Turn Your Mac Keyboard Into a GarageBand Piano

No MIDI? No problem

GarageBand is Apple's application for creating, editing, and having fun with music on a Mac. This free download from the Mac App Store works well with MIDI instruments. If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, you can turn your Mac keyboard into a GarageBand piano.

Information in this article applies to GarageBand 10.3.4 compatible with macOS Catalina (10.15), Mojave (10.14), and High Sierra (10.13.6).

How to Use the GarageBand On-Screen Keyboard

You may not think of your Mac keyboard as a music-making machine, but it can be. Here's how:

  1. Open GarageBand by double-clicking it in the Applications folder or selecting its icon on the Dock.

  2. Select New Project in the GarageBand sidebar.

    New Project screen in GarageBand
  3. Choose Empty Project in the main window, then select Choose in the lower-right corner of the window.

  4. In the pop-up window, choose Software Instrument and select Create.

    GarageBand select software instrument screen
  5. Select one of the Pianos in the instrument list in the Library at the left of the screen.

    GarageBand instrument selection screen
  6. A keyboard appears underneath the window. If it doesn't, select Window > Show Musical Typing in the GarageBand menu bar to display the keyboard.

    GarageBand keyboard screen

    The Musical Typing window shows the Mac keys that correspond to musical keys on the piano. The Musical Typing window also displays a keyboard above the keys, indicating which octave is currently active. This is the standard setup for playing the piano in GarageBand.

  7. Play the on-screen notes by pressing the keys on the keyboard that correspond to the notes in the Musical Typing window or by clicking the keys with the mouse in the Musical Typing window. GarageBand plays the notes and records the track.

Changing Octaves in the Standard Layout on the Mac

The standard Musical Typing keyboard displays an octave and a half at any one time mapped to the "asdf" row of keys on a standard computer keyboard. Changing octaves is performed in one of two ways.

  • Select the x key on the Musical Typing keyboard to move up one octave or the z key to move down one octave. Move multiple octaves by repeatedly selecting the x or z keys.
  • The second method uses the representation of a piano keyboard near the top of the Musical Typing window. Select the highlighted area on the piano keyboard, which represents the keys assigned to the typing keyboard, then drag the highlighted section left or right on the piano keyboard. Stop dragging when the highlighted section is in the range you want to play.

Alternative Onscreen Keyboard on the Mac

Besides the standard keyboard, you can opt to toggle to a piano keyboard with a five-octave range by selecting the keyboard icon in the upper-left corner of the Musical Typing keyboard. This piano keyboard doesn't assign any of the keys to correspond to the Mac keyboard. As a result, you can only play this keyboard one note at a time, using a mouse or trackpad.

GarageBand alternate keyboard screen

This layout offers a wider range of notes, and playing a single note at a time is helpful when editing the work you create.

GarageBand is available as a free download from the Mac App Store and the App Store for iOS mobile devices.

How to Turn Your iPad Into a GarageBand Piano

The GarageBand iPad app has a touch piano keyboard option that works differently from the Mac version. Still, it's as easy to access and as much fun to play. Shown here is the iPadOS 13 version.

  1. Open GarageBand on your iPad.

  2. Select the Alchemy Synth keyboard on the opening screen.

    Opening screen of GarageBand App for iPadOS 13
  3. Use the on-screen piano keyboard and special effects keys to create music. Tap the red dot when you're ready to record.

    GarageBand for iPad piano keyboard for iPadOS 13

How to Connect a MIDI Keyboard to a Mac

If you have a MIDI keyboard, you can connect it to your Mac. When MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was first developed, it used a 5-pin round DIN connector along with multiple cables to handle MIDI IN and MIDI OUT. These older MIDI interfaces are mostly obsolete. Most modern keyboards use standard USB ports to handle MIDI connections.

As a result, you don't need any special adapters, interface boxes, or special driver software to connect a MIDI keyboard to a Mac. Plug the MIDI keyboard into an available Mac USB port.

When you launch GarageBand, the app detects the MIDI device. To try out your MIDI keyboard, create a new project in GarageBand, then choose Project Templates in the left sidebar. Select Keyboard Collection.

Project template screen in GarageBand

When the project opens, touch a few keys on the keyboard to hear the keyboard through GarageBand.

Reset a MIDI Interface

If you don't hear the MIDI keyboard in GarageBand, reset the GarageBand MIDI interface.

  1. Select GarageBand > Preferences from the GarageBand menu bar.

    GarageBand Preferences
  2. Select the Audio/MIDI tab in the Preferences toolbar.

    Audio/Midi tab of GarageBand Preferences
  3. Select Reset MIDI Drivers if you don't see your MIDI device detected.

You should now be able to play your MIDI keyboard through your Mac ​and record your sessions using GarageBand.