Music Apps for Beginners (and Beyond)

Summary

Last summer, I committed to testing a bunch of music apps that I could recommend to my students. The result of that work is in this post. It took about a year to discover that I only consistently recommended two applications, plus a metronome app for those who didn’t have a separate metronome. I’m working through some recently downloaded apps that I’ll most likely add to this post, but it’s time to clean up my old post and start anew. Here is my list of music apps for beginners and beyond!

But First…

There is a bit of a bias towards iOS versus Android by app makers in education. Even though I’ve been only a PC owner since the early Windows days (and yes, I remember DOS!), I solely use an iPhone and iPad. I don’t have the resources to buy Android devices just for testing. However, I have tried to provide alternatives, and would be glad to work with any of my students to see how they perform. It’s in my best interest to recommend the best tools, since it makes lessons easier for me and my students!

The biggest lesson I learned is you get what you pay for! Free apps can be helpful to try out a paid app, but don’t expect to rely on them for anything past that. When I first tested out music apps, I tried going the free route and was totally frustrated and wasted so much time! If I recommend an app, it will be worth the $5 or less that most of these cost. The good news is that all of these apps are one-time purchases, not a monthly or yearly subscription. You own it for as long as the developer continues to support the app – which hopefully is a long time!

Highly Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes. It’s great for students who are rapidly expanding their reading of the staff, and need a bit of fun along the way.

Device: iOS, Android

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, and I sometimes demo it with students by sight-singing, instead of playing notes on the piano. It’s a hit with any student to whom I introduce it. The app uses the device’s microphone to identify pitches, and it has calibrated perfectly wherever I’ve tried it. If your piano is wickedly out of tune, it may not do so well! It’s pretty easy to use, since you choose from one of several pre-loaded levels. You could also customize your own choice of note ranges if you’d like something more challenging.

If you are a beginner and note reading is going smoothly, or especially if you are past beginner method books and playing intermediate literature, you might want to skip this app. However, at least half of my students in method books could benefit from using this app along with the landmark and interval training that I provide.

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen. It’s useful for beginning through intermediate students.

Device: iOS only
Android Alternative: Rhythm Cat

This is a super fun app, and I find it I recommend it a lot for transfer students whose teachers have not been as strict with note values as I am. While I typically recommend it for students who need it for basic note values, like half notes vs quarter notes, the app could also be helpful for learning more complex rhythmic notation that anyone continuing into more difficult music will face. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or when things get difficult, this is your app!

The interface is a bit complex and the judgmental applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but I look at that as just a minor irritation.

Metronome Apps

Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is listed at the bottom of my piano books recommendations. It is an old fashioned metronome, not an app. I have to include it because it’s still my top recommendation instead of, or as an addition to, an app.

Price: About $25

This model has been around in some form for several decades, and price has not changed much during that time. It’s an old-fashioned, electronic metronome that requires one 9-volt battery to run.  It’s not quite as old school as the Wittner Taktell, the German brand dating back to the 19th century that I grew up using.  So that makes me just a half dinosaur!

Why buy this and not just solely rely on a phone or tablet? Sometimes having a device dedicated to doing one thing is the right choice. If you need to charge your phone, or if you are sharing a device with a sibling or parent, it may not be available when you need to use it. It’s the type of device that you will only use occasionally. However, when you need to use it, you want it to be on your piano, in your piano bag, or maybe both!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Device: iOS, Android

This is the app that I often will use in lessons, since I already have my iPad out to mark attendance, check my schedule, and it is convenient to use. I have a Wittner on the top of my piano, and carry two different Seiko models in my separate piano and organ repertoire bags. It’s not as fun as the Super Metronome Groove Box, especially if you want an app to provide a backing track for playing pop songs. You get what you pay for; this one is much cheaper!

Super Metronome Groove Box

This is a more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, and compound meter.

Device: iOS, Android

The free version is just awful, but I’d try before you buy since you can get a feel for it, despite it timing out after just 16 measures! When I bought it, the price was $6.99. That’s was $4 more than I paid for the Tempo app above. You do get a much more feature-rich app. If you play some rock and pop, and want to play along with a metronome to develop a steady beat, or just because you enjoy having a rhythm section behind you, this is the app! If you just want to check an occasional tempo or play along for a few measures, stick with Tempo! 

What’s Ahead?

I’m always looking for other apps to try, and would like to add to my list to make it more comprehensive.  If you like apps, I’d be glad to forward you lists of them from other teachers that I follow, with the caveat that just because they liked them doesn’t mean either you or I will!

Posted on 2019-07-25

Summer Project – Music Apps Review

Summary

This post, Summer Project – Music Apps Review, is the first in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. The inspiration for trying out apps came from a Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Webinar titled Fresh Approaches to Old-School Teaching, presented by Peter Oehrtman. I also poured over an extensive list of app recommendations by Tim Topham of the Inner Circle.

I did the first round of testing with free apps, or paid apps where I chose the free option. I was hugely disappointed, but it proves the saying: You get what you pay for. The second round of testing went much better, since I bought most of the apps. With just a couple of exceptions, I found that I couldn’t fairly evaluate paid apps just by using the free version, since their functionality was so stripped down.

I publish this list of recommendations (and not) by how useful I find them in my teaching practice. I did find some real duds. But more prevalent was that the apps didn’t seem to offer enough to me or to my students, or had expensive monthly fees versus a one-time price. All of the apps tested were tested just on an iPad, since iOS is the preferred platform for music app developers, and that is what I happen to own! Some of these apps should also be available for iPhone or Android phones/tablets, but that’s beyond the scope of my testing.

Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes.

Price: $3.99

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, so I’m betting it will be a hit with my students. The app uses the device microphone to identify pitches, and it worked perfectly with my acoustic piano. It’s pretty easy to use, and it’s the type of app that you can use at different stages of your learning. It has the benefit of being fun as stress relief while at the same time helping reading skills. If you only want to buy one app, this is the one. It’s worth every penny!

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen.

Price: $3.99

This is a super fun app, though I don’t think it’s as essential as Note Rush. If you naturally play with good rhythm already, it’s not going to help you a tremendous amount. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or at the end of difficult rhythmic patterns, this could be your app. The interface is a bit complex and the varying applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but those are just minor irritations.

NoteStar – Shutting Down 2019-03-31

A multi-function music reading app with lots of great music, with a pay-as-you-go model.

Price: FREE with in-app purchases

Here’s a case where the free version can be somewhat fun, or at least indicative of what the paid version will be like. Once you choose your song, sheet music rolls across the screen so you can play along. On songs that are more traditional classical repertoire, you can turn off either or both the left and right hands. On songs that are more pop music, the choice is to turn off either or both the keyboard or backing track. In all cases, you get a 30-second preview, with no pressure to buy the song once it finishes. The price per song is a reasonable $1.99 to $3.99.

Recommended with Hesitation

Super Metronome Groove Box

A more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, compound meter.

Price: $6.99

The free version was just awful, since the app times out after playing just 16 measures. The paid version is solid, it can be a lot of fun if it appeals to you. Try it out at a lesson, and see whether you like it, and will use it. There’s always the cheaper Tempo app, the free Metronome app from Onyx Apps, or no app at all. I know I’m a fuddy-duddy, but should you really be using a $400 iPad for a job that a $25 metronome can handle?!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Price: $2.99

This app reminds me of what was available on the deluxe version of Seiko or Korg metronomes. I never found those features to be that helpful, preferring either a simple Seiko $25 metronome or an old-fashioned Wittner Taktell. While some may find this useful, I’d almost say you should commit to the fun Super Metronome Groove Box instead if you want a metronome alternative.

Not Recommended

Piano Maestro

A comprehensive teacher/student app for teaching various skills.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

This is an app that is intended to be managed by the teacher, with assignments sent by the teacher to students based upon email address. The student work is then updated to the teacher’s dashboard. I love the idea, but I don’t love that the paid version is either $12.99 or $19.99 per month, depending upon whether the teacher buys a site-license covering the students (more expensive) or asks each student to buy their own client app (less expensive). There is lots of value in the free version, but I fear becoming attached to the app, and inevitably facing the wall where both the students and I have to invest in the paid version to continue. I’d just rather not go there. Still installed – I’m willing to try it with a student, if she is willing, to see if I’m wrong.

Simply Piano by JoyTunes

A play along service that combines the features of Note Rush and NoteStar.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

The premise of this app is great! You get tons of material (Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift) at the beginning to mid-intermediate level, similar to the à la carte app NoteStar. You are evaluated by how well you play along similar to Note Rush. All in one app. What’s not to love you ask? The price! Any of the fun stuff you want to do, including the songs, requires a yearly subscription, with the cheapest monthly option being $9.99 per month with 12 months paid in advance! It may be the best app in the world, but I’ll never know. I’m not willing to chance a short one-week trial period expires and a $119.99 charge appears on my credit card bill without getting a chance to test the app. Uninstalled.

Garage Band

I honestly don’t know how to describe it.

Price: Free

So, what do you do with it? It is a super complex program! I thought this was supposed to have some type of teaching purpose, but I couldn’t find what that is. It seems to be a powerful program for audio recording and editing, and all of it is free. But that still leads me back to my original question! Uninstalled.

ScaleTracks

An app that aids with practicing scales.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Really, really hokey. If someone hates scales already, this app could make them hate them even more! Uninstalled before all of the others!

Last Updated 2019-02-27 | Originally Posted on 2018-05-22

Bitten by the Bach Bug

This winter, I have not suffered any type of cold or flu that is going around.

However, I have been bitten by another bug, that of the long-dead composer, J.S. Bach. How it started was rather random: I was reading an article on the NY Times Website about András Schiff, the Hungarian/British pianist whom I first saw perform at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. The article mentioned how Schiff had recently played the entire Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, a set of 24 preludes and fugues written in every major and minor key.

Typically, these types of performances are done in small spaces and often on period instruments, attended by a small cadre of dedicated fans of early music. This performance was opposite in almost every way: the performance was at the London Proms Festival, held in cavernous Royal Albert Hall, which has over 5200 seats. The piano was a modern Steinway Model D. More impressive, the performance of just under two hours was by memory and without intermission.

As a young piano student, I had to learn a few of these pieces to satisfy requirements for music school auditions, juries, and degree recitals. But they were never fun! The organ seems to be the perfect instrument for Bach, where the pedalboard can help out when there’s just too much to play in two hands. Comparing the organ, an already mature instrument, to the various keyboards of the time isn’t fair. However, after hearing Schiff play these pieces, I decided it was me who needed the second chance!

So, I decided to learn the entire volume of Book One as well, though in my own way, at my own speed. I will play the first four preludes and fugues as piano postludes at church during the month of February and add several more every few months until I finish sometime in 2019. At first, they won’t be memorized, and I’m not even committing to ever perform them as an entire set memorized. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So far, as I work through the fourth prelude and fugue in C# minor, a particularly difficult one, it’s going a lot better than it did 30 years ago!

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2018-02-02