So, a keyboard is like a metaphor for...21 guitars?
November 22, 2007 2:53 PM   Subscribe

How can a keyboard represent a guitar?!

As a total musical novice who has never played an instrument and knows absolutely nothing about how music is made, I decided to open up GarageBand on my Mac and try to make a song for fun.

The first thing that's blowing my mind is that you start off with a clickable piano keyboard, and can switch modes to a computer's keyboard for "musical typing". But when you change instruments to, say, a guitar or a flute, the metaphor remains a piano keyboard! And the "musical typing" thingie still has the same number of usable keyboard keys, ASDFGHJKL;' plus the black keys WETYUOP. That's like 17 keys, and if you click the thingy on the top you can move the blue focus thing and make all the keys sound different...I assume this means you're moving to a different part of the full piano or something.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but a guitar has like four or six strings. A piano keyboard has, oh, more than a hundred strings, right? Isn't there way more information here than a guitar is actually capable of expressing? So what the hell? I was thinking I would only get maybe six keys I can push on my keyboard if I switched to guitar, but I get the same number of keys and they all still work and make sounds. Furthermore, if I switch to the "picture of a piano" mode, I can drag my mouse across the entire keyboard of 100+keys, and they all make guitar-ey sounds.

I feel like I'm missing some very basic concept. Can you help me understand what's going on?
posted by evariste to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Guitar strings are pressed down in specific spots to create many tones from a single string.
posted by Krrrlson at 2:58 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: Don't think in terms of strings and keys, think in terms of notes.

On a piano, each string plays only one note.

On a guitar, each string can play roughly 24 notes, depending upon where it is fretted.

The piano keyboard interface is just a simple way of making it easy for you to assign one note to one key.
posted by googly at 3:00 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: Guitars have frets on the neck so that every string is capable of playing one note when its open (ie, when you're not pressing down on the string) and a slightly higher note for every fret you hold the string down on. there is something like 15-20 frets on for each string, each fret effectively represents one key on a piano, so over 6 strings you're going to have pretty much the full range of notes that a piano can play.

The keyboard is just a graphically easy way to represent notes, as each note comes one after the other, in order, unlike a guitar neck which has the notes staggered accross each string.

If guitars could only play six notes each then there probably wouldn't be so many damn guitarists in the world.

Sorry if I ramble a bit. I hope I made some sense. Undoubtedly there'll be some other mefite who will explain it way better than I can.
posted by robotot at 3:02 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: Each piano key strikes a single string of a certain tension and length to create a certain pitch. Guitar strings are held down at intervals to create different tensions/lenghths and thus create a different pitch. A guitar may have less than 88 different notes, but it's certainly capable of expressing a fairly wide range of chromatic notes.

Think of it in terms of music notation. Middle C, for example, can be played by most instruments. On the guitar, it's the first fret on the second-highest string; on the piano it's... well, the white key beside the two black keys in the middle of the row of keys. *has no clue how to describe it*. The piano metaphor simply lets you choose which note you want to sound.
posted by Phire at 3:03 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: On not-preview, what everyone else said.
posted by Phire at 3:04 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: the piano metaphor remains because it's probably easier to just have one thing for you to click on. (plus, for the most part, any actual device you'd be plugging in to the computer to make noise will have a piano-style keyboard on it.) the piano keyboard also has the distinction of being able to support any note you could play with most any other instrument. what you're doing with musical typing (and this is similar to what you'd do with a keyboard that has less than the full 108 keys a normal piano has) is changing the octave.

each instrument has a range of notes it can play (fwiw, the number of strings itself is fairly irrelevant - your typical guitar has 6 strings but can play far more than 6 notes), and Garage Band's software instruments contain samples (literally, small recordings) of the instrument at various key notes, and it generates the other notes itself. you can actually kinda tell when you've run past what the instrument itself can do as it was recorded because the notes will start to sound all weird. (for example, on a real piano, you can play notes lower than I can play on a standard guitar with standard tuning.)
posted by mrg at 3:07 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: Addendum:

Also, remember that the program you are using is just an interface that allows you to trigger different prerecorded sounds. So don't think as if there is a "guitar" instrument and a "flute" instrument buried somewhere in the program, and the keyboard 'translates' those instruments into a piano. Rather, there are a bunch of files like "flute - A sharp, octave 1" "guitar - A sharp, octave 1," "piano - A sharp, octave 1," etc. on your drive, each of which plays a single note. The keyboard just triggers one or another, depending on the parameters you choose.

Yes, its actually more complicated than this, but I simplified it to make it clearer.
posted by googly at 3:12 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: A piano keyboard has, oh, more than a hundred strings, right?

Phire alluded to this, but normal pianos have 88 keys.
posted by IvyMike at 3:18 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: Phire alluded to this, but normal pianos have 88 keys.

and about 230 strings (wires).
posted by sexymofo at 3:42 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: A standard-tuning 6-string electric guitar spans between 3.5 and 4 octaves (you need a 24th fret to get the 4th octave.) A standard 88-key piano spans about 7.3 octaves. On the guitar there are multiple places (fingerings) to play some of those notes; on a piano there is only one place to play a given note.

