Two decades ago, my drum teacher Marty told me how jealous he was of the millennial generation. When sweaty, teenage Marty learned to play, he wore out 10-second increments on his vinyl records as he struggled to master various rolls, cymbal splashes, and fills. My generation could easily loop tough sections on our favorite System of a Down fills with our bricklike iPods or CD players.
I’m beginning to feel similar envy of people just starting to learn instruments today. After two decades of formal lessons and a four-year conservatory degree, I’m convinced a good portion of my spendy education could have been substituted with caffeine, a decent iPad, and YouTube. It’s easier than ever to learn how to play music.
I asked friends, colleagues, and fellow music nerds for some of their favorite apps, sites, and videos. The best part? Most of these materials cost nothing. If you are interested in laying out some cash, check out our other guide on the Best Music Gear for Learning an Instrument. Otherwise, dust off that old ax, because now is the time to shred.
Updated July 2021: We updated links and pricing, and added a few new favorite apps.
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Apps for Learning
The following apps are great tools to help you hone the skills you need to get better at playing an instrument.
Fender’s app-based learning platform is the best we’ve found for beginners, and after a free trial, it’s only $10 per month. You pick your instrument (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, or ukulele), then you select the style of music you’re trying to learn. Fender’s experts then provide a series of well-produced video lessons to steadily improve your playing. There are different tiers to ascend to, and everything builds off of something that came before. If you can’t spring for private lessons, Fender Play is the next best thing.
Yousician uses the built-in mic on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to give you instant feedback while you play. It’s the closest you’ll get to a real-instrument version of Guitar Hero. There are specific lessons for guitar, piano, bass, ukelele, or voice, all of which have a bright and easy-to-follow interface that feels like a video game. I particularly like the weekly challenges, which reward you for constantly learning new music. There is a seven-day free trial, but Yousician does have a subscription cost for premium service.
Soundbrenner, a Metronome App
Every musician should practice with a metronome—the clacky thing that helps you keep a beat perfectly in time. Your grandma probably had an annoying one that actually swung back and forth, but these days I use this free app from Soundbrenner. You can easily program various accents, sounds, and time signatures, and if you ever get the Soundbrenner Core—a nifty vibrating smartwatch that pairs to the app—you’ll already know the interface. Don’t like this one? Just search your respective app store; there are tons of great free options.
Good Tuning Apps
Like metronome apps, you can easily find a good tuner to keep your instruments sounding as they should. My favorite is Guitar Tuna, which integrates with Yousician. It has a simple interface, and it works for all stringed instruments. If you play a horn or other non-stringed instrument, try this chromatic tuner from Piascore. You still might want a mechanical tuner for better accuracy.
Learn to Read Scary Notes!
Take it from a drummer who was forced through years of conservatory piano lessons: Reading music can be intimidating. That’s why I love Notes Trainer, which uses a built-in piano interface to teach you where every note is on the keyboard. It even creates exercises to practice, based on the specific scales or sounds you’re trying to get under your fingers.
Don’t use iOS? Try Sight Reading Trainer. It can actually listen to your piano to make sure you’re playing the right notes.
Multitimer for Effective Practice
One of the most useful apps I’ve recently discovered is Multitimer. I often have a lot of different exercises or types of practicing to do in one session, and in order to manage my time, it’s super helpful to have multiple countdown timers to easily toggle through on screen. My 15 minutes for scales never bleeds into my 10-minute chord exercises, and so on. By setting up Multitimer ahead of my sessions, I never forget to set a new timer on my phone or lose sight of my overall practice schedule. It seems simple, but this little tool really has made my musical education more efficient.
Amazing Slow Downer
The Amazing Slow Downer’s website still looks straight from 1998, but the software itself works great on desktop, iOS, or Android. You input a tune and then adjust what speed it plays back at without affecting the pitch. It’s perfect for anyone trying to slowly learn one of their favorite musician’s solos, and it’s a very popular app among jazz musicians for this reason.
How to Find Music Online
The best way to learn how to play music is to find music you want to play. If you hear a tune you don’t recognize on the radio, or you’re sitting in a café and a tune you like comes on, Shazam will help you figure out what it is, so you can try to play it later.
Soundslice is a great website that features both music notation software and awesome notated lessons from pros around the globe. You do have to pay for much of the music, but that cash largely goes to the musicians who created the lessons in the first place. For something free, check out Musescore, which has tons of free sheet music for various instruments and can even be used to notate and print your own music. Into jazz and blues classics? Try iReal Pro, which allows you to replace your printed “fake book” (jazz books with tons of music) with a digital version. You can even change the keys of songs quickly, making learning songs around the instrument even easier.