A Piano Teacher’s thoughts on Rock Band 3’s Keytar

In short… it’s a blast, highly recommended for those who understand music theory.  For everyone else… it has a very steep learning curve.

Here’s the skinny.  I love video games and I love to play music.  Harmonic’s Rock Band series blends the two together in a creative way.  In their previous installments, music was placed on the side-lines for the sake of button-mashing goodness.  They left me thinking, pretty fun but nothing like the real thing.

Being a musician and a piano teacher has always pointed me towards the, “just take real drum/guitar/singing lessons” school of thought.  Notwithstanding, the drums and vocals in the first two games were pretty close to the real thing.  Even if you can sing the right notes however, taking voice lessons will teach you the proper way to shape the note.  Sounding like a real singer is much harder then it seems.

The Drums were pretty much legit though, yet you only learned how to play them.  Why the rhythms worked out has yet to be explained (perhaps they do a better job of this in Rock Band 3). This alone gives music teachers the edge over Harmonics toy drum set.

Rock Band 1 and 2 are fun games for non-musicians to enjoy the feel of an instrument, but they aren’t the real thing.

Harmonics has since stepped it up with the recently release of Rock Band 3 for Xbox 360, Wii, and Play Station 3.  Here you have the option to learn from a real guitar…

…and a real two-octave keytar.

I’ll be talking about the keytar here.

First off its a well-done design.  The keys are the exact size of real piano keys.  They aren’t weighted to mimic the heavy touch of a real piano, yet they feel very natural to me, comparable to the soft touch of an organ.

I played three songs: Imagine by the Beatles, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, and Fly Like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band.  All were played on the highest difficulty setting, pro-keys, expert.

Harmonics has spent a lot of time working out the actual notes of the songs, and it shows.  I was more than impressed with the result.  All the notes are legit, or rather as legit as a double-octave keyboard can be.  The hardest song I played, Bohemian Rhapsody was indeed a trying ordeal.  I think I only hit about 10 or 20 % of the notes, yet I found myself wanting to play the song over and over until I got it right.  Knowing chord structures and fingering has helped me greatly in accomplishing this.

After playing the simpler tune of Imagine I went over to a piano and played it note for note, just as Rock Band 3 had taught me.  My favorite song to play was Fly Like an Eagle. It showed me a few things about rock organ technique that I had always wondered about.  Keep in mind that Rock Band 3 does not teach you proper notation.  It has evolved with its own.  I found it surprisingly easy to pick up, yet it was a bit lacking on detail.  You learn what to play without knowing why you play it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole section dedicated to tutorials concerning music theory.  I did one of them which helped you play the various pentatonic scales.  It didn’t tell you what a pentatonic scale was (its a five note scale used in Chinese music and black spirituals) but it did show you how to play them.  There were others I didn’t have time to play through.  Read the comment below by Brian to get a better impression of that.  All of you wanting to learn how to play the piano should spend some time in the tutorials.

This is a huge step forward in learning the musical nuances of why things work the way they do.  I applaud Harmonics’ gumption for teaching this.

All in all, in the 30 minutes I was able to play it, Rock Band 3’s keytar was a very rewarding experience.  I’ll even go so far as to call it a pretty good supplement if you can’t afford a piano teacher, and, if you only wish to learn rock band songs.  There were no Beethoven or Mozart sonata’s here (It’s not called Classical Band after all).  I would be curious to see if someone who hasn’t taken piano lessons can learn to play this way.  I think that with some of the easier songs such as Imagine they might.  Of course who knows what the future holds in this new era of gaming.  Perhaps someone will surprise me.

For those who find the pro-keys on expert daunting, they have an easy, normal, medium, and hard setting which I didn’t have time to play with.  Theoretically you can work your way up to the real music keys found in the expert setting I played.  For those who could care less about learning how to really play a piano, switch off the pro-keys and have yourselves a rocking good time.  There it plays much like the Rock Band 1 and 2 guitars.

I don’t own a PS3 or a 360 (I’m a PC sort of guy).  Rock Band 3 gave me a strong desire to go out and get one.  If I do, I’ll be sure to put a more substantial review of this interesting piece of gaming equipment.  Harmonics has me intrigued and, dare I say, hooked on the prospect of learning how to play an instrument through a video game.

On another note: are piano teachers in trouble of losing their jobs?  Give it a few years and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone designed a game system around learning to play the piano, even classical piano.

I don’t think such a system would ever replace piano teachers though.  Teachers will always have one thing these gaming systems lack.  Tutorials can only take you so far before you get stumped.  The ability for a teacher to answer questions is a paramount part of the student’s learning process.  Likewise, many teachers ask their students questions that lead them towards the right way to play a note.  This is one of the best ways for students to learn the hows and the whys of music theory and performance.

And this is where piano teachers like myself come in.

Speaking of which… check out a new blog page of mine: Five Minute Piano lessons

19 thoughts on “A Piano Teacher’s thoughts on Rock Band 3’s Keytar

  1. Very nice review. I’ve been wanting to learn the piano for years and I picked up both the game and the keytar to get me started. I’ve played through half of the lessons and I find them woefully lacking in detail. I’ve been supplementing them with eMedia’s piano teaching software which I find to be a wonderful learning tool although there are still gaps in it as well. Thankfully, my wife grew up playing piano so I’m able to really pick her brain and she shows me proper hand technique.

