Most kids love listening to music, as well as making their own. Music can be good for your kid’s mood, concentration, stress levels and cognition, and creating music is a great way to exercise a growing mind. Learning an instrument also teaches kids the value of practice, and gives them a valuable way to express themselves creatively.
When I was a kid, there were two main ways to learn an instrument: Either you stumbled across an instrument that you liked and taught yourself, or you trundled along week after week to a music teacher who drummed your scales into you.
These days, kids have access to a wonderful range of tools and technologies that can help them develop an interest in music, learn to play an instrument, and understand music theory and composition.
In this article you’ll explore some of these great websites, apps and other tools. I’ve arranged them into seven broad groups in approximate order of beginner to advanced, as follows:
- Messing about and having fun is for kids who have little or no experience of making their own music (apart from banging pots and pans together in the kitchen). Most young kids will fall into this category. These tools help your kid understand the basic idea of creating your own music, and give them confidence in their music-making abilities.
- Learning to sing covers websites and videos that can help your kid improve their singing voice.
- Learning to play an instrument looks at some fantastic apps, games, websites and videos that can inspire and motivate your kid to learn and practise a musical instrument.
- Learning about the orchestra explores various websites and apps that your kid can use to learn about the fascinating world of orchestras and classical music.
- Learning music theory looks at the important topic of music theory, and shows some ways that your kid can learn the nuts and bolts of music online.
- Composing music features a couple of great websites that will help your child compose their own music.
- Finally, Music-making tools explores some fantastic tools, apps and hardware that can help your kid write and record their own music.
Messing about and having fun
If your kid is very young, or just starting out on the road to making music, there are some lovely apps and websites that they can enjoy. These tools allow anyone to make great-sounding music with very little effort, which can be very rewarding, as well as a great boost for your kid’s confidence with music making.
Bloom is a simple music creation app made by ambient music pioneer Brian Eno and musician/software designer Peter Chilvers. This app is about as easy-to-use as it gets. When you launch it, it plays a steady background drone. You then tap anywhere on the screen to produce notes, which repeat and gradually transform themselves, producing an ambient soundscape (as well as pretty coloured circles on the screen).
This is a great app to start your kid on the road to music-making. It’s pretty much foolproof, it’s almost impossible to make something that sounds rotten, and it’s fun to look at. The soothing music might also help calm your kid down if they’re feeling stressed out!
Toca Boca’s “toy” apps are always great fun, and Toca Band is no exception. With this wonderful app, kids can experiment with different sounds, rhythms and musical textures to produce a song that always sounds great!
The app gives you a palette of funny-looking people, creatures and objects that you can drag onto a stage to play a set tune. Each object makes its own type of sound, such as drums, bass, guitar or vocals. If you drag an object onto the lowest platform, it plays quite a slow, simple pattern. The same object on the middle platform plays a busier pattern, while objects on the top row get really excited! Finally, you can drag any character onto the “solo” spot at the top, which allows you to “play” that character in different ways by tapping and dragging on the screen.
Toca Band is a fantastic way for kids to get a sense of building the different parts of a song, in a fun, easy-to-understand way. It doesn’t matter what you do, the song still sounds great (although you may find you end up humming it while trying to get to sleep!).
The idea of Incredibox is similar to Toca Band. In this free Flash game, you have a “palette” of beatbox characters that you can bring onto a stage to create a repeating song. You can choose from a variety of sounds for each character, including instrument and percussion sounds, special effects, and vocals. It’s a lot of fun, and there are many things here to keep your kid amused for a while, including three different songs and a range of bonus scenes that you can unlock by hitting the right combination of sounds.
Figure by Propellerhead Software is an enormously fun music-making app for iPad and iPhone. Using the same technologies as Propellerhead’s Reason — their professional music studio software — Figure lets you create simple dance music loops by building up patterns of drum, bass and lead synth sounds.
Figure is a bit more involved than, say, Toca Band, since you’re not limited to a preset tune. Instead, you are free to make your own compositions. Despite that, it’s really easy for kids (or anyone) to use; it’s perfect for knocking together a quick song on the bus or train, and almost everything you create sounds great!
Tonematrix is a webpage that lets you compose a very simple, repeating melody (it’s what’s known as a pattern sequencer in the trade). It’s made by the lovely folks at Audiotool (which we’ll get to later in this article).
Music making doesn’t get much easier than Tonematrix: Just click the boxes on the screen to start making lovely music. So simple, but strangely addictive! You can easily share your compositions too. Here’s one I made in 30 seconds.
Learning to sing
Nearly all children take naturally to singing. As musical instruments go, it’s hard to beat the voice — it’s free, it’s easy to get started, and wherever you go, it’s always available!
