Piano Roll: 9 Ways to Use the MIDI Piano in Your DAW

The piano roll is used in almost every DAW. It’s the main interface you use to control and sequence MIDI information in your tracks.

Since the early days of MIDI in the 80s, producers have used the power of sequencing to take control of synths to create and shape their melody, arpeggios, chords and beyond.

Today’s modern piano roll gives visual feedback and control over MIDI that producers could only dream of.

But to get the most out of the piano roll in your DAW there’s a handful of tips and tricks are that super useful to know.

Today’s modern piano roll gives control over MIDI that producers could only dream of.

In this article, I’ll go over everything you need to know about the DAW’s piano roll.

By the end, you’ll have a better idea of how to take advantage of the piano roll’s editing features, scale modes and much more.

Let’s get started.

What is a piano roll?

In today’s DAW the piano roll is a virtual grid representing time on the horizontal axis and MIDI notes on the vertical axis—it contains the entire range of notes that the DAW can play.

The piano roll in most DAWs ranges ten octaves from C-2 to C8.

When a DAW user presses the play button the time marker will pass through the roll and any notes written on the grid will be triggered to play a software or hardware instrument.

Originally piano rolls were rolls of hole-punched paper that could be inserted into mechanical player pianos.

Notes can be either recorded using a MIDI keyboard when a DAW user presses the record button, or notes can be clicked or pasted in using the piano roll’s editing functions.

Piano roll origins

Originally piano rolls were rolls of hole-punched paper that could be inserted into mechanical player pianos to play a specific piece based on using the various punch holes to trigger each note.

Today’s digital piano rolls got their name because the grid is programmed with MIDI notes that, much like the analog hole punches, tell the DAW what notes to play.

Of course, MIDI piano rolls are far more advanced than their predecessors—they’re much more about giving visual control over sequences of notes in the digital realm than they are about player pianos in western saloons.

Let’s look at all the ways modern piano rolls make songwriting and beat-making easier than ever.

How to use the piano roll to write tracks

The piano roll is where your DAW’s MIDI editor lives. In most DAWs the MIDI editor is organized as a grid representing time on the horizontal axis and a piano keyboard on the vertical axis.

Using a MIDI editor you can pick and edit the notes you want your MIDI instruments to play—whether these be software VST instruments MIDI controls for external gear.

There’s many ways to do MIDI editing on the piano roll—here’s nine tips and tricks to know.

1. MIDI pencil

The first way most people start playing with MIDI editing on the piano roll is with a MIDI pencil.

The MIDI pencil makes it possible to literally draw MIDI notes into the grid.

The length and value of the notes are determined by where on the piano you click and the time subdivisions the grid is set to.

For example, you might set the grid to be subdivided into quarter notes, so every note you pencil in would be worth one quarter note.

Using a MIDI pencil is a fun way to mess around and try out ideas—but if you want to get repetitive arrangement tasks or be more organized about your note choices there’s other editing tools that might work better.

2. Copy and paste

One of the cooler things about MIDI editing is that it works just like any other piece of digital technology, in that you can easily copy and paste ideas around anywhere.

This is especially useful because most DAWs make it easy to copy and paste everything into the grid—meaning anything you move around will stay in time.

There’s many ways to use copy and paste in the piano roll.

For example, once you have an idea you like, it’s super easy to select different notes and move them around to invert chords, highlight melodies, create different voices or whatever else.

To make it easier to duplicate ideas without having to manually copy and paste every time check out the duplicate shortcut that most DAWs use.

Hot tip: An easy way to select specific notes on the same key is to double click the key on the piano roll— this will select any associated notes on the grid so you can quickly move them around to try different inversions and chord types.

3. Select, transpose and loop

Aside from copying and pasting, the piano roll’s visual interface lends itself well to arrangement-related experimentation with basic editing functions like select and transpose.

Having the ability to lasso a group of notes and then slide them forward or backward, or transpose them up or down, makes it easy to hear how your ideas sound in different configurations.

Editing notes on the piano rolls work well when looped since you can get feedback about what your changes sound like almost instantly.

In most DAWs you can set the length of your piano roll loop by dragging the upper right corner of the piano roll.

4. Deactivate or mute

Muting notes in your piano roll is a simple editing concept—it’s a great way to audition different ideas and get an idea of what different notes do when added or removed from your arrangement.

Deactivating or muting will work differently depending on the DAW you use, but omitting a note to help with experimenting is always a super useful way to figure out what’s needed in your arrangement.

5. Multi MIDI editing

Multi MIDI editing is another tool you can use in most DAWs to edit the MIDI data sent to multiple instruments on different tracks.

In FL Studio, for example, you can select multiple instruments and see the MIDI notes for each stacked on top of each other.

This makes it really easy to see how your arrangement lines up between each instrument—especially if you’re using multiple instruments with different timbres.

The same can be done in Ableton Live by selecting multiple clips and opening the MIDI editor in the clip view.

6. Quantize and groove pool

One of the most powerful parts of using digital music production software is that it gives you a ton of power to correct (or simulate) human error.

That’s why the quantize tool in the piano roll is so powerful, it makes it super easy to fix any mistakes when recording your keystrokes into the DAW.

In most DAWs you can control quantize levels to retain some of the human feel in your recordings instead of quantizing to a 100% robotic level.

And, if you want to quantize whatever’s written in your piano roll to a specific groove or swing, most DAWs come with a groove pool that will quantize your MIDI parts to a specific feel.

7. Scale lock

Scale lock is possibly one of the most useful aspects of the modern piano roll.

With scale lock, you can set your grid to only show notes from a specific key or scale.

With scale lock, you can set your grid to only show notes from a specific key or scale.

So, if you’re working in A minor you can scale lock to only show the notes that belong to the A minor scale.

Or if you want to write melodies in a mode, like the Lydian mode for example, you can scale lock the piano roll to only show the notes belonging to the mode.

When it’s impossible to play a wrong note, experimenting with different scales modes gets so much easier!

Some DAWs like FL Studio and Ableton will even offer suggestions about what note to play next within the scale locked piano roll to help with writing complementary bass lines or melodies.

8. Chord packs and melody packs

MIDI packs are another fairly useful tool for sparking inspiration in the piano roll.

If you’re not super up to date with your chord theory, there’s tons of pre-arranged MIDI chord progressions that you can download for free and drag and drop into the piano roll.

For example, we’ve covered lofi chord progressions with included free MIDI packs in past articles.

The coolest part is that once you have the chords copied into your DAW, you have total freedom to play around with any note to find the voicing that matches the rest of your arrangement best.

MIDI packs are super great to get your creative juices flowing—but don’t let them limit your creativity, just because a MIDI pack claims to be theoretically sound doesn’t mean it’s more “right” than any of your ideas.

9. Reverse and invert

From what I can tell this feature is exclusive to Ableton—but the idea behind it is definitely replicable in other DAWs using copy and paste.

In Ableton’s piano roll there’s a reverse button and an invert button that will either reverse or change the inversion of any selected range of MIDI notes in the piano roll.

This is excellent for experimentation—especially if you’re less knowledgeable about music theory and struggle with finding interesting inversions.

Roll one up

The piano roll is a huge part of working within a DAW, especially when writing and recording with MIDI instruments.

This visual representation of your music is incredibly powerful when it comes to writing and editing your ideas—so take some time to get to know it.

There’s so many ways to use piano rolls, whether it be simple editing, drawing in ideas or using a MIDI pack.

So, dive in and start exploring the piano roll in your DAW!