Redesigning the Musical Keyboard with Light-Up Buttons

A piano’s keyboard doesn’t make sense. If you want to want to play an F major chord, just hit an F, an A, and a C — all white keys, all in a row. If you want to play a B major chord, you hit B, a D#, and an F#. One white key, then two black ones. The piano keyboard is not isomorphic, meaning chords of the same quality have different shapes. For their entry into the Hackaday Prize, [CSCircuits] and their crew are working on a keyboard that makes chords intuitive. It’s called the Kord Kontroller, and it’s a device that would also look good hooked up to Ableton.

The layout of the Kord Kontroller puts all the scale degrees arranged in the circle of fifths in the top of the keyboard. To play 90% of western music, you’ll hit one button for a I chord, move one button to the left for a IV chord, and two buttons to the right for a V chord. Chord quality is determined by the bottom of the keyboard, with buttons for flat thirds, fourths, ninths, elevenths and fourteenths replacing or augmenting notes in the chords you want to play. Since this is effectively a MIDI controller, there are buttons to change octaves and modes.

As far as hardware goes, this keyboard is constructed out of Adafruit Trellis modules that are a 4×4 grid of silicone buttons and LEDs that can be connected together and put on a single I2C bus. The enclosure wraps these buttons up into a single 3D printed grid of button holes, and with a bit of work and hot glue, everything looks as it should.

It’s an interesting musical device, and was named as a finalist in the Musical Instrument Challenge. You can check out a demo video with a jam sesh below.

13 thoughts on “Redesigning the Musical Keyboard with Light-Up Buttons

    1. HaD and Brian still post quality content. The 3d printed enclosure and thorough documentation are worth taking a look in this project. In fairness it is essentially a slightly smaller Novation Launchpad and probably cost as much or more to build, but the journey wouldn’t have been so interesting.

    2. It doesn’t make sense, though. Not in the way that, for example, a guitar is. With a guitar, using the same shape moved up or down the neck will keep the same kind of chords. You only have to learn the shapes, then you can just move around and make chords.

      1. Yeah. The shapes on guitar are sort of consistent, except for in the most used guitar tuning, there are mostly fourths and one third to throw you off. So take any triad, move it around and you’ll have a shifting shape as you get to the B-string.
        Also, many guitarists that also compose and/or arrange music for larger ensembles often say they don’t find the guitar an easy way to envision the music they write, and instead often at least for visual reference use a piano.
        Now if you were to approach something a bit more like the janko-keyboard, you’d have a more complete approach:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jank%C3%B3_keyboard
        The thing is, a piano is structured as if C is the ‘true’ root of all logic. That is it’s only flaw, as long as you are playing 12-tone-scale music. Minor and major chords all flow from the scales on which the piano keyboard is based, it’s just that it kind of mentally presets you to C major or A natural minor.
        The janko keyboard fixes that, and is in my opinion a more perfect solution to this problem because it handles chord inversions easily as well.
        In the end though, you’re probably better off learning some additional shapes, especially if you want to be truely expressive, as the added keys in a small enough space to be reachable with two hands will prevent dynamic expression with the same accuracy and resolution as the traditional piano. It really is a pretty perfect compromise.

        Now, for music production though, a smaller janko keyboard or something as this project would make sense, as it lays out different connections and thus provides you with new sounds and progressions more easily. My only question so far is: how do you do inversions, with this, and is it practical enough to play things in time or is it more suited to non-real-time production?

        1. Actually piano has two “roots” – D and G#… because they are symmetrical/ notes mirror up and down. Piano is a percussive instrument, it takes very nice approach to cramming much sounds into less space (example – MPC = 16 notes and piano is more like 24 notes).

          1. And I’m actually learning push now. Its much easier to lug around push and be able to play as free as on regular keyboard. Maybe there is a way to play lick on push with consistent velocity, but I haven’t found one yet

      2. If you shift a chord shape on a piano by the same amount on a guitar, it’s not going to work because of discordant notes. It doesn’t work either way because the shapes formed on a guitar doesn’t produce the same notes as it would on a piano due to structural differences. However, taking that into account, one can modify a chord to match each instrument by transposition. This is exactly what the modern temperament was designed to address. Everyone can stay on the same scales while playing different notes that are cordant when played together.

  1. All of these grid interfaces look like the way synths did back in the 80’s-90’s. They were paneled with Base 8 sets of buttons, because we were still in an eight bit world. We humans use Base 10 and music scales are based on Base 5, Base 7 (not 8), and Base 12. While 8 might seem OK for rhythm it’s all disco till you try to do waltz, 6/8 time, or Balkan signatures.

    This is a smart version of the Stradella Bass accordion of more than a century but the cycle of fifths is 12 not 8. The accordion has more than 12 columns of buttons as they go on some in a wrap-around mode at each end.

    I have thought of hacking a large bee-matrix keyboard to do this, lotsa work. Chordbot is an app worth looking at if chords are of interest to you. Also DRC. Lotsa fun.

    There was something posted here I think about a limited chord matrix of buttons that used chording (more than one button at a time) to select a larger selection of chords than possible with fewer buttons like a Stradella Bass.

  2. This reminds me a lot of the TENORI-ON from Yamaha, which was amazing fun and a very versatile alternative music interface. It was 16×16 which greatly assisted in the “sequencing” component.

  3. Hmm I’m surprised no one mentionend the monome yet…
    I personnaly think using even an arduinome, serialosc and the huge variety of monome apps, make a far more versatile grid controller.

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