Turn Your Mac Keyboard Into a GarageBand Piano

You Can Use Your Mac's Keyboard As a Garageband Virtual Instrument

Musical Typing part of GarageBand
Get Your Gershwin On. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

GarageBand is a handy application for creating, editing, and just plain having fun with music. GarageBand works well with MIDI instruments, but if you don't have a MIDI keyboard, you can turn your Mac keyboard into a virtual musical instrument.

  1. Launch GarageBand, located in the /Applications folder.
  2. In the upper left corner of the window, click the New Project icon.
  3. Click the Empty Project icon in the central window, and then click the Choose button at the bottom right.
  4. In the pop-up window, select Software Instrument, and click the Create button.
  5. In the list on the left side of the page, click an instrument. For this example, we chose Piano.
  6. Click GarageBand's Window menu, and select Show Musical Typing.
  7. The Musical Typing window will open, showing the Mac keys that correspond to musical keys. The Musical Typing window will also display key assignments for Pitchbend, Modulation, Sustain, Octave, and Velocity.
  8. You may also see an option for Show Keyboard in the Window menu. This is a similar electric piano keyboard that you can use. The major difference being a larger number of octaves available without having to change settings.

Changing Octaves

The Musical Typing keyboard displays an octave and a half at any one time, the equivalent of the asdf row of keys on a standard computer keyboard. Changing octaves can be performed in one of two ways.

  • You can use the x key to move up one octave, or the z key to move down one octave. You can move multiple octaves by repeatedly pressing the x or z keys.
  • The other way to move between the various octaves is to use the representation of a piano keyboard near the top of the Musical Typing window. You can grab the highlighted area on the piano keys, which represent the keys assigned to the typing keyboard, and drag the highlighted section up and down the piano keyboard. Stop dragging when the highlighted section is in the range you wish to play.

Onscreen Keyboard

Besides the Musical keyboard that we talked about above, you can also display a piano keyboard with a six-octave range. This piano keyboard, though, doesn't assign any of the keys to correspond to your Mac’s keyboard. As a result, you can only play this keyboard one note at a time, using your mouse or trackpad.

Still, it has the advantage of a wider range of notes, and playing a single note at a time is helpful for editing works you are creating.

  1. To view the onscreen keyboard, launch GarageBand, located in the /Applications folder.
  2. Select New Project from the GarageBand window (you can also open an existing project if you wish).
  3. Once your project opens, select Show Keyboard from the Window menu.

Switching Between Keyboards

GarageBand's two built-in keyboards have their own unique strengths and you may find times when you would like quickly switch between them. While you can use the GarageBand Window menu to make the switch, you can also do so with the aid of two buttons on the top left corner of the piano. The first button looks like a couple of piano keys and will switch you to the classic piano keyboard. The second button, which looks like a stylized computer keyboard will switch you to the Musical Typing keyboard.

Connecting MIDI Keyboards

When MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was first developed, it used a 5-pin round DIN connector, along with multiple cables, to handle MIDI IN and MIDI OUT. These older MIDI interfaces have pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur; most modern keyboards use standard USB ports to handle MIDI connections.

This means you won’t need any special adapters or interface boxes, or special driver software to connect your MIDI keyboard to your Mac. Simply plug your MIDI keyboard into an available Mac USB port.

When you launch GarageBand, the app will detect that there's a MIDI device connected. To try out your MIDI keyboard, go ahead and create a new project in GarageBand, using the Keyboard Collection option (this is the default when creating a new project).

Once the project opens, touch a few keys on the keyboard; you should hear the keyboard through GarageBand. If not, try resetting GarageBand's MIDI interface, as follows.

  1. Select Preferences from the GarageBand menu.
  2. Select the Audio/MIDI button in the Preferences toolbar.
  3. You should see your MIDI device detected; if not, click the Reset MIDI Drivers button.
  4. You should now be able to play your MIDI keyboard through your Mac ​and record your sessions using GarageBand.