Instinct and the Year of Rock 2013

A couple of months ago I received emails from several of my tech/nerd friends about a new website named Instinct that had just launched. It’s a site that offers a kind of programmed instruction for guitar. Knowing that I was a guitarist and a computer geek, this looked to be right up my alley.

Instinct provides a couple of courses of which the Year of Rock seems to be the deepest. Instinct doesn’t teach guitar in the traditional sense. It’s not a one-on-one learning experience. Instead, users progress through a series of lessons that are a lot like levels in a video game. In fact, it makes more sense to think of Instinct as a video game that teaches guitar, rather than a guitar lesson that you experience like a video game. Instinct is clearly aimed at the beginning guitarist, though intermediate players may also get something from it.

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Screen Shot 2013 03 10 At 12.28.43 Pm

There are some things I really like about this. First, I think the presentation is great. It’s very friendly and welcoming. Getting signed-up and started is very simple. Learning the guitar can be such a daunting experience so it’s nice that they’ve made getting started easy. It’s obvious that they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the experience of getting people up and running.

The core feature of the site is the ability to pick up audio either from your built-in mic or your audio input (Flash only, sorry iOS) which is used to measure how well you play. It works a little like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. There’s a sort of track you follow (think of a cross between a piano roll and traditional tablature). When you hit the note correctly the note lights up blue. If you miss it, it turns red.

Note that if you’re playing an electric, you either need to plug it directly into your computer via an audio interface, or you’ll need to plug into an amp and turn it up loud enough for your computer’s mic to hear it. Playing an unplugged guitar in front of the computer (no matter how close you get) isn’t going to get the job done.

At the end of the lesson, you get a score for how well you’ve done. If you’ve only made a handful of mistakes, it automatically offers to take you to the next lesson in the series. Otherwise, it encourages you to practice and try it again. Like other "game-ified" experiences, this one has the usual leader boards and such.

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Screen Shot 2013 03 10 At 12.22.04 Pm

Each lesson takes about five to ten minutes to complete, which is a nice bite-sized chunk. If you have more time, you could potentially get through several lessons. Otherwise, with fifteen spare minutes you can make some progress achieve a little satisfaction that you’ve improved your playing. They also offer a nice weekly newsletter that updates you when a new lesson is available.

Some things I’m not crazy about are how rhythm and tempo are handled. First, your score is based somewhat on your timing: both when you start a note and how long you hold it. I found that without a count-off or a click, I had to fish around a bit for the tempo.

Second, the track won’t progress until you hit each note in sequence. Now maybe it’s just me, but I think one of the best habits any musician can develop is recovering from mistakes. If you muff a note, just keep moving on, don’t let it ruin the ones that come after that. This model is different. Rather than continuing and recovering, Instinct interrupts your musical flow and makes you hit that note before moving on. This totally disrupts any sense of timing you may have had. Personally, I think this is a bad idea.

One other teeny-tiny gripe I have is with how the animated fretboard is presented. When the lesson shows you the animation of the “teacher” playing the guitar, it’s like facing a lefty. I think some kind of top-down view would have been easier so that you don’t have to translate between the rolling tablature you play against and what is demonstrated.

All in all, Instinct is pretty nifty and ambitious learning tool. It’s clear that the core feature is the pitch-recognition technology and it works quite well. I expect this to evolvee so definitely keep your eye on this one over the next year.