One of the things that is attractive to many users about mobile computing platforms is the fact that you can find lots of simple software. Unlike on the desktop, where your average application, as well as allowing you to type a letter, also allows you to email it 500 clients, translate it into 40 different languages, publish it as an e-book and make a hotel reservation for you, quite often apps just focus on one task.
Not all apps mind…. but those that do, and do it well, are just a pleasure to use. No bells, no whistles, just the job in hand done with little fuss or clutter. Navichord (UK£0.69) – an iPad-only app released a couple of weeks ago by developer Denis Kutuzov – is a case in point. This iOS music app is designed to do one job – it allows the user to explore chord structures and progressions and possible melodic association – but the design is so simple and elegant that, even though it is more of an educational tool or idea pad, rather than an actual musical instrument (at present at least), it is a pleasure to use.
Normally, I try to make sure there are lots of screenshots included in my reviews. However, with Navichord that is both difficult and, to some extent, unnecessary. There is only one main display and, aside from buttons so you can connect to the developers Twitter and Facebook presence, no other hidden options to access other than what can be seen on this single display.
Now, I know nothing about accordions, but my first look at Navichord – with its virtual piano keyboard at the base of the screen and the pattern of note (and, as we will see in a minute, chord) buttons in the upper portion of the screen – did remind me of that instrument’s control set. So, how does this rather simple-looking Navichord display work and what does it allow you to do?
Let’s start with the keyboard. This can be played like a normal (virtual) piano keyboard and, as you trigger notes, you get both a rather gentle (but very pleasant) piano sound and each key lights up as it is held. If the combination of notes happens to represent a formal chord that Navichord can recognise (it has a built-in chord library) then the root note of the chord will light up in yellow and, at the very top-centre of the display, you will see the chord label appear. There seem to be quite a good selection of chords that the app can recognise so, even if you get quite esoteric in your chordal harmonies, Navichord ought to be able to keep up.
As you play notes on the keyboard, those same notes also light up within the upper portion of the display and, again, if a chord is recognised, the root note is shown in yellow here also. You can also trigger notes in this upper portion of the display simply by tapping on the note buttons.
Given that there is a perfectly good (if virtual) piano keyboard at the base of the screen, you might wonder why anyone might choose to ‘play’ notes using the very neat but, at first sight, somewhat random looking collection of note buttons in the upper portion of the display. Of course, aside from the two shades of grey to distinguish the ‘white’ notes from the ‘black’ notes, this pattern of buttons is actually very far from being random. Indeed, it is an arrangement that, when it comes to voicing chords, is actually rather clever….
This upper portion of the display can be used to voice basic three-note (triad) chords with a single finger. If you tap in the space between a set of three notes, you will get a chord build on those three notes. And, given the way the notes are arranged in this grid, if you tap in the space represented by an upwards pointing triangle then you get a simple major chord while, in contrast, if you tap in the space between a downwards pointing triangle, then you get a minor chord.
In both cases, the root note of the chord will be the left-hand note of the two notes that either form the base (major chord) or top (minor chord) of the chord triangle respectively. Once you get your head around this basic concept, finding any particular major or minor chord is a doddle. And what you also soon realise is that chords commonly used together in a specific key are actually positioned close together in the gird.
However, one-fingered, triangle shaped, major and minor chords are not all you can do. If you use a second finger while playing a basic ‘chord triangle’ then you can create 7th, maj 7th, m7, add 9 and a few others besides (especially for the jazz types!). Equally, if you play three adjacent notes along a diagonal, you get either a diminished or an augmented chord depending upon which direction the diagonal runs in. In fact, any combination of finger presses can be used in this upper grid and, even if you don’t really know what you are doing, Navichord will tell you if you have struck lucky and, if it exists in its library, will ‘name that chord’ for you.
In practice, the best way to ‘play’ Navichord is to voice your chords with one, two, three or more fingers in the upper portion of the display and then pick out a melody on the virtual keyboard. The beauty of this is that, because the keyboard highlights the notes being used within the chord, no matter how harmonically complex that chord is, you get some guidance as to which notes are most certainly going to sound ‘in tune’. You can, of course, still hit a duff note but, for novice musicians – or those just learning the basics of music and harmonic theory – this is a really neat tutorial tool.
There are a number of iOS music apps that provide musicians with more of an educational experience than a performance one…. Navichord is another good example of that and it makes excellent use of the touchscreen in its design. The internal piano sound is decent so it is a very pleasant and relaxing way to learn about chords and explore some chord sequences.
And for my next trick?
All of which is great but, having said Navichord is an excellent example of an app that does just one thing but does it very well, you do wonder whether developer Denis Kutuzov might have a few other tricks up his sleeve and ready to be implemented in the app. Not so many tricks to distract from the simplicity and elegance of the app… but just two or three extras that could build on the clever interface and allow users to exploit it in other ways.
In fact, Denis has hinted that new features may be on the way in the App Store description and the obvious addition that could take the app beyond educational and into the performance bracket would be MIDI out. If you could send the note data generated from the interface out to another iOS music app, then, rather like Chordion or ChordPolyPad, Navichord could make quite a good MIDI performance tool.
In order to make that work, however, it would also be good to see the upper grid of buttons have some sort of octave structure. At present, wherever you generate (for example) an F chord, you get the same chord. If the octave in which the chord was generated was somehow related to the vertical position (that is, which row of buttons) that you tap within, then that would be good.
More tricky, and this is not just tricky for Navichord but for all the touchscreen MIDI performance apps, is how you get the app to generate MIDI velocity data. I’m not sure there is a single way that this can be done that is obviously ‘better’ but it would be interesting to see what Denis could come up with on this front. Fingers crossed he will be able to keep the development work moving forward and we can soon find out :-)
Navichord is both simple and beautifully executed. As it stands, it is a very elegant means by which you can experiment with chords and chord sequences and, as such, lots of iOS musicians would, I’m sure, find this to be a useful educational and creative app. It is certainly a pleasure to explore.
And, at UK£0.69, I’m not sure we have any right to expect it to be any more than that (indeed, at this price, it does more than we have any right to expect already). However.if you have some chump change stuck down the back of the sofa, then give an indie developer a bit of support and, in the process, get a helping hand with your chord construction (if required). This is a lovely little app and I’m already looking forward to seeing where it might go next.