    So in my experience … nothing replaces the human element. Still, the keytar is a blast. I don’t think I’ll ever return to fake guitar now.

    • Glad your having fun with it. Proper finger technique is really key here (pun intended). It is what separates an actual piano player from a person who is teaching himself. Your wife is invaluable in teaching you this.

      If Rock Band isn’t teaching this well that is a problem… most of my students don’t move their hands around on the piano until they reach the second piano book. They keep them stiff and still in one place. Rock Band has you moving the hands all over the place without teaching you to do that more efficiently. This will cause you to move them in awkward ways, fingers stumbling around each other.

  2. Hello, i hope this isn’t too old and you can answer me the one and only question i’ve been having…. Do all rock band 3 songs have a piano part (or piano adaptation of the real song,or anything at all!) or is the piano quiet and nonexistant in some of them?
    By the way, really good review. Good day

    • Good question. I wondered the same thing for myself, especially in light of the previous Rock Band games which was heavy on the guitar side of things (For obvious reasons).

      In the limited time I was able to play with it, it seems that there were plenty of songs heavy on the piano side. I chose three songs out of a full range of pieces out there. My guess is they went more towards the 70s and early 80s which has a heavy emphasis on electronic keyboards and rock organ. Fly like an Eagle was rock organ, Imagine was simple piano chords, and bohemian rhapsody was very advanced piano playing (though nothing to the degree of a Lizst concerto I might add).

      So in short… there are lots of songs out their, more so than you would think, which highlight the piano/organ/electric keyboard. I hope this answers your question.

      • Thanks for answering.
        It doesn’t fully answer what i want to know (since, sadly, you weren’t able to check a lot of songs) but it helps a lot, and i think you’re right.
        Thank you very much.

      • Not all the songs have a piano part – it has an icon to show you whether it will or not. If there’s no piano icon, there’s simply no part in that song for the piano… and that player gets a break or sings instead 🙂

  3. My big hope for games like this is not that they’ll replace teaching, but that they’ll make practicing fun and attract a greater percentage of kids into learning an instrument. It’s a skill that takes time and dedication and it’s great to see it competing with other less worthwhile ways for kids to spend their time in front of their game system…

  4. It’s too bad you didn’t get the game for keeps, because I was about to ask if you thought an amateur could manage Piano Man on Pro Mode… Heh.

    [It was added later via DLC so it wouldn’t have been on the disc if that’s all you had access to]

  5. Nice article..
    No. I dont think this thing would make piano teacher lost their job. In fact I think if this game pick up. Piano teacher would have a lot of job at hand.

    because I take drum lesson so i cant play better drum at rockband. (i’m a 37 year old)

    • You sir are what I call a dedicated gamer! Funny thing is, with the skills you’ve learned, you could probably play in a real band.

      And I hope you are right about pianos btw, because I love teaching!

  6. Great assessment. I wonder if there is a review like this out there on the guitar. I wonder if it is as good of an instrument. I’ve heard that you can patch some actual electric guitars into the game so I would hope they took as much time on the notes. I play drums myself and I really think they need to make a “pro set” that takes into account stroking, how hard you hit and where you hit the pads to make different sound and what not.

    • I don’t know much about the guitar myself. I know that they made one version of the guitar to be an actual stringed guitar and another that has a button for every single fret to give it a sort of “gammy” feel.

      Yeah that would be nice to have a game that taught more than just how to beat out some rhythms for the drum part. The same can be said for the nuances of piano playing. Rock Band 3 teaches the notes but does nothing to help you with proper fingering and subtle touch and feel (i. e. bringing out the melody amidst the chords).

      Glad you enjoyed my review. Good luck on your drumming! Can’t have a good band without a good one!

  7. Something you didn’t go over in the article that everyone should know:

    This keyboard is the most functional keytar board I’ve had the pleasure of owning for music production. I’m a controllerist, and I always seek the most outlandish midi controllers to do my computer synth’s bidding live and when composing.

    A friend of mine, who moved on past playing the game, shipped me this board for free as he had no use for the controller/game. It plugs into any audio interface that features MIDI connections, and sets up easily inside of my DAW of choice, Ableton Live 9.

    Having never played the game and only used it as a controller, I can say this keytar is a wonderful, lightweight, and above-all, DURABLE AFTER A DROP (Not something I can say about the $300 Alesis Vortex Keytar), AND the keys are actually velocity sensitive.

    I own several controllers that cost several hundred dollars each and thought my Rock Band Keytar would only be an intro to ‘better’ keytars. After breaking my Vortex and selling it for a huge loss, this keytar is the only one that remains in my studio.

    Simple, but effective. And for $25.00 used on Amazon?
    For that price every producer should own one.

    • Hello, i’am having problems using my harmonix rockband 3 as midi controller in ableton live 8, on win 7…when i try to set it up on the MIDI sync tab on preerences, the list of input devices doesn ‘t chow my keytar, any help would be MUCH apreciated! thanks C:

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