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The Best Sites, Apps, and YouTube Channels to Learn Music

Wired logo Wired 7/23/2021 Parker Hall

Two decades ago, my drum teacher Marty told me how jealous he was of the millennial generation. When sweaty, teenage Marty learned to play, he wore out 10-second increments on his vinyl records as he struggled to master various rolls, cymbal splashes, and fills. My generation could easily loop tough sections on our favorite System of a Down fills with our bricklike iPods or CD players. 

I'm beginning to feel similar envy of people just starting to learn instruments today. After two decades of formal lessons and a four-year conservatory degree, I'm convinced a good portion of my spendy education could have been substituted with caffeine, a decent iPad, and YouTube. It's easier than ever to learn how to play music.

I asked friends, colleagues, and fellow music nerds for some of their favorite apps, sites, and videos. The best part? Most of these materials cost nothing. If you are interested in laying out some cash, check out our other guide on the Best Music Gear for Learning an Instrument. Otherwise, dust off that old ax, because now is the time to shred. 

Updated July 2021: We updated links and pricing, and added a few new favorite apps.

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Apps for Learning

© Photograph: Yousician

The following apps are great tools to help you hone the skills you need to get better at playing an instrument.

Fender Play

Web, iOS, Android

Fender's app-based learning platform is the best we've found for beginners, and after a free trial, it's only $10 per month. You pick your instrument (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, or ukulele), then you select the style of music you're trying to learn. Fender's experts then provide a series of well-produced video lessons to steadily improve your playing. There are different tiers to ascend to, and everything builds off of something that came before. If you can't spring for private lessons, Fender Play is the next best thing.

Yousician

MacOS/Windows, iOS, Android

Yousician uses the built-in mic on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to give you instant feedback while you play. It's the closest you'll get to a real-instrument version of Guitar Hero. There are specific lessons for guitar, piano, bass, ukelele, or voice, all of which have a bright and easy-to-follow interface that feels like a video game. I particularly like the weekly challenges, which reward you for constantly learning new music. There is a seven-day free trial, but Yousician does have a subscription cost for premium service.

Soundbrenner, a Metronome App

iOS, Android

Every musician should practice with a metronome—the clacky thing that helps you keep a beat perfectly in time. Your grandma probably had an annoying one that actually swung back and forth, but these days I use this free app from Soundbrenner. You can easily program various accents, sounds, and time signatures, and if you ever get the Soundbrenner Core—a nifty vibrating smartwatch that pairs to the app—you'll already know the interface. Don't like this one? Just search your respective app store; there are tons of great free options.

Good Tuning Apps

Like metronome apps, you can easily find a good tuner to keep your instruments sounding as they should. My favorite is Guitar Tuna, which integrates with Yousician. It has a simple interface, and it works for all stringed instruments. If you play a horn or other non-stringed instrument, try this chromatic tuner from Piascore. You still might want a mechanical tuner for better accuracy.

Learn to Read Scary Notes!

Take it from a drummer who was forced through years of conservatory piano lessons: Reading music can be intimidating. That's why I love Notes Trainer, which uses a built-in piano interface to teach you where every note is on the keyboard. It even creates exercises to practice, based on the specific scales or sounds you're trying to get under your fingers.

Don't use iOS? Try Sight Reading Trainer. It can actually listen to your piano to make sure you're playing the right notes.

Multitimer for Effective Practice

One of the most useful apps I've recently discovered is Multitimer. I often have a lot of different exercises or types of practicing to do in one session, and in order to manage my time, it's super helpful to have multiple countdown timers to easily toggle through on screen. My 15 minutes for scales never bleeds into my 10-minute chord exercises, and so on. By setting up Multitimer ahead of my sessions, I never forget to set a new timer on my phone or lose sight of my overall practice schedule. It seems simple, but this little tool really has made my musical education more efficient.

Amazing Slow Downer

The Amazing Slow Downer's website still looks straight from 1998, but the software itself works great on desktop, iOS, or Android. You input a tune and then adjust what speed it plays back at without affecting the pitch. It's perfect for anyone trying to slowly learn one of their favorite musician's solos, and it's a very popular app among jazz musicians for this reason.

How to Find Music Online

The best way to learn how to play music is to find music you want to play. If you hear a tune you don't recognize on the radio, or you're sitting in a café and a tune you like comes on, Shazam will help you figure out what it is, so you can try to play it later.

