Musical instruments for musicians and non-musicians: Constraints

Other posts in the series Musical instruments for musicians and non-musicians:

  1. Part One: Controls: Analysing how continuous or discrete controls on the sound affect playability to great extent
  2. Part Two: Constraints: How embedding musical theory as constraints makes the instrument easier and more rewarding
  3. Part Three: Exotic examples: Examples of exotic instruments and how they achieve good or not so good results
  4. Part Four: Put into practice: Let’s put theory into practice to build an easy and musically-sounding Theremin

How can we design musical instruments that both musicians and non-musicians can play and enjoy?

In the previous part of this series, we stated that a musical instrument must provide “A way for musicians and non-musicians to make music easily: musical assistance“.

We will focus on that point in this post.

In the previous post, when discussing the various controls an instrument provide to make music, we already noted that discrete controls were easier to use, since they automatically enforce to play in tune or in rhythm; this was already a simple case of musical assistance.

The ideal instrument

Out of every possible arrangement of sounds, very few can be considered music. Therefore, a tool that could make every possible musical sounds and no non-musical sound would be the ideal instrument.

Such an instrument would have to be very smart and understand what music is. It would have to be playable as well. This instrument probably cannot exist, but designing an instrument is about trying to go there.

Empower the tools so that they can empower the user: towards instruments that always play in tune

The more we can understand what music is, and more specifically what it is not, the more we can embed that understanding into the instrument so that it can assist the player by preventing non-musical events. Preventing non-musical sounds helps the non-musician, while loosing no freedom (or very little) for the expert musician.

To illustrate that approach, let us consider a simplified musical system made of an infinity of notes. If we know that we want to play Western music, we know we can reduce our notes set down to 12; if we know we want to play in the Blues genre, then we know we will only use 6 notes out of this 12 notes set; if we know that our song is in minor A then we know which 6 notes we will only need. Going further, if we know we want to play a walking bass line, we might end up with only 3 playable notes: the task of playing has become much simpler!

This idea already exist de facto in the form of the “black keys only” trick: the subset of black keys on the piano keyboard forms a pentatonic scale (a scale with only 5 notes) that sounds beautiful in whatever combination you play them:

Improvising on the Black Piano Keys — powered by

With this approach in mind, let’s now have a look at what music is, and more specifically what are its constraints on how to arrange sounds together.

Musical constraints

Music aims at providing aesthetic pleasure by the mean of organised sounds. This typically imposes constraints on what can be played.


Music (more precisely musical pleasure) happens when enough surprise meets enough expectation at the peak of the Wundt curve (shown at left): expectation is typically caused by conventional constraints (e-g. western music conventions) and internal consistency of the piece of music that enable the listener to expect what will happen next; on the other hand, surprised is caused by little deviations against the expectations to create interesting tension.

In short, too much expectation means boring music, whereas too much surprise means just noise.

Musical constraints

In almost every popular genre of music, conventional constraints requires adhesion to a melodic scale (e-g. major or minor etc.), to a rhythmic meter (e-g. 4/4, or 6/8 etc.), and almost always to a tonality. These constraints represent a “background grid” on top of which a given piece of music will draw a specific motif.

Layers of constraints
Layers of constraints

On top of these conventional constraints, a piece of music also exhibits an internal consistency. This often happens through some form of repetition between its component parts (think about the fugue, or the verse-chorus-verse-chorus repeated structure, or the obvious theme repetition in classical music).  These constraints are usually written into the musical score, or into the simpler theme and chord chart in Jazz notation.

Performance freedom

Musical performance, for instance on a concert stage, is therefore all about the remaining freedom you have within these constraints. When playing a fully written score this freedom is reduced to the articulations between the notes, playing louder or softer, or playing a little faster or slower. In jazz the freedom is bigger, as long as you more or less follow the scale, tonality, chords and rhythm of the song: this is called improvisation. Improvisation on the saxophone or most classical instruments requires being trained to use only the subset of notes that are suited for each song (“practice your scales”) .

Of course, if a player excessively uses his available freedom he runs the risk to loose the audience, and listeners might consider it is noise, not music. On the other hand, if played too perfectly or “mechanically” they might get bored.

Layers of constraints

We can consider the above constraints as layers of constraints on top of each other (see picture): at the top, the category “pleasant music” defines aesthetic constraints (if one wants to play unpleasant music then the freedom is bigger and there will be less constraints). Below this layer, western music brings its constraints (e-g. meter, tempered scale, tonality), then each genre adds its constraints (tempo range, timbres, rhythmic patterns etc.), and at the bottom layer, each piece of music finally defines the most restrictive constraints in the form of the written score, chord chart etc.

For a very deep and rigorous exposé on this topic, I recommend the excellent book How Music REALLY Works which is full of precious insights.


The more we can embody these constraints into the instrument, the easier it will be to play. As an example, if our constraints impose that we can only play 6 different notes, an instrument that enables to play 12 different notes is not helpful: we run the risk to play 6 notes that will be “out of tune”! The ideal instrument should only propose the right 6 notes.

Harmonic table keyboard

The new C-Thru Harmonic Table keyboard (USB)

The new C-Thru Harmonic Table keyboard (USB)

If we want to play chords, or arpeggios, the usual piano keyboard layout is not the most straightforward one, because you have to learn the fingering for each chord.

For that particular purpose, the keyboard can be improved, and people have done just that: it is called the Harmonic Table layout.

