Playing by ear is truly an enviable skill. To be able to just hear something then play it yourself is almost like a super-power to many a musical layman. With enough time and practice I could probably develop such an ability too, but come on. I got too many ice cream and animal dating games to write about already.

So I rely on computers to do it for me. There are a variety of software applications on desktop computers that can take a song and at least attempt to break it down into its components, but they can be rather complicated and difficult to use. Now Casio has come out with an iOS app called Chordana Viewer that can reverse engineer songs right on your Apple device for piano or guitar.

Chordana Viewer sells for 1,000 yen (US$10) on the App Store which seems reasonable for what it claims to offer. Japanese Electronic Music gear website DTM Station gave it a glowing review, but customer comments were widely mixed. Here’s a sample:

“I’m a guitar beginner. Because it’s on a smart phone it’s very handy. This saved me because I can’t play by ear.”
“I’ve used software on the PC that cost around 15,000 yen ($147) but this analyses just as well. It’s also satisfying that you can carry it around with you… There are no apps like it.”
“For music lovers you’ll lose track of time.”
“For jazz it’s almost useless.”
“I didn’t expect this to analyze complex jazz chords when I bought it but this can even do rock songs.”
“I cannot use this at all. I want my money back.”

I decided to try out a song I already knew to see how well it worked. Unfortunately this already presented a small but kind of annoying problem. Chordana Viewer could only import songs from the iOS music library – no Dropbox support or mic-in options. Since I didn’t feel like going through all the trouble of editing a playlist and syncing my iPad I just went with Where Is My Mind? by The Pixies since it was available.

For what it does you might expect the analysis to take a long time, but on a 4th generation iPad it was easily under a minute for most (if not every) song.

From there you are presented with two parts. The top lists out the chords as Chordana sees it from the data. The bottom is a piano that you can use to test out the chords and play along.

However, since I was using a guitar I switched to that instrument. The chords were pretty similar to the song I knew. The software constantly tries to find chords so even the beginning of the song where Frank Black goes “Ooooh” registers as a Cm. You can play the song and watch the chord diagrams flash by on the screen.

With that successful run, I ventured into a song I had never learned before and loaded up E-Bow the Letter by REM. I figured a song with an easily distinguishable guitar would work the best. Sure enough, the chords that came up sounded pretty accurate. The Gm seemed a little odd, but by touching the chord other suggestions come up. There’s also an option to just add in any chord if you think the computer is way off. Basically the analysis is meant to be a starting point and you’re supposed to fill in the rest yourself.

So far, Chordana Viewer has been working out rather well. It takes a little getting used to but the interface was fairly easy. However, I was throwing it softballs up until now. Next, I loaded A Day In The Life by The Beatles. I always wanted to learn those subtle little guitar parts buried under the piano but had been too lazy to look it up.

The chords seemed kind of right but the timing didn’t. The software allows you to switch between time signatures that can yield better results, but I couldn’t really get the right sound on this one even after switching through all of them.

Looking at other songs more and more weaknesses began to appear. The chords seem limited to open position and a few barre chords up to the sixth fret or so. I could be totally wrong here, but I doubt Rage Against the Machine used an open Dm in Know Your Enemy.

Even if the guitar was prevalent in the song, there were problems with power chords and different tunings. However, with some effort it still makes for a good starting point if you’re unable to pick anything by ear otherwise. Changing the key and/or time signature may do the trick at times, or you could just transpose the same chords into different positions yourself, either way you’d have to be patient.

If you download Chordana Viewer expecting it to magically teach you exactly how to play any song, then you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. That being said, it’s a cheap tool that can come in very handy if you’re trying to learn a song which you can’t find the sheet music or tab for.

Even beyond practicing an instrument this app could be used alone for making your own songs and samples for other works or just doodling around when you bored. It’s got a pretty good tempo adjuster that slows down the song to 50% its original speed while maintaining the pitch, and there’s a fair bit of other options to have fun with as well if you get a creative urge.

For example, I was thinking it would be fun to take a recording of ambient noise somewhere like a restaurant or train and see what weird chord progressions Chordana Viewer would make out of it. I probably would have done that already if I could just go through the iPad’s mic rather than stupid iTunes.

Bottom line: It’s a fun tool, but you get out of this app what you put into it. Perhaps as time goes on the technology will improve and even casual users can get into it more.

Source: Chordana Viewer, DTM Station (Japanese)
Chordana Viewer: iTunes Store
Images: RocketNews24
Video: YouTube – CasioJapanOfficial