The ONE Light Keyboard with a connected smartphone.
The ONE Light Keyboard with a connected smartphone.

The ONE Light Keyboard review: Can it replace a tutor?

The ONE Light Keyboard is a unique device in the sense it can teach you how to play itself. It also has a minimalist design with just three physical buttons. But is that enough to ditch keyboard lessons from a tutor?

Playing a musical instrument is usually perceived as a skill that takes years to master. Usually, you’d either get a tutor or just turn to YouTube to get you started with the basics.

The ONE Light Keyboard, however, is a rather unusual product that allows you to connect itself with a smartphone or tablet through a MIDI cable. And using an app, it teaches you how to play itself.

The keyboard has a minimalist design comprising just three buttons and a volume knob. That’s it—no LCD display, no clutter. That deal is held up by a proprietary smartphone app, which is essentially the heart and brains of this device. It provides access to keyboard lessons from Hoffman Academy, some interactive keyboard learning games and a few keyboard tones.

The keyboard has 61 light-up keys, excellent speakers for its price tag, and comes with I/O including MIDI USB port, ¼-inch input, output and mic jacks, 3.5mm line-in at the front side and a port to connect a keyboard. It ships with four MIDI cables that let you connect to USB Type-C, MicroUSB, USB Type-B and Lightning (Apple) devices. This means you’ve nearly all the ways to connect smart (digital) and analogue devices to the keyboard.

It is also fairly convenient because it can be played wirelessly anywhere by inserting a few batteries and it doesn’t weigh so much that it will wear you down after a few minutes if you keep it on your lap. It doesn't come with weighted keys, however. So if you're planning to buy a full sized piano later, you might have a considerable learning curve later on.

All this, along with a few other simple and inexpensive tweaks, make way for a rather unique playing experience.

Let’s talk about the interactive learning bit first — how effectively can it teach you how to play itself?

The app offers four ways to learn music—by taking a crash course, offering access to about a hundred Hoffman Academy videos, playing a Guitar Hero-esque game optimised for the keyboard and by reading sheet music.

The easiest way to get up and running is by taking a crash course, that teaches western classical songs like Auld Lang Syne, Canon in D Major, Fur Elise among others (16 to be precise). The course is spread into various sections, some develop muscle memory in each one of your hands individually, and the rest that make you play the whole song using both hands. The tempo of the songs is purposely kept slow to make you play to the beats more effectively, which may be a bit annoying for impatient learners. The app shows which keys to play on your phone’s display that are in sync with the lights on the keyboard. And if you’re not able to take your keyboard somewhere, you can always practice the songs using your smartphone’s touchscreen.

Hoffman Academy’s lessons take you on a journey of 100 videos. Although they are intended to teach children, with the first few lessons showing childish gestures and catchy tunes like ‘Hot Cross Buns’, the method used is catchy. For instance, you’re more likely to remember that the ‘D’ key sits in ‘a dog house’ instead of remembering it sits between two black keys. The course also teaches you how to read sheet music, although that only comes after 15 lessons or so. Once you’re done with that, you can use the ‘Sheet Music’ option on the app’s home screen to play some keyboard-friendly pop tunes with an interactive touch.

I invested a couple of months into learning the keyboard using just the keyboard and the app (okay, I also watched some YouTube videos) to find out if it actually works as advertised. I have some prior knowledge of the music theory as I play the guitar, but I was starting from scratch when it comes to playing the keys.

The ONE Light Keyboard has a foldable stand to hold your tablet or smart device.
The ONE Light Keyboard has a foldable stand to hold your tablet or smart device.

I observed that, as with any musical instrument, I had to push myself to take lessons and practice at least an hour every day to remember what I was learning. Sure, you can play the keyboard simply with the fun crash course lessons, but soon the excitement will die out without the fundamental knowledge of the theory.

Surprisingly, the light up keys didn't really act as crutches as I had initially expected. When I first read about the device, I was nearly convinced that I would be dependent on them for at least a few months, but I grew out of them quickly, like training wheels on a bicycle.

However, I did discover that I learnt exponentially faster when I called over a few musician friends of mine to teach me a few tricks. It was far easier to get unstuck out of a tricky situation when I had someone to troubleshoot my problem instantly.

Once I got the hang of it, I turned to sound effects bundled with the app. They are fairly abundant and allow a decent level of customisability. I was also pleasantly surprised that it could be hooked to another MIDI compatible app on the Play Store or App Store. If you've an Apple iPhone, you're nearly future-proof, thanks to the direct integration with Garage Band.

To conclude, this is a great product if you want to kickstart your interest in playing keyboard instruments but bear in mind that it simply complements human tutors, not replace them. It is also suitable for semi-professional players who would like to fuss around with insane customisability of the tunes. It is a bit difficult to recommend the One Light Keyboard to professionals because it can be deemed crippled without a smartphone and also because it lacks weighted keys.

Although the company hasn't started selling the keyboard in India through online retailers like Amazon or Flipkart, it is expected to be available soon. It can be bought off AliExpress at $299 (about 22,000).

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