Singing lessons are hard to do online — you really need a singing tutor or voice coach who can hear your singing and give you feedback and direction. That said, there are many useful resources on the web that can help your child improve their singing voice. Here are just a few of them.
The BBC website has a useful series of lessons and exercises, along with short video clips, to help your kid get started with singing. It covers posture, breathing, warming up, finding your vocal range, and lots of handy singing tips.
wikiHow has a handy Singing category, where you’ll find well over a hundred articles and guides to help your kid with singing. Topics include warming-up exercises, hitting high notes, improving your overall technique, harmonising, singing from memory, and even how to break a glass with your singing voice!
The Singing Success YouTube channel features videos by voice coach Brett Manning. Here you’ll find answers to lots of questions your kid may have when learning to sing, as well as boatloads of tips covering singing in tune, working with dynamics, singing harmonies, diagnosing vocal problems, and improving tone.
Singing coach and performer Eric Arceneaux runs another great YouTube channel with lots of useful voice lesson videos. Your kid will learn different warm-up exercises, diaphragm singing techniques, how to sing low and high notes, and lots of useful singing tips.
Learning to play an instrument
Once your kid has had fun making music with apps like Toca Band and Figure, and they’ve gained some confidence with singing, they’re probably ready to pick up an instrument and learn how to play it.
While nothing can replace one-on-one music tuition, there are lots of fantastic apps that can help and motivate your kid to learn an instrument, as well as some good websites offering free instrument lessons. Here are some great resources to help your kid learn to play.
Playing guitar is exciting right at the start, and deeply satisfying once you become proficient. But there’s a big boring bit in the middle, where you have to learn the basics and practise, practise, practise!
GuitarBots is a game designed to keep your kid motivated to practise and improve their guitar skills. You can play it in a web browser, or via an iOS app. You play the game using a real guitar; GuitarBots listens to your playing to make sure you’re hitting the right notes.
The game is split into many levels. For each level, you have to play along with a tune. As the tune plays a fretboard scrolls past, showing the notes you need to play, Guitar Hero-style. You get points for playing accurately and on time.
There are basic concepts to practise, such as strings, frets, simple melodies, chords and basic scales, as well as more advanced levels that include blues and rock riffs, and more complex chords and scales. In addition, the game challenges you to play along with a huge range of popular songs.
You can play the game for free, but you can only practise so much within a given time period. To practise as much as you like, you can purchase a monthly or yearly subscription. There’s also an accompanying YouTube channel with tons of guitar tutorials.
GuitarBots a great way for your kid to practise and improve their guitar playing, without even realising they’re practising!
Piano Dust Buster from JoyTunes is a fantastically fun iPhone/iPad game for kids who are just learning to play piano. It comes with a library of songs that you play along to, either using a real piano — the app listens to your playing using the device’s mic — or using an onscreen virtual piano. Either way, the game follows the familiar Guitar Hero format: germs (musical notes) creep down the screen, and when they reach the rhythm line you need to play the right notes on the keys. Get the tune right, and watch Granny having a great time swatting the germs!
You can also play in “staff” mode, where the germs come at you along a musical stave (staff if you’re American!). This is more challenging, but helps your kid practise their sight reading.
There are also two gameplay modes: Jukebox, where you just play along with the game, and Concert, where you can compete with others to earn medals, level up and unlock more songs. The free game comes with a basic song pack, and you can get more packs as in-app purchases.
This is an addictive, entertaining game that will keep your kid — and possibly you too — glued to the piano for hours!
For a bit of variety, check out Piano Summer Games, also by JoyTunes; this is essentially the same as Piano Dust Buster, but the tunes are all national anthems!
Piano Maestro is also by JoyTunes, the makers of Piano Dust Buster. It follows a similar format to Dust Buster — where you can play along with a real piano or an onscreen keyboard — but is designed for a slightly more advanced level. It doesn’t have Dust Buster’s “keyboard” mode, so your kid needs to be able to read music on a stave to play. The musical pieces are also more challenging, especially on the harder levels.
You can play Piano Maestro in a few ways. The “Journey” takes you through a progressively harder series of songs , while the Library lets you choose from a list of songs to play. There are also exercises that you can play, as well as excerpts from real piano lesson books.
Another nice feature of Piano Maestro is that your piano teacher can link up with you to see how well you are doing and offer you help when needed.
Piano Maestro is free and comes with quite a few free songs. To unlock more songs, you need to purchase a subscription.
The last game from JoyTunes is Recorder Master, designed for kids learning to play the recorder. This game essentially turns your kid’s recorder into a game controller! To play the game, you need to hit the right notes at the right time. There are lots of different games, including flying games, swimming games and “hit the target” games. Each game helps your kid practise a different skill, from getting a good sound out of the recorder through to playing melodies and developing good rhythm.
