I always wanted to play the guitar. It’s just that I fell at the ‘actually learning to play guitar’ hurdle, like so many other people.

Now an iPad app called Songful launched by Israeli startup InstruMagic and guitar website Ultimate Guitar is knocking that hurdle down.

Released on the App Store in November 2012, the app costs $2.99. It lets users choose any track from Ultimate Guitar’s 200k-strong catalogue of guitar tabs, then play it by strumming some virtual strings with their right hand, while tapping an on-screen button with their left to move between chords.

It makes sense when you see it. Here:

YouTube video

The app itself is the work of the three-person InstruMagic team, who worked together at pro-audio software firm Waves Audio. But as CEO Eyal Eldar explains, the spark for Songful was personal ambition.

“I don’t know how to play guitar, and I’ve always been jealous of the guy who does!” he tells Music Ally. “The experience of being a guitarist and playing music is really fulfilling, but it’s only reserved for people who are really skilled – who have talent and put a lot of time in to practise, and who become proficient at it.”

Eldar and his colleagues have spent five years experimenting with interfaces for “musical instruments that anyone can play”, moving through several instruments before settling on guitar for the company’s first app.

The partnership with Ultimate Guitar is important: the company publishes the app, and handles payments to music publishers, since its catalogue of tabs is licensed.

“They like it because their content is leveraged to reach more than just their traditional audience,” says Eldar. “It’s not just for guitar players.”

That’s also why an app like Songful is very good news for music publishers if it takes off: it expands the potential audience – and thus revenues – for their guitar tabs beyond people who can (or are learning to) play the guitar.

At the moment, Songful is a paid app: that $2.99 download includes access to all the tabs. Eldar says the partners are considering tweaking the business model though.

“We’d like to give people something to try before they buy,” he says. “There are some licensing constraints here, but we’re trying to find some room within them so that people can understand what the app is about before paying.”

What else is next? Well, InstruMagic is one of the 30 finalists in this year’s Midemlab startups contest, which takes place at the Midem trade show in Cannes this month.

Eldar will be pitching the app to a music industry audience, which could put Songful into the minds of labels mulling potential apps for their artists. It’s not hard to imagine Songful being adapted for an individual band or singer/songwriter, for example.

“Totally, this is another go-to-market model for us,” he says. “It would be really good for the artist, I think: something that is good for branding as well as engagement. They could even run a contest – who does the best performance of their songs – and open it up to fans.”

Meanwhile, InstruMagic is working on an iPhone version of Songful, which works in the same way, just reformatted to fit onto the smaller screen. Looking further forward, there’s the potential for apps based on other instruments.

The vision is to bring the ability to play music to every music lover, not just skilled musicians,” says Eldar. “We’ll definitely create more instruments, and one reason to be working on that is so that people can play together on multiple devices.”

Eldar’s vision reminds me of another music apps company: US firm Smule, whose chief product officer Prerna Gupta said last year that the company’s goal is “to make music creation accessible to people who don’t have the ability to take music lessons”.

The theory is that humans have an innate desire to make music, even if their technical skill holds them back. Songful, Smule’s collection of instrument apps and – in a dance-music context – Propellerhead’s Figure are helping fulfil that desire.

And, of course, in Songful’s case this could also open up a new revenue stream for music publishers, who are keen to capitalise more on digital developments…

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