With 1 million songs played per week, JoyTunes gets $1.5 million to make piano lessons a game

By Michael Carney , written on May 2, 2013

From The News Desk

The key to education, or so I’ve learned over our month long content series on the topic, is to make learning fun and engaging. This applies whether the subject is math or photography. The most successful teachers bring their subject matter to life and inspire their students to seek mastery.

Israeli startup JoyTunes has proven, in both its name and its product, that this maxim applies equally to music education as it does to academic subjects. The company’s first piano learning app, Piano Dust Buster, is aimed at novices and has employed gamification to such effect that over 25 million songs have played using the app in the last year – a number that is now growing by over one million songs per week. The company recently released a follow-on app, Piano Mania, aimed at practice for more experienced players that is seeing a similar response.

On the heels of this early success, JoyTunes announced today that it has raised $1.5 million in new financing from Israeli VC Genesis Partners, as well as a former CEO of Steinway Musical Instruments who joined and other angels.

JoyTunes succeeds through is more than simple gamification. The company has developed proprietary – and patented – audio recognition engine that allows an iPad to interface with a standard acoustic piano without any wires or adapters. While accounting for issues like background noise, out of tune instruments, singing, and varying placement of the iPad, the app can record and analyze the musical output of the piano with a high level of precision.

Players then get real-time feedback on their performance, gaining skill points and moving up through a series of rankings as they accomplish particular tasks and complete challenges.

The Piano Mania app offers an extensive library, including pop hits such as Adele’s “Make you Feel my Love” and beginner’s classics like “Jingle Bells.” Players can learn to read sheet music, practice melodies in multiple clefs, practice right hand, and left hand or both hands simultaneously. The app also invites players to connect with teachers through the app who can provide remote feedback and advice on improving performance.

“I was inspired by watching my young nephew make the same excuses to avoid piano practice that I did when learning to play the violin as a child,” founder and CEO Yuval Kaminka says. “The core problem is that practicing an instrument doesn’t become enjoyable until you cross a certain level of proficiency. And most people quit before they get there.”

JoyTune’s apps address this issue with a freemium model, making the initial learning fun and allowing players to first progress through several skill levels for free, before requiring a subscription to access the full song catalog and lesson curriculum. A monthly recurring subscription costs $9.99 per month, while half yearly and annual subscriptions can be purchased for $39.99 per six months and $49.99 per year respectively. The company has plans to duplicate its early piano learning products among other instruments, with the first new apps expected later this year.

“Our player retention beyond three months, which is a long time for beginning piano players, is 65 percent,” Kaminka says. “That is quite high, and is something we’re very proud of.”

The challenge for JoyTunes has been to bring together the seemingly contradictory world of new media, mobile technology, and children versus old-fashioned music education and educators. The startup embodies this conflict in its own team, the CEO explains, as it consists of several members of “the problem” and several from “the solution.” The results, as measured by user engagement, appear to validate the methods.

JoyTunes is not alone in the category of technology enabled music learning. Music legend Quincy Jones recently debuted his Playground Sessions piano learning app. Where JoyTunes differs, and wins in the mind of Kaminka, is that it allows users to play a standard acoustic piano and use a tablet, while Playground Sessions works with a MIDI or USB electric keyboard connected to a notebook or desktop computer. A more advanced music management platform from Chromatik has also attracted significant attention, including adding Bruno Mars as an investor and being used by the house band on American Idol. Other competing products include Steinway Etude and VirtualPiano.

The good news for all of these products is that parents around the world desperately want their kids to learn to play the piano. They have proven willing to pay large sums of money despite the questionable success of traditional instruction. With new technology making practicing more enjoyable and thus more effective, there is an enormous opportunity to disrupt the old school music education market.

JoyTunes may not have a celebrity endorser like the above-mentioned competitors, but for kids, that’s less important. What it does have, is playful animations, entertaining gamification elements, and a demonstrated ability to get beginning musicians over the hump to basic proficiency where practice can become enjoyable.