Here is an article that explains more about it, and here is the website (also with explanations) of the company C-Thru that is launching such a commercial keyboard at the moment.

The beauty of this keyboard is that every chord of the same type has the very same fingering, as opposed to the piano keyboard:

Same fingering for every chord of the same type (picture from C-Thru)
Same fingering for every chord of the same type (picture from C-Thru)


In some musical genres, such as salsa, waltz, bossa-nova etc. there is a very strong rhythmic pattern that constraints the song very much, especially for the accompanying instruments.

Manufacturers have long embedded these constraints in the form of an auto-accompaniment feature built-in the popular electronic keyboards. The rhythmic pattern for many genres are stored into memory, and when you play a chord on the left part of the keyboard, the chord is not played according to your finger hitting the keyboard but according to the chosen rhythmic pattern. This enables many beginners or very amateur musicians to play complex accompaniment and melody easily. The same system can also play predefined bass lines, also stored in memory.

Going further, some electronic keyboards have also added shortcuts for the most common chords types: you only have to press one note to trigger the major triad chord, and if you want the minor triad chord you just press the next black key to trigger it, etc. This is called “auto chord” on my almost toy Yamaha SHS10.

A Yamaha electronic keyboard with auto-accompaniment and auto-chord features
A Yamaha electronic keyboard with auto-accompaniment and auto-chord features

However, this kind of accompaniment does indeed restrict the music space severely, and therefore the result is very quickly very boring. Auto accompaniment is now considered “infamous”, extremely “kitsch“, and very amateur-sounding. But this is not because this idea has been pushed too far that it is a bad idea in itself or forever…

Samplers and Digital Audio Workstations

Though classical instruments play single sounds (usually single notes or single chords), samplers, loopers and groove boxes can trigger full musical phrases at the touch of a button. This in turn can be played in the rhythm, or quantized, as described in the previous post. Here the idea is to have musical constraints already buit-in into musical building blocks, waiting to be used together.

Going further, DJs play complete records in the rhythm of the previous record (beatmaching), and increasingly take care of the records harmony (harmonic mixing): they actually build a long-term musical piece, with dramatic progression from opening up to a climax, rest etc. In this respect such a DJ mixing session or “playlist” can be compared with a symphony, except that the DJ is using full ready-made records instead of writing raw musical lines for each instrument of the orchestra.

Though not really “live” instruments, recent software applications for wannabe music producers such as Garage Band or Magix Music Maker and to some extent many other more professional software Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), have taken the approach of providing huge libraries of ready made music chunks. From full drum loops to 2-bars-long riffs of guitar, brass, piano or synthesizer to complete synth melodies and even pieces of vocals, you can create music without playing any music at all in the first place.

A very important aspect is that these chunks are also very well prepared to be assorted together (same key or automatically adjustable key, same tempo or automatically adjustable tempo, pre-mastered), therefore whatever combination of these chunks you choose, it cannot sound bad!

Again we can consider that this later approach embeds the knowledge from music theory that a song has one tempo, that must be shared by every musical phrase, and has one tonality, that must also be shared by every musical phrase.

When creating a new project you must set the tempo and tonality for the whole song:

Startup settings for new project in Garage Band
Startup settings for new project in Garage Band

Then you can navigate the available loops and musical fragments; whenever you choose one it will be adjusted to fit the song’s tempo and key.

Garage Band Loops browser
Garage Band Loops browser

Just like auto accompaniment, this idea results in good-sounding but often uninspired music (“Love in This Club” by Usher, US number one hit has however been produced using three ready made loops from Logic Pro 8, which can be considered the very professional version of Garage Band, as shown here). Again, this approach enables a lot of people to have fun doing music easily with a good reward.


Instruments that are more musically-aware can use their knowledge of music theory to assist human players more: they can prevent hitting a note that would be out of tune, they can correct the timing, enforce the key, tempo etc.

Instruments that trigger bigger chunks of music such as loops and readymade musical phrases (e-g. samplers, groove boxes etc.) can be considered the most attractive for non musicians. Playing a musical chunk or a record does yield instant gratification, more than with most other instruments; however making something really musical out of that still requires training and practice.

The key issue is therefore to find a balance between the amount of knowledge the instrument must embedd versus the remaining freedom to express emotions and to try unconventional ideas, in other words to be really creative. The problem with musical constraints is that even if they apply almost always, there is always a case when we must violate them!

A note on visual feedback

Just like cyclists do not look at the bicycle when they ride, musicians hardly look at their instrument when they play. Instead they look at the director, at their score, or at their band mates to shares visual hints of what is going to happen next. When being taught a musical instrument, not looking at ones fingers is one of the first advises to be told.

Instruments have to provide feedback, and almost always this feedback is what you hear.

However in a live concert or performance people in the audience really expect to see somethig happening, hence there is a clear need for a visual show.

Visual excitement for the audience happens when:

  • We can see the instruments: the view of an instrument can already be exciting
  • There is a physical involvement from the player(s), they must do something and be busy enough doing visible things, gestures, attitude, dancing etc. On the other hand, a guy in front of a computer, clicking the mouse from time to time, is not very attractive.
  • There is enough correlation between the gesture and attitude of the player and the music. If you can see the singer lips doing the sound you hear, the shoulders of the pianist moving when he tries to reach higher notes that you also hear, the drummer hitting the drums that you hear, then the visual stimuli and the music combine together to create additional excitement.
  • The player is having fun: having fun on stage is a great way to excite an audience!


Software development, Domain-Driven Design, patterns and agile principles enthusiast