Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

5 Tech Tricks for Learning a Musical Instrument

Let the music flow through you.

Popular Science

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

happy person playing the keyboard on a bed

Above all, music should be fun. Soundtrap / Unsplash

Whether you want to pursue a career in music or simply enjoy making sweet sounds that only you will hear, learning how to play an instrument is one of the most popular ways to share your melodies with the world. It can feel like a daunting, frustrating task, but technology can smooth out the learning curve.

I’m a musician with more than four years of experience as a music tutor, and I’ve never forgotten how crucial the ability to record and repeatedly review my practice sessions was when I decided to learn how to play the guitar and piano when I was a teenager. Repetitive, deliberate practice helps you learn faster and more efficiently, and without recordings, I don’t think I would have been able to improve my skills the way I did.

No matter what your ultimate goal is, playing music offers vast cognitive benefits for children and adults alike, and you should consider using the following tools as you embark upon your musical journey.

Use apps to learn instrumental techniques

Mastering instrumental techniques is the most tedious part of the learning process. Instrument technique apps can help you practice while keeping you engaged.

When I began to learn the piano at around 17 years old, The One Smart Piano app (free for Android and iOS) helped me master the fingerings and learn how to play with both hands. Built by a music-focused company, this app combines both software and hardware. You install the program on your phone, computer, or tablet, then use a cable to connect your device to one of the company’s electronic pianos (sold separately). These instruments have lights built into their keys that illuminate to indicate which ones you need to play when you pick a song from the app. Thousands of songs are available for free, and the rest can be purchased. You can also use the app with a normal piano, if you have one. This helped me start playing music without the stress of reading a music sheet and hitting the right keys at the same time, which I learned later.

You can find numerous similar apps like Yousician (free for Android and iOS, with additional subscription features starting at $20) or online platforms like OnlinePianist (which starts at $5 a month but also has limited free Android and iOS apps). There’s also the kid-focused Hoffman Academy (which has free videos on YouTube, but more features require a subscription). All of these programs will help you learn instrumental techniques—just search for the one that suits your preference.

Find tools that will hone your ear training

Ear training helps you develop an ear for music—the ability to connect musical elements in your mind. With a good ear, you can connect chords, scales, pitches, intervals, and the like on the fly. It will also be easier to play musical instruments without relying on additional tools such as reading a music sheet. Ear preparation is what helps you grow a musical “instinct” that enables you to play by ear naturally, improvise incredible solos, and compose your songs.

I did a lot of ear training exercises when I first started learning with a tutor, but ear trainer apps helped me perfect my abilities. Tools such as IWasDoingAllRight (free for iOS or the web) generate the various musical elements in a way that helps learners hear each line better. I would sing back the notes first, then play them on my piano or guitar. Singing helped me internalize the sound of each note and assured me that I had heard the pitches well since I was able to sing back the right notes.

Of course, there are different apps out there that you might find more convenient, such as Teoria (free), TrainYourEars ($58), and My Ear Trainer (free for the web, Android, and iOS, with in-app purchases).

Get some music-making software

Learning how to play a musical instrument takes a lot of practice. When I was taking classes to learn how to play different instruments, including guitar, music production software helped me polish my skills at home. After recording myself practicing, I’d edit and evaluate them inside the software while exploring various virtual instruments and editing tools. As a result, I saw my creativity come out and my skills enhanced.

Music production software offers sampled instruments, effects, synthesizers, and much more in a single platform. You can use these with arranging tools and sequencers to help create finished tracks from scratch. No doubt, the tools you pick will depend on the music you make. You can choose from different companies, but the best music production software can run in your digital audio workstation (DAW) or as a standalone.

Many companies offer music production software, such as PreSonus Studio One, Native, and Bitwig Studio. You can also find free music-making software if you can’t afford the initial costs, including Audacity, Komplete Start, and LMMS. These are equally good, but they lack some of the features that the pricier ones have. Personally, Komplete Start was a great help to me.

Watch YouTube videos

You can learn pretty much anything on YouTube, and its musical instrument tutorials came through for me when I was learning to play. I watched Hoffman Academy’s videos to learn to play the piano, and learned how to hold a guitar from channels like JustinGuitar by Justin Sandercoe.

Even better: All you need to access YouTube’s thousands of instructional videos is a good internet connection. These lessons are easy to watch and affordable (they’re free, of course) for those who can’t afford to pay a music teacher. But remember, despite its wealth of information, YouTube can only carry you so far. If you find you’ve hit a plateau in your training, you may want to consider hiring a tutor.

Make videos of yourself

Having a mentor guide you along your musical journey is a good way to stay on track and learn tricks that will sustain you as you grow. A mentor will also help you improve your skills faster, develop a network if you want to build a music career, keep you motivated, encourage you, and uplift your confidence. But before the creation of an easily shareable video, you had to live relatively close to your chosen mentor. These days, that’s not the case—videos helped my mentors see me play when I practiced at home, no matter where in the world we were. They would then assess my session and provide feedback on the areas where I could improve. I used to share large files with my friends and family members using file transfers and sometimes would ask them what they liked best about my music performance.

You can also try making videos for your own use as you play your instrument. When you film yourself practicing, the most important part is getting high-quality audio. You can use any kind of device, as long as the audio sounds good. You can also try to record the audio separately, then add the audio over a video of your liking if you want to show it to your friends or mentor. For best results, use a dynamic microphone made for recording music so you don’t pick up the background noise. One that I recommend for recording guitar is the Shure SM-57. After you make the videos, you can take them to your music teacher or private tutor. Even if you’re working alone, it can be helpful to watch yourself play.

And while technology is certainly making things easier, try not to rely entirely on an app or series of videos to turn you into the musician you want to be. Music is at its best when it’s unique and carries a bit of your soul along with it.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Popular Science

This post originally appeared on Popular Science and was published July 9, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

Want more stories like this?

Join PopSci's newsletter