The iPad may be the catalyst, but look beyond the platform, and you’ll see a reinvigorated examination of how to think about musical interfaces. If you’re looking to relax and make some musical noises on your iPad, check out the videos above. It isn’t actually necessary to fully understand the design work behind the interface to play and make music. But if you are interested in reflecting on the way design issues impact musical expression, and you’re a bit of a music theory nerd, read on.

Using an array of rectangles arranged in a harmonically useful way, and color coding for pitch, SoundPrism is a glimpse of a more graphical future for music software design. (Nor is this necessarily limited to the iPad in the long term – in addition to Windows 7, Ubuntu 10.10 is getting official multitouch support, which I think both validates Apple’s work and suggests we’ll see more platforms for this kind of interface.)

And, bonus, it all demonstrates why arranging pitch by the Circle of Thirds can be ideal. I got a chance to talk to the developers of SoundPrism about the thinking behind the software.

We will get a mention of Jean-Philippe Rameau. I just hope it doesn’t start a debate between Rameau and Lully fanboys again.

Public domain; source.

Sebastian Dittmann, CEO of developer Audanika, talks to us about the software.

CDM: What’s your background as a developer / musician?

Sebastian: I wouldn’t call myself developer although I’ve been working in IT and digital media creation/marketing before. I come from a very-music oriented family – both parents opera singers, so I had to learn to play the piano, but can’t play it very well.

I met Gabriel Gatzsche – the inventor of the technology SoundPrism is based upon – during a colloqium for music in digital games at the Fraunhofer Institue for Digital Media Technology when he was showcasing an earlier prototype of it back then. His demo of 5 minutes taught me more about harmonic theory than years of piano lessons before. That was 10 months ago and he is now the CTO of our company that we decided to found.

Can you talk about what inspired the pitch layout on SoundPrism?

The idea for SoundPrism is quite old actually. About 22 years ago Gabriel’s father found that organizing tones of keys in a circle of thirds makes it very easy to understand basic harmonic theory because the visualization ‘just makes sense’. Back then he taught it to his two sons, Gabriel and David, and from then on they passed all music school theory exams with flying colors. He tried to convince their teachers that this method was far better for teaching children but they didn’t listen to him at all.

David studied music to be a guitar/music teacher, writing his final thesis about the didactic concept of SoundPrism. Gabriel studied media technology and wrote his dissertation about it and came up with software that made it possible to not just use the theory to explain music but also to play music with an interface that is set up like the theory.

During his dissertation he found out that lots of other scientists came up with similar concepts. He quoted them in his thank you note to the team when we submitted SoundPrism to Apple: Jean-Philippe Rameau, Leonard Euler, Moritz Wilhelm Drobisch, Hugo Riemann, Moritz Hauptmann, Fred Lehrdahl, Carol Krumhansl and Werner Pöhlert just to name a few.

The reason we are able to actually use these concepts now is that we finally have interfaces that can change visually and aren’t static. I see SoundPrism as knowledge poured into a dynamic interface that enables users to just use that knowledge without having to acquire it first.

Could you describe – for people comfortable with music theory – how it’s laid out and why?

SoundPrism is based on Hauptman’s array of thirds in its vertical dimension and horizontally on a pitch class/pitch height model by Moritz Wilhelm Drobisch. We found the combination of these concepts allows musical interfaces which enable the player to control both harmony and melody at the same time in an optimal way.

This is just the very first version in the first configuration on the iPad though. There have been prototypes using Space Navigator technology, a WiiMote, Jazzmutant Lemur and also multi user augmented reality installations with camera based motion tracking.

You’d have to talk with Gabriel about this since there’s a lot more to it. The interface right now is tailored for tablets like the iPad. We’ve evaluated other representations with field tests and the current form lets users express themselves freely while at the same time guiding them gently to ‘do the right thing’ from a harmonic standpoint.

Gabriel alone has spent 5 years of his dissertation working on the concepts and there’s lots of music psychology and other really complicated concepts involved in it that I’m not the right person to explain.

Ed.: I wanted to go ahead and get this out there, but if you’re interested, readers, I’m happy to pursue.

Have you considered providing control data to other applications (i.e., routing over WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. to a computer for people wanting to use this as a controller)?

Yes. 🙂

Obviously, at this point, you’re just waiting on Apple approval, but any plans generally for the future?

SoundPrism is really just the beginning. We think we roughly know what musicians want because our team consists of musicians. At the same time we already have other prototypes and ideas that do very neat stuff beyond the scope of the current implementation of SoundPrism for the iPad.

But we hope for lots of constructive feedback from all over the world so we can add the features people want that we haven’t though of yet. I have to say I’m a bit nervous because I didn’t think SoundPrism 1.0 would get that much attention already before we’re live.

One of our dreams is to establish the SoundPrism technology as a widely used tool. Not just for musicians but also as a door to the world of creating music for people who don’t think they can play an instrument.

What will pricing be?

SoundPrism will be at around 4 US$ initially. That might change later on and we’re also planning to include an InApp store for people to add more features, sounds and other really neat stuff.

Now just waiting on approval…

Follow CDM on Twitter and I’ll post when the app is up.