There are many fantastic guitar lesson sites out there, but Justin Guitar is one of the best. Run by Justin Sandercoe, a guitarist, songwriter, performer, producer and teacher, this site is jam-packed with beginner, intermediate and advanced guitar lessons, as well as fantastic advice on practising, technique and ear training, and lessons on chords and rhythm. You’ll also find lessons that teach you how to play well over a hundred popular songs.
Each lesson comes with a video in which Justin explains the technique clearly, then plays the riff or song.
Justin’s style is easy-going and approachable, and these online lessons are a great way for your kid to level-up their guitar skills.
Hoffman Academy is an excellent piano lesson site run by teacher Joseph Hoffman. It’s aimed at kids, but adult beginners will also get a lot from this site too.
There are 80 free video lessons that guide the student through various songs and techniques. Hoffman has a friendly, fun teaching style that is especially appealing to kids, and he’s great at explaining both simple and more advanced concepts in an easy-to-follow way. At the end of each lesson, he usually gives some suggestions and advice for practising the technique until you can play it well.
There’s also a Recital Hall area where students can upload videos of their piano playing to help inspire and encourage other students. Neat idea!
My Note Games is an iPhone/iPad app that can help your kid read music and practise their instrument at the same time. It includes various different games. For example, with “Hear It, Note It”, the app plays some notes, then you have to place the notes that you heard onto a musical stave (or staff). In “Tap That Note”, the notes for a tune appear on the stave, and you need to tap on the corresponding note letters to play the tune.
With other games, such as “Play That Note”, your kid needs to read the dots on the screen and play the tune on their instrument; as with GuitarBots and others, the app uses the device’s microphone to check that your kid is playing correctly. My Note Games supports a range of different instruments, including piano, guitar, recorder, violin, trumpet, singing and even whistling!
Your kid can also work on their sight reading skills with “Play-A-Day” and “Play-A-Carol”, which challenge your kid to improve their musical skills and knowledge by playing various phrases and tunes.
Learning about the orchestra
An understanding of orchestras, and classical music in general, can really deepen your kid’s understanding and appreciation of music. Kids are also often fascinated by the way that so many different instruments can come together to make a coherent sound.
Here are some excellent resources that can spark your child’s interest in the orchestra.
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a fantastic free iPad app that will help your kid familiarise themselves with classical music and the orchestra. It’s based on the 1946 composition by Benjamin Britten, which it includes in full, along with a video of the orchestra playing the piece, and a scrolling musical score — with text commentary — so that you can follow along.
As well as the main piece, the app includes a “variation game”, which lets you compose your own musical variations; an aural quiz to test your knowledge of the instruments in an orchestra; the “fugue game” where you can create your own fugue using different instruments; and a fun personality quiz which helps you choose the right instrument for you, and also includes video interviews with players of each type of instrument. The app also features Britten’s life story, with family photos and recordings.
The Orchestra is a beautiful iPad app from Touch Press, along similar lines to Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It includes eight extracts from famous pieces of orchestral music over the last 300 years. Each piece is accompanied by a detailed scrolling score, multiple camera angles of each orchestra section, a clever synchronised “BeatMap” that highlights the sections of the orchestra that are currently playing, and optional commentaries by the conductor and players in both audio and text formats.
There is also a breakdown of the orchestra that shows each instrument in detail, along with a video interview with a musician that plays that instrument.
There’s a huge level of detail in the app, with plenty for kids (and grown-ups) to explore.
These Khan Academy lessons are a great way to explore orchestral instruments in detail. Each lesson consists of a video interview with a principal player from a major symphony orchestra. There’s video of the instrument being played in the orchestra, as well as a detailed description of the instrument. The player also discusses how they first started playing the instrument.
Learning music theory
Music theory looks at how musical works are put together. It explores the elements of music, including rhythm, melody, harmony, form and structure. While a knowledge music theory is by no means essential for making and enjoying music, it can help your child to gain a deeper understanding of how music works. This can help them when listening to, playing, and composing music.
Here are a couple of useful resources that your kid can use to learn music theory.
Musictheory.net is an excellent website for learning music theory. It uses an interactive lesson format to teach each concept in a step-by-step, easy-to follow way. Many of the lessons come with an audio component so that you can listen to the concept in action. There are also tons of exercises that help you get familiar with identifying notes, keys, chords, intervals and more, and advanced musicians and composers will also also find the various calculators and other tools useful.
