Learn to play an instrument

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Macworld, prior to the introduction of GarageBand '09.

If you want to record music, you must know how to play it. Learning to play an instrument takes practice and a good instructor, whether you’ve never sat down at a piano bench or whether you want to add another instrument to your musical repertoire.

Practicing is up to you; but with your Mac, some software, and access to the Internet, you can learn to play (or improve upon) an instrument as well as learn something about what makes music work.


You may have the moves and clothes, but true guitar heroes must know the basics of getting around their instrument. Several resources can help you on your way.

Beginner Guitar Lessons For wannabe guitar players, iPlayMusic’s $40 Beginner Guitar Lessons, is a good start. The boxed version of the software includes a DVD with more than four hours of video lessons demonstrating chord construction, strumming techniques, and drills. It offers movies in a split-screen presentation so you can view the instructor and each of his hands. And you can slow down or speed up the movie without changing the audio’s pitch. Beginner Guitar Lessons also includes an 80-page PDF guide that walks you through the topography of the guitar, shows some basic tablature, offers tips for practicing, and reinforces some material presented in the videos.

iPlayMusic’s Beginner Guitar Lessons features a split pane view so you can see the instructor and both of his hands.
Additionally, the lessons include 26 songs that you can strum along with—either accompanied by just the rhythm guitar part or by the song fleshed out with the rest of the instruments and vocals. These songs display the instructor’s left and right hands, and highlighted chords and lyrics scroll from right to left beneath the video. You can create iPod-compatible versions of the video and send them to iTunes songs by clicking on an Export button.

If you click on the Create button when one of these songs is selected in the interface, GarageBand opens with each part laid out as a real instrument (digital audio) track. At this point, you can play along or record your own parts using GarageBand’s built-in recording and editing tools.

The program is extensible. Launch it and you see a Download Store button. Click on it and you have access to additional lessons and songs that you can download and play with the iPlayMusic player. For example, you can download the Electric Pack, a collection of intermediate electric guitar exercises, or the Folk Song Pack, each for $10. Individual songs cost 99 cents. You can try iPlayMusic for free—download it from iPlayMusic’s Web site and then download the Free Basics Videos collection via the Download Store interface.

Guitar Method Another software package, eMedia Music’s $60 Guitar Method 4 is a little old-fashioned in its presentation, but it has the elements necessary to help you get started with the guitar. Those elements include split-screen QuickTime movies of the instructor, text explanations, tab notation, audio files associated with a particular part of the lesson, and a virtual fretboard so you can see which strings to press.

Freeguitarvideos.com The Freeguitarvideos Web site provides downloadable instructional videos in QuickTime format as well. While not as slick as those produced by iPlayMusic, the lessons are nicely produced, feature engaging instructors, and include a split-screen view that lets you see what the instructor’s hands are doing. While some lessons are indeed free, many of the better ones cost between $5 for shorter lessons and $10 to $15 for hour-plus lessons (the site also offers similarly priced lessons for other instruments—bass, mandolin, and banjo).

For Children If you’re looking to introduce your kids to playing music, you have a few options. iPlayMusic’s $30 Play Music Together software is a DVD collection of 36 videos that teaches children just enough guitar (tuning, strumming, and five chords) so they can play through the included kids songs. Like the company’s Beginner Guitar package, this one lets you export songs to GarageBand and convert the videos for iPod playback. Some lessons also include a Muppet-like character named Capo who encourages kids to sing along with the words that scroll across the bottom of the video. Included in the package is a separate video DVD for watching the lessons and songs on your TV.

And then there’s Little Kids Rock, which offers the free Guitar Lessons, a series of 20 free guitar lessons targeted at kids on iTunes. In addition to the low-res videos, you can download a PDF file for each lesson (or download all the lessons as a single PDF). Little Kids Rock also has Drum Lessons. The group is trying to keep kids interested in music as schools cut their music programs, and seeks donations on its Web site.


Although it may not seem like it, guitar players don’t rule the musical world. If you’re an aspiring keyboard player, check out the Piano Lessons Online video podcast on iTunes. Presented in both high- and low-res versions, these are snippets from David Sprunger’s Playpianotoday.com, a Web site that offers a series of fee-based piano courses. The host Web site is pretty heavy-handed, making you sit through a long ad and then demanding an e-mail address so that you can gain access to the free material, but the guy can clearly play.

Though the interface is dated, eMedia Music’s Piano and Keyboard Method 2 provides the basics of playing the black-and-whites.
On the software side, eMedia Music also has a package for keyboard players—the $60 Piano and Keyboard Method 2. Like the company’s Guitar Method, the lessons are solid but the presentation is on the quaint side. You’ll learn the names of the notes, scales, chords, and fingerings as well as the basics of notation and rhythm. In addition to text, screens often feature audio and video snippets as well as the occasional MIDI track that, by default, uses QuickTime’s synthesizer sounds.

Beyond the Basics

For those who already have a handle on playing their instruments, iVideosongs offers downloadable instructional videos presented in HD, and largely built around learning a particular tune or technique. In some cases, a video’s instructor is the musician who played on the original track. You’ll find guitar videos from such players as Jeff Carlisi (.38 Special), John Oates (Halls & Oates), and Alex Lifeson (Rush). Chuck Leavell, of Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones fame, shows you the piano part to the Allman’s “Jessica” and is featured in boogie-woogie and blues piano videos. Famed session drummer Russ Kunkel can also be found on iVideosongs.

iVideosongs.com presents stunning-looking instructional videos presented by pros such as Chuck Leavell.
Some of these videos are more helpful than others. The introductory titles (which you can find for free on iTunes)—Beginning Guitar 101, Blues Concepts, Acoustic Guitar Techniques, Warm-Ups, Lead Guitar Concepts, and Left Hand Techniques—are strictly instructional. On some of the pay titles there’s a fair bit of storytelling from the artist in addition to some not-very-detailed instruction. Fortunately, you can preview sections of each title before purchasing them for $10 on average.

Musical Fundamentals

Music is about more than plucking, strumming, hammering, blowing, and bowing. It’s also about understanding the elements that make up music—theory, harmony, and counterpoint.

Ars Nova’s Practica Musica 5 ($100 for the download version with digital textbook, $125 for the CD-ROM standard edition with printed textbook) has been around for years and it remains the Mac’s most comprehensive music training software. The program features interactive activities that help you learn to read music, understand intervals and chord construction, and train your ear to recognize notes, chords, and rhythm. You can interact with the program with your Mac’s keyboard or a MIDI keyboard. The textbook, written by the program’s author, Jeffrey Evans, provides a solid introduction to music theory.

Although Sibelius hasn’t updated the Mac version of its $119 ear-training software, Auralia 2 in years, the program is still compatible with the current version of OS X and is a worthwhile tool to help you recognize pitch and melody. Sibelius also offers the Groovy Music series—Groovy Music Shapes for five- to seven-year-olds, Groovy Music Jungle for seven- to nine-year-olds, and Groovy Music City for nine- to 11-year-olds—that focuses on musical concepts including rhythm, pitch, notation, and musical terminology. Each package costs $69 or you can buy all three for $175.

[Senior editor Christopher Breen has had the honor of entering the word 'Musician' in the Occupation blank of his tax forms for 15 years.]

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