In the meantime, here’s one more video. I love the way this sounds, here paired with a Korg KAOSS Pad KP3 in what appears to be a really practical live music rig:

More at the developer site:

Thanks to Chris Mousdale for connecting us with the developers!

  • Thanks a lot for the interview!
    The second video doesn't feature an electribe but 'just' a Korg Kp3.

    I'll try and upload a video of how to use this with SoundPrism today at



  • Whoa. This is amazing! Hopefully it will be available to other platforms as well, such as Android-based tablets etc.

  • Billy

    I'd like to see more about the theory behind the layout. As someone who seems to play the same things whenever I sit at the piano, I'm always interested in alternatives.

    Now I just need an iPad…

  • brendan

    looks great. seems like these theories were just waiting for this kind of technology. i would love to have a version with midi/osc output to use as a controller.

  • I played yesterday with the application and layered some loops in Ableton. Here is the result :

  • Pretty dang cool. I'm always interested in different representations of scales, chords, notes etc. and this one is right up with the best by the looks of it!

    BTW definitely lol'd a bit at the end of the first vid: calming organ like sound to a tonic resolving chord progression to "oh I almost forgot, there are other instruments." followed by crazy crescendo of trancy synth explosion. haha

  • alalalala

    The ipad is just a toy, and will always be. Any serious computer musician needs a real computer.

  • Io prefiero Giovanni Battista Lulli!

  • Michael Coelho

    @ Brendan, +1

    I have an iPad and a few music apps, but I really want to be able to control either my midi equipment or a VST synth. I'd love a KP3 style iPad interface that could drive my Moog Little Phatty. Apps like this one and Jordan Rudess' MorphWiz would be fantastic if I could use them with my other equipment.

  • We're already working on midi out. Can't promise anything yet or give any dates.

  • Axel

    What a surprise to read the name Werner Pöhlert on this blog! I took some guitar lessons from his son Jochen 20 years ago. And of course, I have the "Grundlagenharmonik" on my bookshelf.

    I won't buy an iPad anytime soon, but this really looks like a great way to learn about harmony and I'm looking forward to learn more details. Good luck, guys!

  • josquin2000

    Lully?!? Rameau!?!?!
    Standard practice post-hoc apologists all!!

    It's Tinctoris all the way for a view of harmony
    clear of that silly 'chord' idea, ;-), reasserting the PRIMACY of counterpoint!!

    Or then again there's Schenker, of course…:-). for the ultimate in reductionist positivist theory leading the practice cart….
    just my not so serious tuppence,
    L&K, YMMV!!!

  • I'd be super interested in learning more about the layout and how the scale/notes work. Ideally it would be written in a way that an idiot could understand, too 😉

  • Jon

    That is a beautiful interface!

  • this looks very interesting. will there be an iphone/ipod touch version? any reason (other than the smaller screen) it couldn´t work on those?

  • We started development in October 2010 for the iPod but decided to switch to the iPad when Apple announced it because we were playing on a Jazzmutant Lemur before, which the iPad resembles closely.

    We hear that a lot of people want an iPod version.

  • I wonder how all the Lemur users feel about this… since it gives similar functionality at a fraction of the price. Or am I mistaken?

  • @josquin2000, I heard rumors that Sebastian planned a more contrapuntal app but couldn't get iFux approved.

    If you're into geometric representations of pitch space, check out Elaine Chew's helix structures. They're used in this video to visualize harmonies in a rather outre rendition of Happy Birthday:

  • mat

    Very nice interface!

    Well, I did something simular at the Lemur last year: the "Scalomat"
    The interface is complete different, but it follows the same target: eyerybody can play keyboard, you never hit the wrong tone.
    (I wonder if Sebastian has used it, as he is/was a Lemur user too)
    And of course: it sends Midi, so you can trigger everything… (for all who wonder whats the difference between an Ipad app and a Lemur template;)

  • KVJ

    @Peter – It would be great if you could find out more from Gabriel about the theory behind this. Sounds fascinating. I plan to quickly acquire Hauptman's "The nature of harmony and meter".

  • really nice interface and interesting program !

  • leakeg

    Man, I wish he went into more detail on the note layout, googling "Hauptman’s array of thirds" yields basically no results bar this interview…

  • The Hauptman array of thirds I think is just a circle of thirds. This lends itself to arrangement most typically in a lattice by fifth on one axis and third on another. I'm actually doing some parallel (har, har) research, so let me share what I come up with.

    Hint: look up Neo-Riemannian theory, not Hauptman directly.

  • leakeg

    thanks for the reply Peter, that key layout does look like it would be rather intuitive, though I could imagine the lack of the ordered chromatic scale could serve to be a nuisance at times.

  • Gabriel

    The books mentioned in the interview can be found here:

    Moritz Hauptmann:…

    M. W. Drobisch:…

  • leakeg

    now I just need to learn how to speak german.
    Was ist das?

  • Gabriel

    Some information of Drobisch's pitch class pitch height model you can find here:

    Shepard, Roger: Geometrical approximations to the structure of musical pitch. In: Psychological Review 89(4) (1982), Jul, S. 305–333