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Apple’s Amazing New Music App Hits All the Right Notes

David Pogue
Tech Critic

Today, Apple released one of the most amazingly advanced apps it’s ever made—but one aimed at a fraction of its users.

It’s called Music Memos, and it’s for people who write music.

Apple had noticed something about songwriters. When they want to capture little musical ideas, they fall into the habit of recording them into Voice Memos, a simple audio recording app that comes on the iPhone. Apple’s music team thought: “Well, we can do a little better than that.”

Music Memos (free) starts out looking a lot like Voice Memos. There’s nothing there but a Record button. You’re supposed to tap that button and then start noodling on your guitar or piano, playing your idea for future reference. (Other instruments are fine—this means you, ukulele players—but piano and guitar work best.)

There’s no metronome, no click track, no count-off; you just start when you’re ready. (There’s even an Auto mode that begins recording as soon as you start playing, saving you the tap on the Record button.) Understand, your instrument is not plugged into the iPhone; it’s recording only from its microphone.

You can name your idea or tag your idea with keywords for later searching.

Your virtual backup combo

So far, none of this is especially impressive. The real magic happens on playback. At that point, the app can add bass and drum parts automatically.

I’ll wait while you recover from that sentence.

If you’re a musician, you must already be scratching your head. How can a little app create bass and drum tracks automatically, without any input from you?

Remember: there was no metronome. So to come up with a drum track, the app must analyze your playing and figure out what the time signature and tempo were, and then create a virtual drummer that plays along with you, even when you speed up or slow down. As you can see in this Music Memos Demo, it does all of this rather spectacularly:

But what about the bass? To come up with an automatic bass line, the software has to do something even more impressive: It has to analyze the harmonies of what you played, and determine for itself what the chords are.

This is a very difficult job. Software that can understand complex harmonies is every bit as amazing as software that can understand spoken English. Maybe harder.

There have been music apps that can transcribe single-line melodies, where only one note at a time is ever sounding (from a flute or a singer, for example). But for software to hear and interpret polyphony—multiple notes played simultaneously (chords), as from a guitar or piano—is astonishingly hard. It’s like asking you to type out the transcript of four overlapping, simultaneous party conversations.

Music Memos is among the first apps ever written that can perform that task—and as far as I can tell, the first free app, for consumers, ever.

How well it works

If you play something pretty straightforward—a blues progression or a fairly straight-ahead rock ditty, for example—Music Memos nails it. You record, you turn on the virtual bass and drums, and hit Play, and your jaw falls out of its socket. As long as you didn’t stray much from the primary chords in the key, the bass plays along perfectly.

(Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear the bass when you’re relying only on your iPhone speaker. It’s loud, clear, and distinct through earbuds, headphones, or speakers.)

The bass player doesn’t always get it right, though, when the harmonies are even slightly more unusual. It simply guesses the wrong notes to play.

And very occasionally, the drummer gets it wrong, too. The result can be a train wreck, as in this example.

Fortunately, Apple also gives you a lead-sheet view that displays its interpretation of your harmonies:

In here, with some effort, you can dial in a corrected time signature or harmony.

Alternatively, you can export the musical sketch to GarageBand (the GarageBand app on the phone or tablet, or to the Mac version of GarageBand via iCloud). There, the virtual bass and drum tracks show up as individual recordings, which you can edit to your heart’s content.

Oh, by the way: If, in Music Memos, you hold your finger down on the Bass or Drums icon, you open one of these little panels:

Here, you can control the virtual player’s volume relative to your original performance, what kind of bass or drum kit is used, and how complex the accompaniment. This video, for example, lets you compare the Quiet, Loud, Simple, and Complex settings for the virtual drummer:

Where Music Memos can go from here

As a musician myself, I’ve already started using Music Memos for its intended purpose. I wish it were less clumsy to edit the harmonies within the app. I wish there were some way to record different fragments of a song within a single file. Or that there were a way to drag song chunks into a sequence. (Of course, GarageBand does all of that quite nicely, but that’s a second app.)

Otherwise, though, Music Memos is a fantastic super-niche app.

My biggest question is: Why would Apple put so much effort into a free app that benefits such a small audience?

Apple suggests that, beyond professing to love music in general, there’s a “let a thousand flowers bloom” strategy at work. Perhaps encouraging a huge songwriting ecosystem to flourish is in Apple’s interests, if only because the best of it may one day wind up for sale on the iTunes Music Store.

May you be so lucky. In the meantime, enjoy a free app that pulls off a truly amazing musical stunt.

Listen up:

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.