Soundslice is a great website that features both music notation software and awesome notated lessons from pros around the globe. You do have to pay for much of the music, but that cash largely goes to the musicians who created the lessons in the first place. For something free, check out Musescore, which has tons of free sheet music for various instruments and can even be used to notate and print your own music. Into jazz and blues classics? Try iReal Pro, which allows you to replace your printed "fake book" (jazz books with tons of music) with a digital version. You can even change the keys of songs quickly, making learning songs around the instrument even easier.

As far as guitar-specific tabs and chord charts go, we like the premium app-based version of Ultimate Guitar, but the ad-soaked interface on the website (and the free app version) is annoying. Still, you'll find everything there—though some user-submitted tabs are more accurate than others.

Apps You Play Like Instruments

graphical user interface © Photograph: Roland

Mess around and create new music using these playable apps.

Moog Model D

iOS

This little app from the legendary analog synth company Moog is actually a powerful piece of gear, with a number of awesome preset patches you can use to play along with your favorite music or to write your own. They're so good, I've used them (via a 3.5 mm-to-1/4 inch adapter) on my own studio recordings, with good results.

Roland Zenbeats

iOS, Android

Roland Zenbeats is a great app for creating beats to jam along with. There are classic Roland-made sounds, like those from the legendary TR-808 drum machine, and you can play and record loops super easily using the touchscreen interface.

Korg Module

iOS

This app from Korg starts out as a great grand piano app, but there's a pretty cool secret under the hood: You can purchase sound kits from many of the company's other iconic synthesizers for about $20 each, which makes this a great way to test out new keyboards before you actually buy one (or to cheaply and easily get a really cool synth tone on your recordings).

YouTube Channels We Love

a man holding a guitar © Photograph: Justin Guitar

From product reviews and interviews with famous musicians to thorough lessons plans, here are some of my favorite YouTube channels for learning various instruments.

JustinGuitar

Justin Sandercoe is one of the original kings of online guitar lessons and YouTube videos, and it shows. He's got amazing free material that will take you all the way from tuning up your first guitar to shredding solos over advanced chord changes. There are dozens of incredibly useful videos, and his upbeat, Australian accent always seems to take some of the stress out of exercises you struggle with.

Guitareo

Guitareo is a great resource for learning how to play specific songs, in addition to having many of the same beginner lessons that JustinGuitar offers. They also have videos telling you what not to do—helpful when you're first starting out.

Drumeo

With everything from gear reviews and lessons to masterclasses with some of the best drummers on earth, Drumeo is an excellent channel for aspiring drummers. Everything is very well produced, and they even have a series of free beginner lessons to get you started.

Scott's Bass Lessons

There are tons of fun lessons on Scott Devine's bass-focused YouTube channel, but it also has tips-and-tricks videos and even some gear reviews. This is a great channel to follow if you want to learn more about every aspect of the world of bass, not just how to play it.

Mangold Project

It's tougher than you might think to find good beginner piano lessons on YouTube, but I've enjoyed this one, which offers lessons on everything from how to read sheet music to how to play various styles of piano. I especially like the "Piano Quickie" lessons—short videos that demonstrate a new technique or idea.

Try Playing With Backing Tracks!

I'm trying to get my soloing together on guitar. I just learned that if you enter "play along" and your chosen musical key—or the system of related chords—in the search bar on YouTube, you can find a mess of great tunes to play. The best part of learning music is playing real music! Never practice your scales without a free backing band again.

Apps for Recording and Streaming

graphical user interface © Photograph: Apple

For most purposes, using your cell phone's recording app is the easiest way to listen back to your playing. But it's possible to record high-quality tracks using certain apps these days.

GarageBand for iPad

iOS

GarageBand is a lot more powerful than most give it credit for, especially on an iPad. You can use the app to create beats, record parts, and even mix songs on the fly. Plug in an external microphone and you've got one of the most powerful and affordable recording studios available today that's also portable.

BandLab

Web, iOS, Android

BandLab has a lot of social media and community features that you might not use, but it also has one of the best recording interfaces around. You can autopitch your vocals, add effects, and even tune up inside the app. You can also write down your lyrics between takes and easily upload finished demos to the cloud.

Remote Controllers for Recording Software

If you use or would like to use a digital audio workstation (DAW), free apps can turn your iPad or other tablet devices into a controller. I love the Studio One iOS app on my iPad (my preferred DAW), but there are also great remotes for software like Avid Pro Tools and Apple's Logic Remote, among others. They can be great ways to help track multiple takes without rushing back and forth to your computer.

Perform Online

Instagram and TikTok are popular platforms for showing off your music and saving performances for later. If you have a tripod and attachable mic, all the better, but you can simply lean any smartphone or tablet against a shelf and take a selfie video too. Most of your viewers probably enjoy a raw aesthetic—or they can't tell.

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