowly to see how it sounds. You may mess up quite a bit, or maybe not. It all depends on your sight-reading skills and the difficulty of the score. Also, if you feel it would help further, take another few minutes to learn how to play the song a little better until you learn it (I don't follow this approach because I want to expand my ability of being able to learn how to play a song the first time. Afterwards, it's just fine-tuning, and then later, nitpicking.).

Also, when it comes to Synthesia, I like it when it also shows the player's hands while the notes scroll down. I don't think these are as common online, but it helps me understand how I can play the song with my hands. It's almost like reading fingering numbers on your sheet music.

That's my advice. Happy playing!

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