Here's something that will blow your mind: You can actually get a MIDI pickup for your guitar and use it to control an electronic keyboard. You play a C# on the guitar, the pickup senses it, converts it into digital information, sends an electronic signal to the keyboard, and the keyboard plays a keyboard C#. With tricky things like footpedals you can actually access the entire piano keyboard through your guitar if you choose to set it up that way.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:04 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: What ikkyu2 said. The lowest note on a guitar (standard tuning) is the E below the bass clef, although it is traditionally notated an octave above that as the E below middle C. The highest note commonly found on a guitar is the E 4 octaves above that.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:17 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: You can also play a MIDI guitar with a clarinet-like wind controller, and a clarinet sound with a keyboard. They're just notes, and you can trigger them however you feel most comfortable.

Adding a guitar-looking graphic probably wouldn't help anyone; it would be confusing and annoying to program with a mouse or a qwerty keyboard, even for an adept guitarist. The piano is the simplest way of displaying and controlling the notes.
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:44 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: The piano is the simplest way of displaying and controlling the notes on-screen.
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:45 PM on November 22, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I had no idea the guitar could express that many notes!

I guess I'll mark all your answers "best answer", since pretty much everyone answered my question.
posted by evariste at 8:28 PM on November 22, 2007

Best answer: I'm late to the party, but I guess that's the perfect time to go a bit off-topic. First, though, just in case it wasn't patently clear, I'd like to over-simplify on the explanation front. If you play an open string -- plucking it without touching the neck of the instrument -- the entire length of that string vibrates, producing a note. When you press down on the string with the fingers of your left hand, you are, in effect, shortening the string. If you press down on the string two inches from the top of the neck, when you pluck it, the bit that vibrates is two inches shorter. The shorter the string becomes, the higher the note it produces when plucked. Frets help to ensure that you're shortening the string to the precise length needed to make a particular note.

I'm curious, evariste: how did you think guitar players made music? I assume that you've seen guitars being played, either live or in videos... the musicians are obviously doing something fiddly with their left hands on the neck of the instrument, and the songs obviously have more than 6 different notes in them. Or is that not obvious to you? Please don't think me rude... I was pretty much raised on stringed instruments, so I've always had a fairly mechanical understanding of how notes are produced. I'd be fascinated to know how you imagined a violin or guitar worked before this evening.
posted by mumkin at 12:26 AM on November 23, 2007

You can also play a MIDI guitar with a clarinet-like wind controller

In the future, all music will be made by the EWI.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:48 AM on November 23, 2007

Response by poster: mumkin, I don't think you rude, although I'm not sure how to answer your question. The main concept I was missing was that of notes and frets. I think I just didn't really get that the frets changed the note the string was issuing, and that there were enough frets for a guitar to be able to rival a piano in expressiveness even though it has a lot fewer strings.

how did you think guitar players made music?

With magic. Basically, I don't really understand how you get music to come out of an instrument. Or more precisely, how to put music into an instrument. After all, my understanding of how a piano works was far closer to correct than my understanding of how a guitar works, but I still couldn't make a piano in front of me sound pleasant and create a coherent pleasant melody for the life of me (I've tried before with a real piano, although very briefly).

I'd love to somehow learn to make my own music though, which is why I've been messing with GarageBand. Maybe I just need to bite the bullet, pick some instrument, buy it, and hire a teacher? I don't know. I was hoping to at least start to understand how to create songs by trial and error with GarageBand.
posted by evariste at 1:20 AM on November 23, 2007

Response by poster: I get what a note is, it's a particular sound. But I have a feeling that's like knowing what a letter is, which doesn't really get me very far. I want to learn how to say words, then how to tell my own stories. I'm guessing what's called chords are the words, right? And chords are just a group of notes that are played together in a recognizable way?

I know when you're learning a new concept, having a bad metaphor can be counterproductive and send you down the wrong way. Is that letter/word/note/chord a bad set of metaphors that I should discard, or a good start? Is there some other concept that will help me understand what makes music sound like music and not just noise?
posted by evariste at 1:28 AM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: I really wouldn't take the letters/words analogy too far. I don't see that it's a very good one. But you're right that a chord is simply two notes played simultaneously. That's not really the same as a word that's composed of multiple letters though, because it emphasizes the order of the letters, whereas what really matters is the intervals (spacing) between the notes.

Go download the Music Animation Machine and play some midi files, or better just watch some on youtube. Left to right is the time axis, and up and down is the pitch axis.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:02 AM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

s/a chord is simply two notes/a chord is simply two or more notes/
posted by Rhomboid at 3:10 AM on November 23, 2007

(Actually, Rhomboid, a chord is three or more notes.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 3:42 AM on November 23, 2007

This metal player's power chord disagrees.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:09 AM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: "Is there some other concept that will help me understand what makes music sound like music and not just noise?"

The absolute best explanation I've seen for the different elements of music is in the opening chapters of This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin. The later chapters get into the underlying neuroscience of how our brains process music, but you can skip those if you're only interested in the musician's perspective. (Note - nothing in that book will tell you how to play music, but it will help you understand the concepts so that you can understand what you're looking at when you open a book of music theory or start learning an instrument.)
posted by tdismukes at 5:53 AM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: The traditional definition of a chord is 3 or more notes, making power chord something of a misnomer.

evariste - music theory, or the study of harmony, is what you want to have a basic grasp of. The lessons at are clearly presented and make a great start.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all very much.
posted by evariste at 12:54 PM on November 23, 2007

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