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How to Take Music Lessons Whenever (and Wherever) Works for You

Playing an instrument can be a rewarding hobby, but if finding the time and a teacher is a challenge, many apps can help get you started.

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The Yousician app combines video lessons with songs and exercises for several stringed instruments and voice training.CreditCreditThe New York Times
  • March 13, 2019

You’re never too old to learn to play a musical instrument, but finding a tutor and the time for lessons is another matter. If working with a personal teacher isn’t an option for you — or your interest in noodling around on a guitar, a piano or another instrument is still at the casual level — turn to your laptop or mobile device to learn the basics in your own time and space. Here are a few ways to get started.

Obviously, you’ll need an instrument to play. If you’re not ready to commit the cash to buy, check your local listings for rental options. Music Rental Central is one national site that leases a wide variety of band and orchestra instruments; prices depend on what you’re playing, but a starter violin rents for less than $16 a month.

Buying a used instrument can save you money over a new one, but check the return policy. If you can, try the used instrument before you buy it to make sure the sound and feel suit you. In addition to eBay and Craigslist, you can search and buy used gear on Reverb.

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Musical instruments for sale and advice for buying them are plentiful on the web. Musician’s Friend is one site that has both in one place.CreditThe New York Times

Should nothing but new do for you, fresh gear is only a web search away. If you want detailed buying advice, check out the Musician’s Friend site, which has a Beginner’s Store area.

If you want the flexibility to take your music lessons anywhere, your app store has plenty of options. Most have a free lesson and then charge a subscription, although old-school Windows and Mac software like eMedia Music’s instrument training programs are complete by download or disc for about $60.

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The SimplyPiano app uses easy-to-follow instructions on the screen and works with any piano or keyboard.CreditThe New York Times

For keyboard instruction on a mobile device, Simply Piano (for Android and iOS) takes a student from finding middle C to playing along with onscreen guides and gamelike animations. The program is free with in-app purchases, and you can start the lessons with an onscreen keyboard. Eventually, though, you’ll need to get your own external keyboard; the software provides performance feedback by listening to you play.

Yousician (for Android, iOS, Windows and MacOS) uses videos, animations and performance feedback to teach guitar, bass, piano, ukulele or voice; monthly plans start at $20 a month; cheaper annual plans are also available. Fender Play for Android and iOS ($10 a month) has similar instructional videos with “bite-size” lessons for learning guitar, bass or ukulele. And, in addition to apps for specific instruments, you can find instruction for specialty styles — like Tunefox for bluegrass.

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Some apps focus on a particular style of music and the instruments used for it. For example, Tunefox for iOS and the web offers lessons for banjo, guitar, bass or mandolin.CreditThe New York Times

If you don’t want to invest in an app and just want to learn a specific song or technique, a quick search of YouTube or Vimeo can reel in homemade video lessons made by players sharing their knowledge.

You can get more structured video lessons from the pros on the ArtistWorks site. For as little as $24 a month, for example, you can learn French horn from William Caballero of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or mandolin from Mike Marshall, a longtime recording artist.

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Apple’s GarageBand for Mac includes free video instruction for guitar and piano.CreditThe New York Times

Got a Mac? Apple’s free GarageBand software is another outlet for guitar and piano lessons through video and onscreen graphics, and you can download lessons from within the program. (The lessons are not available in the iOS version.)

If you learn better with immediate feedback from a human teacher — but don’t have one in your area — you can get video-chat lessons with a qualified instructor on the other side of the webcam. Sites like Lessonface, LiveMusicTutor, Musika and TakeLessons let you search by instrument or browse the instructors. Prices vary, and some teachers offer a free sample lesson.

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Lessonface is one of the many sites where you can browse for a live teacher and get instruction over a webcam.CreditThe New York Times

Most recorded instruction demonstrates how to play the instrument through video or animation. You may also get chord diagrams or tablature (notation that shows where your fingers go on the strings) as a reference. But if you want to study music theory, train your ear or learn how to read music, search for an appropriate app.

EarMaster (for Windows, Mac and iPad; prices vary) is one option. You can also dive into a theory class or study an instrument on LinkedIn Learning for $25 to $30 a month. Among others online, the Open University site has a free introductory music-theory course.

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EarMaster for iPad, Windows and Mac is one of several programs that teach ear training and music theory.CreditThe New York Times

Once you have found the app, site or online teacher that works best with your life, you just need to do one more thing: Fire up that calendar app and schedule time to practice, practice, practice.

J.D. Biersdorfer has been answering technology questions — in print, on the web, in audio and in video — since 1998. She also writes the Sunday Book Review’s “Applied Reading” column on ebooks and literary apps, among other things. @jdbiersdorfer

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