You're the Piano, Man! Taking up Pro Keys in Rock Band 3

As a child, there was nothing I dreaded more than my weekly piano lessons. My teacher, a doting, grandmotherly old lady who smelled like candy and cried whenever I said "thank you," did her best to impress upon me the importance of mastering scales and the beauty of perfecting a large-note, simplified Chopin piece, but I would have none of it.

I dabbled in piano lessons again in my early teens, but the routine was only more tedious than before. When I came home from a day at high school, I wanted to put on a Linkin Park CD and feel sorry for myself, dammit, not familiarize myself with the sustain pedal while trudging through my teacher's favorite new-age song of the week.

Generic teenage angst aside, there's a very good reason why kids don't want to practice their instruments: It's just not very much fun.

Enter Rock Band 3. Combining the tried-and-true gameplay the series is renowned for with a set of real-world instruments, Rock Band 3 might be the first videogame that can actually teach a person how to play an instrument. But just how much of a commitment will that take from the average person? And just how much can you learn from a game?

Well, that's where I come in. I put up the money to get Rock Band 3 on October 26th along with the keyboard peripheral, and I'll be chronicling my progression through Rock Band 3's Pro Keys mode.

Regular vs. Pro Mode

But first, it's important to clarify that the Rock Band keyboard can be used in both regular mode and pro mode. Regular mode is similar to the traditional Guitar Hero or Rock Band style of guitar gameplay, where you have five lanes of notes to contend with. These correspond to the first five white keys on each octave (C, D, E, F, G) and while you won't be playing the actual notes in regular mode, it can be a good way to build up finger strength and to develop some muscle memory for playing patterns with different combinations of fingers.

Regular mode is a great starting point for anybody with little to no musical experience. But for those of you who have played an instrument before, even if it wasn't a piano, I'd strongly urge starting out with pro keys on easy. To be fair, it's a little daunting to move to a 25-key instrument from the simplified five-key mode. But the sooner you get used to playing a note-for-note version of the music, the sooner you'll pick up on basic skills, such as recognizing what each note sounds like and what major or minor chord shapes look like.

Training — "Learn an instrument" mode and individual song trainers

Fortunately, Rock Band 3 was designed with the added challenge of playing a real, complicated instrument in mind. To help give players a leg up, Harmonix included a robust instrument trainer mode. Composed of more than a dozen specific lessons ranging in difficulty from easy to extraordinarily difficult, these trainers focus on skills like forming and moving within chords, arpeggios and note patterns, and even a special lesson on soloing on keys. Each lesson includes several short, original songs to help illustrate and reinforce the topic at hand.

And, in case you were wondering, the answer is yes: You will learn how to play the Keyboard Cat song in the keyboard trainer.

While the training mode is indispensable, it's not meant to be a primary focus for a keyboard player. Instead, it's the sort of tool that's best revisited from time to time as you work your way up from the easiest songs to increasingly more complicated ones.

Unfortunately, learning how to chart your own course through Rock Band 3's song selection isn't as simple as just working your way up from the easiest-ranked to most difficult songs in order. Because keyboard parts are sometimes sparse or altogether absent in a number of songs, it helps to have an idea of which songs feature robust keyboard parts and which ones emphasize specific skills. In the next entry in this series, I'll discuss my first couple weeks with pro keys and provide a selection of good songs for the budding virtuoso.

On the next episode...

  • Starting out: Easy and medium pro keys
  • Good songs to start with
  • Tips to keep in mind
  • How to use the individual song trainers
  • Tackling more challenging songs