Two years ago I bought a ukulele on impulse, promising myself to master it. “How hard could it be?” I thought. The ukulele only has four strings compared to six on a regular guitar and is known for being easier for novices to pick up.
But the group classes I signed up for proved to be a brutal reality check. Very quickly, I discovered I had no basic hand-eye coordination, and even my instructor’s patient efforts failed to pay off.
“Put your third finger on the fourth string, second fret … And then your fourth finger on the first string,” he would say, taking my ukulele to demonstrate. But the moment he handed it back to me, I’d already forgotten what the chord looked like.
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The height of my embarrassment came when it was time for the class to play along to a song together: I seemed the only one unable to keep up. After that, I was reluctant to attend classes and eventually dropped out completely.
As a reporter covering innovation and technology on a daily basis, I did suspect that there must be a technological solution out there. As it turns out, there is a “smart ukulele” backed by smartphone giant Xiaomi that claims to be able to get you playing within five minutes, and not only has it been around for some time, but it is also produced right here in Shenzhen, where I live.
The Populele, by five-year-old start-up Popumusic, is a smart ukulele with an LED light-up fretboard and a companion app that pairs with the instrument over Bluetooth. When a chord appears on the app, the fretboard lights up to indicate where you should place your fingers.
“Traditionally, people have to learn musical notation before starting to play an instrument,” Popumusic’s 29-year-old founder Bruce Zhang told me in an interview last month. “But by the time they have done so, their enthusiasm to learn may have faded.”
The Populele – whose name is a portmanteau of “popular” and “ukulele” – seeks to offer an alternative way to learn by showing users exactly where they are supposed to press down on the fretboard by flashing the corresponding LED lights, and then giving feedback on their accuracy through the app. “It is difficult to learn music because we cannot see it,” Zhang said. “But now with technology, you can learn by seeing it.”
The first night I got the Populele, I practised for more than two hours.
Without the pressure of having an instructor judging my performance, I felt relaxed. It was fun playing along with the app and seeing a score showing how I had done, just like a video game. But I sometimes felt like the scores may not be completely accurate as the app was not registering my strums perfectly.
I also found it easier to form a mental picture of how to place my fingers for each chord and remember how to do so, with the lights to guide me.
Within 10 minutes, I had learned how to play the C, F, A and A-minor chords, allowing me to play simpleaccompaniments to parts of some popular songs, such as Jay Chou’s “Sunny Day”.
But having the correct finger positions does not mean that a chord will necessarily sound right, and for that, the app uses sound-responsive technology to provide real-time feedback.
That first practice session, the F chord was giving me pain. I must have played it over twenty times, with Popumusic’s app repeatedly telling me that I was doing it wrong. I checked my fingers against the lights on the fretboard – they were in the correct position. Had I tuned my ukulele? That had been done, so what was the problem?
At that moment, I missed having an instructor who could tell me exactly what I was doing wrong. While the app helpfully provided a video explaining why an F chord might sound off, I still could not get it right after watching it several times. It took me half an hour of searching online on Google, YouTube and Chinese Quora-like platform Zhihu before I finally found my answer – my fingers were simply not pressing down hard enough on the strings.
Dong Ying, a music teacher from He Fei in eastern China, said smart instruments like Populele can be useful for beginners and kids.
“It will feel more of fun to interact with the app and the instrument and you may also be more willing to practice as it is more like a video game,” she said, acknowledging that the emergence of tech companies like Popumusic may have taken some business away from offline course providers.
Still, the music instructor with seven years of experience teaching students how to play instruments, including the ukulele, said the smart instrument market has not seen explosive growth because it is mostly limited to the beginner level.
“For people like me who already know how to play, I do not have any reason to have a smart guitar; I care more about the sound, the design and the quality [of the instrument].”
Nevertheless, the global market for smart musical instruments is expected to grow from US$11 million in 2018 to US$16.3 million in 2028, according to a recent research report by data platform Market.us.
This is a fraction of the total market for music instruments, which is projected to be worth more than US$33 billion in total this year, according to German data provider Statista.
Zhang started Popumusic – officially known as Beijing Shigan Technology Company – in 2015, after dropping out of the University of California, San Diego, where he was studying finance, after just a few days of attending classes, he said.
“In finance you have to start at the bottom – for example, if it’s an investment bank, you really have to start with very basic things such as photocopying documents,” he said. “It would take at least eight to 10 years to get to the point where you can truly make decisions for yourself.”
Determined to strike out on his own instead, Zhang first launched a smart guitar called Poputar that aimed to be a “real version of Guitar Hero”, featuring the LED light-up fretboard and game-based app that were also incorporated into his second product, Populele.
But it was Populele that really took off, which Zhang attributes to the ukulele being easier to pick up.
The concept of smart stringed instruments is not new: while Populele claims to be “the world’s first smart ukulele”, smart guitars have been around for some time. Zivix’s Jamstik+, a portable smart guitar which can connect to apps offering tutorials and games, is among the most well-known of the genre.
Even the concept of using LED light-up fretboards has been done before. A Reno, Nevada-based company called Fretlight Guitar offers a similar product, which its founder Rusty Shaffer invented in 1987, according to press releases from the company.
Still, Zhang said that compared to foreign rivals, his products are more competitive because of Popumusic’s strategic location in Shenzhen, where he moved its headquarters from Beijing five years ago.
“Companies including foreign ones who want to achieve mass production of instruments must come to Shenzhen,” Zhang said, adding that the city is approaching the “industrial level of Germany” in terms of hardware production. “But foreign companies will find it is difficult to control the cost because they do not know how to bargain with local factories over prices.”
He also started his company at a lucky time: in 2015, China had just begun a strong push for an “entrepreneurship and mass innovation” campaign proposed by Chinese premier Li Keqiang, making it easier for start-ups to access funding. As a result, Popumusic raised millions of yuan from Xiaomi and Beijing-based venture capital firm ZhenFund when it first started out.
“I would not have been able to succeed with my business if I established it in the last two years,” said Zhang, who declined to reveal sales numbers but said that Popumusic was profitable.
Popumusic is launching a new generation Poputar soon, and Zhang said he has plans to expand overseas and develop new products such as smart piano keyboards and microphones.
Music is the expression of your emotions and a way of communication, and it doesn’t always require professionalism.
Bruce Zhang, Popumusic founder
The image of smart instruments as being targeted at beginners does not seem to bother Zhang.
“Music is the expression of your emotions and a way of communication, and it doesn’t always require professionalism,” said Zhang. “My hope is that music instruments can be easily played by most people.”
As a novice player, I am still enjoying plunking away on my Populele in my free time. Hopefully, with the guidance of my virtual “teacher”, I will persevere this time and finally achieve my dream of mastering the ukulele!
This article Xiaomi-backed Populele taught me how to play a ukulele when a real music teacher couldn’t first appeared on South China Morning Post