Cheat Sheet: How to play notes (and chords) on the Launchpad

A tutorial for using the Novation Launchpad Pro as a synth keyboard.

What this is about

Last summer, I borrowed a Launchpad to take along on my holiday, and fell in love with it. The Launchpad is a new instrument; you have to relearn the movements of your fingers. These considerations and patterns are supposed to make learning easier.

Launchpad Pro sitting on top of my piano

I am not much of a musician, nor do I know that much musical theory. The few musical skills I use these days are mostly self-taught. When I started discovering synthesizers, I got myself a table of the basic minor and major chords and their inversions. This helped me produce the first harmonies, just like someone learning the first chords on a guitar.

There are different possibilities to use the Launchpad Pro as a keyboard. I’ll focus on most accessible layouts. There may be other, better, layouts, especially for dedicated scales, which I will not dive into (because I still have to get to grips with the first layout).

I am also ignoring the theoretical possibility to use the buttons around the 8×8 pad grid as well; this is all for playing notes on the 8×8 pad grid only.

„Note Mode“ – Chromatic fourths, five-column layout

This is the default keyboard mode for the Launchpad Pro: It is what you get when you press the „Note“ key using it with Ableton Live, or what it shows when used as a standalone MIDI controller. I must admit that I have trouble getting my head wrapped around it, for reasons described below.

Layout basics

As you know, a chromatic scale in Western music (i.e. the basic pattern for playable notes) consists of 12 half-tone notes per octave. The Note Mode wraps these 12 notes around 5 columns, which gives you 40 notes – actually 43 – which is a little bit more than three octaves. The remainder of the Launchpad’s 64 pads are used as wrap-around padding, „overlap“ in Novation parlance – meaning that 21 notes are mapped twice, to two pads  each.

5 columns means: Pressing a pad, and the one directly above it, gives you a fourth interval – hence „Chromatic Fourths“ layout. (It is similar to the standard tuning of a guitar, where the first four strings are also tuned in fourths.)

Note Mode: 5 columns with paddingThe five-column layout means that you have to play scales and chords in variations depending not only on the chord/scale you play but also on the octave you are in – a C1maj chord and a D1maj differ in fingering, a C1maj chord is played differently from a C2maj chord. To cut down on these variations and make playing runs easier, the five columns are padded as described above – three extra keys per row allow you simply to shift a pattern to the right instead of wrapping it around.

Thanks to the padding, you can now use the very same finger pattern for a major chord over the foundation note C2 as for the C1maj chord. Unfortunaly, three notes overlap is not enough: chords and scales with a foundation note in the fifth column still have to be wrapped around. Which means that you have to learn two variations of every chord or scale pattern – one shifted, one wrapped.

Playing minor base chords: Due to the padding with additional keys that double the three rightmost keys, a simple minor chord can be played in three variations.

Lost? Stay with me, it all gets clearer in a moment.

Playing scales

A major scale is pretty simple, just follow the scale pattern from the „C“ note:

As on the piano keyboard, you just get to a natural minor („Aeolian“) scale by starting on the sixth note:

Playing chords

Base major chord:

1st chord inversion – please note that due to two notes sitting in one column, there are only two possible variations:

--*-- --*-- ----*

2nd chord inversion – please note that due to two notes sitting in one column, there are only two possible variations::

*---* *-------*- ----* ----*

The same for minor chords – base, 1st and 2nd inversion. The base note of the chord is marked in dark blue in the inversions:

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The Cheat Sheet

A PDF version of these graphics can be found here.

User Mode, Scale Mode – „Chromatic Maj3rds“ four-column layout

I noted above that to me the „Note Mode“ is somewhat counter-intuitive, so I looked for alternative modes of play. When you search for Launchpad tutorials, you come across a discipline called „Launchpad covers“ – the performer takes an EDM hit from the charts, chops it up in Ableton Live, arranges the samples to be played on a Launchpad, program the sequences to a MIDI lightshow, and film yourself triggering the sequences.

Lightshows and Launchpad covers use a different layout – the „User Mode“.

Layout basics

„User Mode“ is similar to the „Drum Mode“ and does not use the five-column, „Chromatic 4ths“ layout with padding, but a four-column, „Chromatic Major 3rds“ layout without padding, organized in two pillars. Note Mode layout (left), User Mode layout (right)

The User Mode layout has the huge advantage of being much more regular and repetitive: the 12-note chromatic scale does not shift over the whole width of the pads but repeats itself every three rows, with the foundational C note always in the leftmost column. This means that you have to learn only four sets of basic chord and scale patterns – one for each column.

There is an even easier way – set the Launchpad Pro to a four-column layout with a repetitive padding of four. In 2016, Novation introduced a „Scale Mode“ update which enabled to set the launchpad to a scale (documentation here – PDF). Press Shift+Note to set Scale Mode and press the green pad in the upper right corner to activate it, then select the fourth pad in the top row – to select an overlap of four – and violet pad no. 16, that is the rightmost pad in the second row, to select a chromatic scale. If you press Note now the Launchpad is set to a chromatic scale with an padding („overlap“) of four columns, which basically gives you the same thing as the User Mode – without having to adjust for the wrap-around when transposing chords and scales. This layout offers perfect symmetry over two octaves, meaning that  You can play the same pattern from each basic note now.

Although the four-column, four-overlap layout gives you only 36 notes, it has the additional advantage that almost every key is doubled – which makes marimba-style playing with two fingers/hands for the same note/interval much easier and more natural.

…but I won’t dive into that yet.

As noted above, I am quite busy getting to grips with the „Chromatic Fourths“ layout. So that’s it for the moment.

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