Shane Harms
Kevin McCarthy playing “Let It Go” in the Illuminating Piano.

Magnolia inventor creates new piano instruction system

“ ‘Piano Man’ is probably one of the most difficult songs in our library, but you’re doing a pretty good job,” said Kevin McCarthy, of McCarthy Music and inventor of the Illuminating Piano.

With very minimal experience on the keys, this reporter managed to string a few notes in Billy Joel’s melody and had a mighty fine time doing it. That’s a result of McCarthy’s new machine that is changing the way people learn to play the piano by way of a dynamic system of hardware and software.

McCarthy is an inventor with a background in software development. He lives in Magnolia. McCarthy Music introduced the system at the National Association of Music Merchants last month, and since then the system has gathered attention from instructors, students and hobbyists.

“We found that technology is incredibly engaging to people. We didn’t first set out to design a hardware and software system; we wanted to find the simplest way for people to have fun learning to play the piano.”

McCarthy set out to learn the keys five years ago and right away noticed the challenges that gave him the idea for the Illuminated Piano.

“It’s a difficult concept (learning to play piano) especially when you have a piece of paper and a keyboard, and you’re trying figure out where the notes are that you are supposed to be playing and how they should sound in conjunction with the other notes on the score. … So we set out to build hardware the provides just that.”

The system is a 61-key keyboard (or USB mini-controller) that connects wirelessly to an iPad or PC via Bluetooth. The keyboard is compact and made from aluminum. It has the look of a real piano with weights in the keys that give the sense one is playing a real piano. The LED lights in the keys are essential to the learning process. The lights illuminate in synchrony with musical scores as they are played. Meanwhile the score is displayed on an iPad or PC, guiding users through the music.

The main concept for the system is to make learning to play the piano gratifying and progressively successful for everyone, no matter the skill level. There are different modes in the system that helps users play their favorite songs. For instance, “Listen Mode” allows users to watch the music as it’s played.

“The idea is you can see how the music is supposed to be played and hear how it’s supposed to sound. … Hardware integrates with software and guides students through the song, showing the musical score and the finger notations as they play.”

There is a “loop” option that is similar to GarageBand in that a user can repeat or cycle through a selected portion of a musical score, honing their practice needs.

“It’s like Garage Band, but we think it’s a much better system for learning because you have feedback from the hardware as well.”

Indeed. Keys turn green when played correctly and flash red when the wrong note is hit. Users have an option for practicing with just one hand while the software plays the music for the other, or, for the more advanced user, both hands at the same time.

Once users feel they have mastered a score, they can test their ability with “Performance Mode.”

What is also helpful for learning is that the Illuminating Piano records users practice times and the music they have practiced. With that information it creates a “heat map” that shows problematic areas.

“The heat map shows a user and or maybe their instructor where they need to spend extra time practicing.”

The system also rewards users as they learn more songs by automatically assigning stars to each musical score as users progress in their performance.

McCarthy pulled up the song, “Let It Go,” from Disney’s “Frozen.” He said it is one of his daughter’s favorite songs to play.

“This is a pretty complex song to play, and it’s really cool to see it played out on the system.” McCarthy let the song play, and lights flashed along the keyboard as the score moved through the music.

McCarthy’s system uses the first digital score rendering that allows users to zoom in and navigate around the score. McCarthy said young users might want to look closely at the scores while they are first getting used to reading notes. The software uses MusicXML, which is a way to communicate digital musical information.

Digital musical information is not the only thing being shared. The illuminating Piano also offers an in-app purchasing system that allows users to find new songs to play. McCarthy scrolled through a huge list that included Rock favorites like Billy Joel and The Beatles to Classical composers like Beethoven and Bach. Access to the score is provided by a partnership McCarthy Music has with a company called Hal Leonard, which is the largest publisher of sheet music in the world, and provides users access to fifty thousand scores. “If someone buys our product and sees something they don’t like they can search for different songs. If it exists we can load it into here (app).” The added access to songs is on top of 1,000 musical scores offered with the system.

The Beatles, “Hey Jude” is one song available in the collection and this reporter attempted his own rendering of the song. The system guided each note with blooms of light under the keys as McCartney’s music trilled. Slowly, the keys being clumsily touched began to match the melody being heard.

“You’re having fun and your engaged, and that’s part of the idea. With piano instruction it’s about having fun right away. It’s a hobby, right? In the olden days people would force you to do all this work before you could ever have any fun, and so what we are trying to do is make it that you are feeling good about yourself with a little bit of effort. So if you have this at home – you made some progress, you played some of ‘Hey Jude’ – you will be more engaged and likely to try again.”

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.