Does Jamn Reinvent the Instrument App With a Wheel?

Little-known fact about me: back in my high school days, I used to be the frontman for a hard rock band. The band fell apart, as most high school rock bands do, shortly after we all started going to university and college. I didn’t play guitar for a while, but I’ve been flirting with the idea of starting up a solo indie project with just me and my acoustic. The real problem, apart from no possibility of success and the utter likelihood of failure, is that I often have trouble cracking down the whip and writing music.

Jamn aims to fix that problem for me. I’ve tried a lot of apps meant to help floundering musicians, but none of them work on either a visual or musical level. Most of them are ripoffs sold based on empty promises. Initially, I was worried Jamn would be the same way. I was wrong. Read on to see what makes this app so compelling for musicians.

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Reinventing the Wheel

In some ways, there’s nothing quite as difficult as song writing. I tried my hand at it for years and it never got easier. But that’s because music, in many ways, occupies the same place in our brains as visual imagery. A lot of people say that music makes them picture different shapes and colours. For some of us, music is a time machine that draws us into our memories in stronger ways than any dream ever could (I can’t listen to Feist’s “Brandy Alexander” without becoming very sentimental about an ex-girlfriend).

The app uses a circle to represent different notes within a key.

The app uses a circle to represent different notes within a key.

That’s because music engages certain areas of the brain few other creative activities do. No app has really taken this into consideration, and a pen and paper never quite work properly when trying to write music and experiment. Jamn changes all of this by using a circle as its main interactive element. It’s a brilliant way to visuals chord progressions and keys.

The philosophy behind the visual presentation is that music is a cyclical thing: verses lead to choruses, and all songs eventually return to their root (structurally, songs are pretty similar to the high school English essays you probably hated writing). And the notes in a key are similar: certain notes cyclically lead to other notes.

Swiping on the top of the screen provides access to a piano and a ukulele as well.

Swiping on the top of the screen provides access to a piano and a ukulele as well.

It’s worth attempting to understand how music is naturally cyclical because that’s what the app treats as its most basic philosophy. The app is essentially an interactive wheel. Rotating the outside of the wheel changes the key (cycling through C, C#, D, etc). Solid circles beneath each note indicate major chords in the scale, while hollow circles indicate minor chords. (The half-solid/half-filled note means that the chord is diminished.) Visualizing like this helps understand what chords correspond to each other and makes it even easier to come up with beautiful chord progressions.

Writing a Song

Swiping the instrument on the screen to the left or right changes the instrument. Each instrument is lovingly rendered. Finger positions are indicated with bold colours. And holding the iPad or iPhone in landscape orientation shows the full neck of a guitar.

Holding the iPad in landscape provides a birds-eye view of the guitar neck.

Holding the iPad in landscape provides a birds-eye view of the guitar neck.

An in-app purchase unlocks the ability to see a picture of a hand in the chord’s positioning, which might make it easier for a new player, but I think making it an in-app purchase is unfair. The app already costs $1.99; I’d rather pay a flat rate of $4.99 and have everything unlocked from the get-go (which is a significantly easier pill to swallow).

The app offers more than simply tapping a note and visualizing chords as you cycle through ideas. If you tap on the Chords menu, you can choose all sorts of variations and see how they’re played on either a guitar, piano or ukulele. You can hear how they sound and really fiddle with the construction of a song. It’s a nice, easy-to-use touch.

You can take a look at various different chords and fingerings.

You can take a look at various different chords and fingerings.

It gets a little problematic, though, because the app doesn’t remember what chords you’ve triggered to play. If I choose C Major7, then play F, then play C again, the app defaults back to C Major without remembering what I last did.

You can choose between different scales, but only the Natural and Pentatonic scales are included in the app. The rest are offered as in-app purchases, just like the chord positions. (What I said before about that stands doubly for this feature.) That being said, the Natural scales offer a lot of variants (major, relative minor, natural key and all notes), so it doesn’t feel like as tremendous a ripoff as I make it out to be.

The app also includes a tuner, which will do in a pinch, but isn’t as accurate as a standalone (and I’m not sure I’d consider it the most accurate tuner in the App Store either). It’s a nice little touch that makes it easier to stay within the app if you’re trying to write a song, but I certainly wouldn’t depend on it before a live performance.

Hitting and Missing Notes

Jamn includes some handy video tutorials in the Menu that are incredibly cheesy, but also highly informative. I’m glad they’re there. They help make the app easier to use.

These videos are way too cheesy for my liking, and maybe not even necessary. It's good there's something in the app though.

These videos are way too cheesy for my liking, and maybe not even necessary. It’s good there’s something in the app though.

At the same time though, I have to wonder if the videos are necessary. I haven’t felt the need to watch all of them, and some of them are self-indulgent. After watching one video and experimenting a little, I figured out my way around the app.

There is a perfectly legitimate question about some of the app’s design. Some buttons aren’t obviously tappable (in fact, I only discovered how to cycle through keys while writing the review).
Making some minor colour adjustments throughout the app would help reinforce what can be touched and what doesn’t do much.

This how-to screen is filled with way too much clutter to be actually useful.

This how-to screen is filled with way too much clutter to be actually useful.

I will say that the musical theory in the app isn’t necessarily all there. Consider this a creative trigger and not a way to master an instrument. And be sure to play your own instrument while using the app; I’m not convinced that the sound files for chords are completely accurate.

Play It Again, Sam

Jamn is an app with a small identity crisis. It feels like it’s meant for new players, but it’s best used by experienced musicians who know their theory and aren’t reliant on the app’s simplification of everything to learn. The flashy design and interface are great and easy to use, but I can’t recommend it for everybody because I don’t think it’s what it claims to be.

What Jamn is, is a fantastic way to trigger the creative part of your brain. I know a lot of songwriters who could find uses for an app like this, just so they’re able to get their creative juices flowing. What Jamn is good at is helping you visualize the music; it breaks down the barriers between visual and aural creativity. If you can appreciate that for what it is, then Jamn is probably perfect for you.


Summary

Jamn is a great visual way to kickstart the creative process, but it ends up oversimplifying a lot of theory on its quest to glamorize songwriting. I also have serious doubts that the chord's MIDI files are accurate aural representations of what you see on screen.

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