Learning an instrument can be simultaneously one of the most gratifying and frustrating tasks a person can attempt. The cognitive benefits learning music can provide are vast, as years of scientific research has served to establish. It can improve language abilities, spatiotemporal faculties and emotional stability in children, and can help stave off cognitive and auditory processing decline in adults.
It's likely never too late to learn, but as you get older it gets harder to keep banging out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with the repetition it requires to improve. This is where technology can make the difference. New apps and online tools can ease the more unsavory aspects of learning an instrument through gamification and progress tracking which helps the learner maintain motivation. Other instruments can actually help learners visualize the pieces they're tackling, smoothing out the learning curve.
If learning an instrument is one of your New Year's resolutions, consider looking into one of the following tools and make 2016 the year you finally conquer your dream of being a musician.
Piano technique: The One Smart Piano
The One Smart Piano integrates smartphone technology with an electronic keyboard to create what is essentially a virtual piano tutor. By connecting a smartphone, tablet or computer, students can download scores and have the piano walk them through fingerings via the LED lights in the keys. To keep things interesting, the virtual instructor can help the student isolate individual hands and practice specific techniques with games to guide new learners through the most tedious practice sessions.
The instrument comes in a polished full grand or a cheaper portable keyboard that can be viewed here.
Piano technique: Wolfie
The Wolfie app functions similarly to the One Smart Piano, but doesn't require any special hardware beyond a tablet or phone capable of connecting to the App Store. Students can download sheet music and Wolfie will help them through the piece, keeping their place, turning the page, while also providing accompaniment in classic piano teacher "Chopsticks" style. Yet, the app is not intended to full replace the human interaction between teacher and student, according to Tonara CEO Guy Bauman, which developed the app.
"At it's best, technology works together with musicians, making it possible to deepen the realm of creative possibility for expression," Bauman told Mic. "With its capacity for automation, technology can support students in their pursuit for technical mastery, while freeing up space for teachers to provide an irreplaceable human component that adds the cadence and emotive texture."
Learn more about the Wolfie app's features here.
Guitar technique: Rock Prodigy
Rock Prodigy takes all of the achievement and gamification aspects that made Guitar Hero such an addictive game and applies them to an actual guitar. Through the app, play along to exercises and a wide library of songs — including "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones, "Peace Frog" by the Doors and "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. Players receive scores based on accuracy. The app offers various levels of difficultly, and tracks progress to aid in the quest to ascend to rock godhood.
The app is functional with acoustic and electric guitars and can be purchased here.
Rhythm: Touch Pianist
For aspiring musicians who feel they need to crawl before they walk, the Touch Pianist is a good starter tool. The concept is simple: Play along to well-known classical pieces, concentrating only on rhythm and tempo, while the program takes care of the melody and harmony. Touch Pianist is a great way for novices to visualize the melodic contour of pieces while helping them fine-tune their internal metronomes.
Several Beethoven, Bach and Chopin pieces are free to play at TouchPianist.com, with others available for download on the Android and App Store.
The site is a one-stop shop for pretty much any music related question or exercise. It includes lessons on odd time signatures, scales and chords, from basic major chords all the way through inversions and Neopolitan chords. It includes an ear trainer and other note identification exercises with quizzes to help test progress. There's nothing flashy about the website's design or its lessons, but for those seeking clarification on the trickier aspects of music theory, the simpler the better.
The site expanded its offerings with two paid apps in 2011, but it still has a ton of lessons, exercises and tools available free via web browsers.
Ear Training: IWasDoingAllRight
There are scores of online tools and ear training apps out in the world, but IWasDoingAllright, named after the George Gershwin tune of the same name, is one of the simplest and most effective. The website can generate intervals, chords and melodies to help the student better hear the lines he or she wants to play. The app also offers a good amount of guidance, as well as audio examples for how to use the skill while practicing.
"For beginners, I definitely recommend singing back the notes before you try playing them on your instrument," a suggestion on the site reads. "Singing will ensure that you heard the pitches correctly and it will also help you to better internalize the sound of each note."
The tool also comes in app form for the mobile addict, featuring an additional call-and-response feature that works for just about any instrument.
Notation: Musescore 2
Musescore 2 is a free tool to help students master the art of reading, writing and transcribing music. Whether writing songs and melodic lines by mouse or MIDI piano, the software transcribes along with live playing. This feature offers a great way to visualize how to music is translates from live performance onto the page offers, and offers an easy tool to help preserve the riffs discovered while practicing. It also can be used to create guitar tablature and percussion sheet music.
The software does not currently come in app form, but can be downloaded for free here.