As excited as we get about apps that raise the bar for professionals, the iPad has always been respected as a tool for educators and their students, and this applies to the musical space as much as any other. Back in July, Nathan Snelgrove took a look at a new app from MiQ Limited designed to help budding musicians wrap their heads around some of the theoretical underpinnings of good songwriting.
I found Jamn to be a superb tool for picking up chord theory and kickstarting your songwriting, and the latest update brings with it a brand new feature that builds on the visual learning methods of the first. Is it enough to make Jamn the de-facto app for iPad songwriters? Let’s find out!
Newcomers to Jamn would do well to read our previous coverage, where the app’s core feature set, including the unique chord wheel, are described in detail.
The basic functionality has not changed: the wheel is still the bread-and-butter tool in Jamn, and it continues to excel at offering an accessible introduction to western music theory, albeit one that’s focused on what is relevant to modern songwriting.
One new addition is the inclusion of a powerful ukulele module for players of everyone’s favourite indie pop instrument. This new module is now included in the basic app and can be accessed by swiping across the top of the wheel page.
All Hands on Deck
The first change you’ll notice in version 3 of Jamn is the appearance of a brand new launch page to help with navigation. The wheel interface, now called the Multi-Tool, is joined by the standout feature of this update: eHands.
Described as a virtual chord finder, eHands has been greatly expanded, and functions as a visual chord dictionary of sorts, one that will help guitarists find — and correctly play — the chords in the app’s catalogue.
The chord finder is actually even easier to use than the chord wheel, in many ways. A guitar fretboard appears front and centre, and by default the eHands option is active, meaning that you’ll see an actual hand graphic displaying the suggested fingering for the given chord.
You can select a different chord using the menu along the top of the screen, which includes all keys and a selection of 10 different chords including the basic major/minor and extending to a few seventh and sus chords.
If you’re into deep jazz harmonies then you’ll find the choices to be very thin, but for the majority of songwriting applications these chords are perfect. Rather than overwhelm users with an extreme wealth of material, MiQ has opted to stick to the basics, for better or worse.
Below the main chord finder graphic is a set of buttons that allow you to further refine your chord display. The Variation button allows you to select an alternate playing position for the given chord (higher up the fretboard), while the Righty/Lefty button adjusts the diagram to account for your dominant hand.
Naturally, there’s a play button available to hear the chord as displayed on the screen, and an exit button that will return you to the launch page.
Perhaps the most relevant change to this app concern newcomers: by going freemium, MiQ has offered newcomers an interesting opportunity to tailor the app to their specific needs.
If you’re a guitar player and want to learn some ukulele, you can purchase that module only. Likewise, piano players can skip the frets and use the keyboard module only — a functionality you can accomplish by limiting the visible instruments using the Multi-Tool’s settings.
While all of these things make for a welcome update, there are a number of strange quirks that remain from the app’s initial release. Most frustrating is the chord amnesia that it suffers from when you choose a chord variation in the Multi-Tool.
If, for example, you want the root chord to be a Major7, you can select and play it just fine using the Chords menu, but as soon as you play a different chord along the wheel and return to that first one, it reverts to its default variation. You might expect that the lock switch on the bottom left of the wheel would “lock” these chord changes in place, but in fact it just stops the wheel from spinning, which seems more than a little useless by comparison.
Furthermore, the app’s scarce collection of scales is bad enough, but hiding many of them behind a paywall just confuses the value. As far as I’m concerned, all the currently available scales should be available by default and additional scales and chord shapes that appeal to more harmonically adventurous songwriters could be available as an in-app purchase that I’d be much happier to pay money for.
A final complaint I need to describe has to do with the interface itself. While the wheel is very clever once you understand how it works, someone opening the app for the first time — including myself — won’t easily grasp how to best make use of the features to get work done. A good introductory video would go a long way.
Seeing Jamn’s development continue is a wonderful thing. The creators are clearly interested in making this your go-to musical companion, and while the fundamentals are there, it’s going to take more refinement to push Jamn into the realm of truly excellent music apps in the App Store.