This set of free video tutorials from Khan Academy gives a thorough introduction to time signatures and musical rhythm in sheet music. You’ll learn about the concepts in context, with lots of great video of orchestras playing different rhythms, and superimposed musical staves so you can follow along.
As your child gains more confidence with playing music, they’ll probably want to start writing their own tunes and songs. Here are a couple of useful resources that might help them with their composition.
If your kid starts to get into writing music, Noteflight is a fantastic notation tool that lets them create their own musical scores online. The service is free for up to 10 scores, but if your kid is turning into a little Mozart you can buy a subscription which allows them to create an unlimited number of scores.
When creating scores, you can add and edit notes with the mouse and keyboard, as well as add notes via a MIDI instrument. The software can also play your score back to you, which is really useful feedback! You can import and export scores in a variety of formats, as well as share scores online for others to enjoy and play with.
In this series of videos from Khan Academy, music director Gerard Schwarz and others dissect several famous classical works, including Beethoven’s 5th and Dvořák’s New World symphony. This is a great way for your kid to learn about all the parts that make up a piece of classical music, and to get inside the heads of some of the greatest composers.
Once your child has reached the level where they’re making their own music — and they have a pretty good understanding of the musical building blocks such as rhythm, melody, harmony and musical notation — then they’ll likely benefit from some of the many high-tech music tools available today. There are tools to help with creating sounds, recording, composition, sequencing and more.
Here is a small sample of the tools available.
Apple’s GarageBand is an easy-to-use music sequencer and virtual studio. If your kid is new to the world of recording studios and electronic music then this is a fantastic place to start. It’s available for both the Mac and iOS devices; you can also start a project on an iPad or iPhone then import it into the Mac app later.
GarageBand features audio recording, so your kid can lay down a few tracks with their guitar or other instrument. It also features a wide range of virtual instruments, including basses, drums, guitars, pianos, synths and orchestral instruments. You can use the sequencer to compose and edit tracks containing live recordings, virtual instruments, or a mixture of the two.
A nice touch is the Lesson Store, where you can purchase and download professionally-made music lessons to help you learn how to play.
GarageBand is free, but comes with a fairly basic range of instruments and loops. You can upgrade to the full set with an in-app purchase.
NanoStudio is a fairly simple sequencer that comes with an easy-to-use virtual analog synth and sampling drum pads. Not only is NanoStudio available on iOS, Mac and Windows, but the Mac and Windows versions are free! You can also exchange songs between the different versions.
NanoStudio isn’t quite as user-friendly as GarageBand, but it’s a great musical scratchpad to have with you when you want to jot down some song or tune ideas, and you can get some pretty nice sounds from it.
Reason is a fully-fledged professional music production studio. It’s not cheap, but if your kid is seriously into making tracks then they will love this. Reason’s killer feature is its “rack” of virtual instruments and effects that resembles the real racks you see in professional recording studios. It also has amazing sound quality, and is fairly intuitive to use.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to Reason then check out Reason Essentials, a more affordable version of Reason with a smaller, but still very usable, set of tools.
Apple’s Logic Pro is a professional recording studio app. On the surface it’s quite similar to GarageBand, as you might expect. However, Logic has a lot more power than GarageBand, with a price tag to match.
In terms of features it’s closer to Propellerhead Reason, albeit with a radically different interface and approach. As with Reason, Logic Pro might interest your child if they’re getting really serious about music production.
Audiotool is a fantastic, free music production studio that runs in your desktop browser. If your kid likes creating electronic music then Audiotool is perfect. It’s similar to Propellerhead Reason in the sense that it mimics real-world synths, effects, stomp boxes and other electronic instruments. Your compositions — including instruments and samples — are stored entirely in the cloud, which means your kid’s songs are available wherever they have access to a browser.
Audiotool also features a vibrant community of like-minded music makers. You can share your compositions with others, remix others’ work, and collaborate with other artists. It’s a great way to dive into making electronica.
Audacity is a free, multi-platform, open source audio recorder and editor. It’s not a fully-fledged music production studio — there’s no sequencer or virtual instruments — but it’s a great way to quickly record and edit some samples, or record a whole song. Audacity is pretty simple to pick up and use.
Finally, if your kid wants to record their compositions on guitar, piano or other instrument then I’d recommend a decent external microphone — the ones built into computers just aren’t good enough.
There are many great microphones out there — some costing thousands of dollars — but for a decent entry-level mic I can recommend the Blue Snowball. I use this mic regularly and it’s a great all-rounder for anything from podcasting and video commentary through to instrument recording.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to some great technologies and tools that your kid can use to get into music. There really is a fantastic range of websites and apps out there, and this article has only scratched the surface. If you find any more excellent music resources for kids that you’d like to share, please feel free to add them in the comments below. Thanks!