Cadenza Helps Musicians Practice with a Virtual Orchestra

The app was developed by Sonation, a startup-in-residence at the New England Conservatory.

cadenza virtual orchestra app

NEC Prep student Yoo Jin Ahn practices with Cadenza / Photo by Olga Khvan

What does it take to get up on stage at Symphony Hall—or even at a school recital?

There’s talent involved, of course, but there’s also confidence, built up by hours and hours of practice. For most musicians, it’s a solo endeavor, limited by the cost and effort it takes to hire accompanists.

But Cadenza, an app created by a local startup, changes the solo experience. Powered by AI technology and predictive algorithms, it allows instrumentalists to play with a full virtual orchestra that responds in real time to any changes in performance.

“Unfortunately, what musicians end up doing most of the time is playing alone, in the bedroom or a practice room. That’s okay because you have to learn rudimentary things, but to get to the experience you were hoping to have—of the rich musical tapestry—you have to join other people,” says cofounder and chief product officer Paul Smith. “We thought it’d be great if you could bring that experience to your room while you’re practicing, so you can have that enjoyment and a better understanding of the music.”

Cadenza is currently available for free on iPhone and iPad for nine instruments—violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and trumpet. Its ever-growing repertoire of music includes more than 230 pieces—mostly famous concertos, but also popular movie and video game themes.

“We have Harry PotterLord of the Rings, Star Wars, Schindler’s List. The scores tend to be orchestral. It’s a very nice fit,”says Smith.

Smith, who studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, works on Cadenza with a group of fellow musicians, including cofounder and CEO Ann Chao, who studied at the Shanghai Conservatory, and vice president of engineering Bruce Cichowlas, who cofounded Kerzwell Music Systems with Stevie Wonder and plays eight instruments.

“Our whole team is musically trained, very passionate about different types of music,” says Chao.

The group, known as Sonation, first developed the app at the Harvard Innovation Lab, where they were a runner-up for the 2013 Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge. In 2014, Sonation was a finalist in MassChallenge and became a startup-in-residence at the New England Conservatory, where instructors are now encouraging students to use the app for practice.

On a recent afternoon, Yoo Jin Ahn, a senior at Brookline High School and a student at NEC Prep, the conservatory’s pre-college division, played Bach’s “Minuet in G” on the violin, as Cadenza provided orchestral backup, matching her varying pace and pausing to let her catch up if needed.

“It’s really cool because it follows all of the small breaks you take, all of the musical little breaths,” said Ahn, who’s been using the app for about a month, following a suggestion from her violin teacher. “I think when you’re young, it’s hard to match up with an accompanist for the first time because there are so many different things going on. This really provides an opportunity where you can just be yourself and make all the mistakes you want to.”

The app’s potential to help with personal development is especially important to its cofounders.

“If you’re a more confident player, then you’re also going to enjoy the music more,” says Smith.

“It builds into your consciousness over time. Instead of practicing just once with a pianist and being so nervous about that official performance, you have your own orchestra in your room every day, and it becomes second nature,” adds Chao. “That’s what we hope for kids who are growing up right now with iPhones anyway—[for them to learn] how to use that confidence.”