Learning a musical instrument by app: How well does it really work?

The pandemic might have given us many of us more time to learn a new instrument, but it also limited our options for one-on-one lessons during social distancing. How well can learning apps compete with a real teacher?

Whatever you dream of playing, from Foo Fighters to “Fuer Elise,” countless apps and and online programs promise to help you easily learn get to grips with new chords and scales.

But anyone looking around on the app store will quickly notice there are too many options out there. At the same time, you might be wondering: Can they really compete with a human teacher?

Some apps take a light-hearted approach, enabling you to hit the right notes in the order, and to the right rhythm, on a virtual keyboard on your smartphone or tablet.

That is not the same as a real instrument, says Volker Gerland, who works for an association of music schools in Germany. “The pressure point is missing,” he says. “The size of the keys is also different on tablets.”

You may run into difficulties later on if you are hoping to switch from these digital instruments to real ones, he says, adding that isn’t the best way to learn how to play the guitar.

Lots of video tutorials are available online, some of them free of charge, and you can find them on the main platforms. There are even whole academies for bass players, for example, with world-class stars giving master classes, says Martin Reche of Germany’s Heise online, a platform that reviews apps and devices.

A series of apps help people to learn the piano, such as Skoove, Music2Me or Flowkey for learning piano, while for the guitar, there are Yousician, Fretello or JustinGuitar.

Some of those apps can actively listen and provide feedback, according to Reche who tested a series of them, while others only provide a video but no feedback.

For the guitar, apps offer a virtual fretboard that extends across the screen. Yousician listens to you through the built-in microphones and can tell if you’re hitting the right note at the right time. “That’s how you learn to find your way around the fretboard and play melodies,” Reche says.

Apps teaching the piano work in a similar way.

There are notes along the bottom of the screen, and at the top, users see a bird’s-eye view of a virtual teacher’s piano. It shows the fingering too, explaining which finger should hit which note and when.

“If you’ve always wanted to learn to play an instrument and have a small keyboard at home, for example, the apps can help you as you’re starting out,” says Reche.

You might boost your motivation by playing famous pop tunes, for example – though the apps cover Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, too.

But all these services can’t replace a teacher, Reche says.

“They can judge whether you’ve played notes correctly and hit the timing, but not finger or body position.”

In the worst case scenario, if you develop a poor posture or style and there’s no one around to correct it, you may wind up hampering your own progress.

“Learning an instrument just by watching videos or taking lessons online I think is very problematic,” Gerland says. He says the poor sound quality is one factor, while also, teachers can’t play well with their students online.

But the apps may be good as a supplementary way to support your musical education or brush up rusty skills if it’s been a while since you played, he says.

Many music schools have been offering digital coaching throughout the pandemic, with lessons through videoconferences or by providing videos explaining exercises.

Students typically respond by sending audio recordings for teachers to assess – which are always a good way to keep in touch and provide feedback between meetings in person.

Reche notes that all the apps he tried out for mobile devices and browsers cost money. However, all offered a seven-day trial period where users could explore all the content.

“That’s enough time for you to get a good idea of what they offer and work out whether their services are the right ones for you,” says Reche.

Which apps are good for practising?

Apps for learning musical instruments cost roughly US$10 to US$20 a month (RM41 to RM82), and annual subscriptions are often cheaper. Before deciding on a version, it is worth checking whether the app is compatible with the device and operating system you want to practise with.

Martin Reche, a tester from consumer magazine Heise online in Germany, has reviewed various solutions and reports. “None of the tested providers did badly,” he said. Flowkey and Yousician, for example, listened to what and how you play. Music2me, on the other hand, was the only piano-learning app in the test that also takes the piano pedal gallery into account.

Skoove, on the other hand, offers the option of practising on the on-screen keyboard in the iOS app, for example on holiday. If you want to learn notes quickly, Fretello is a good choice, says Reche. JustinGuitar, on the other hand, most closely resembles “real” lessons. – dpa