Conversation with Mark Marston: Finding the Best Apps for Music Study

Paper flash cards used to be my go-to method for teaching notes on the guitar, with limited success at best. Today, kids can dive into a game on a smart phone or tablet to practice those same skills. Fun sounds and features can help hold a young student’s attention long enough to get in some real learning. They might even look forward to it. 

I use game apps mostly with students ages 4 through 9, to provide them breaks from the sitting position and to help them get through hard or tedious tasks. A simple game that keeps score and tells students how they did can keep them motivated through memorization, like learning those guitar positions. A good tuning app like GuitarTuna can help students remember to stop and tune – something they don’t always want to do.

There also are several solid apps for learning notes and music reading. The best ones isolate a single aspect, like a series of new notes, the melody or rhythm. As students mature, they may want to explore e-tools for recording, sharing and streaming music. One app all music students should consider is a metronome. Some have advanced features that would cost a lot in a real metronome.

How do you tell the good apps from the not-so-good? Start by asking your child’s teacher for suggestions or input on a game you are considering. Read the reviews, not just for the ratings but also to see if other users share your goals for using it. On apps with a fee, consider a free trial first. There’s no harm in trying out a free game if you can tolerate the ads. Some games are worth a little expense: One app that I like cost $.99, which is a good deal for a decent practice tool.

The best apps for learning engage students without distracting them. The bells and whistles should be minimal. I’ve been using a very simple virtual dice game for repetitions. It’s been three months and my students still get excited to click the dice to see how many times they have to play. Games that involve too much noise or movement can knock a student off the task at hand or make it difficult to disengage from the game when it’s time to move on.

Games and apps should take up a very small amount of practice time and are ideal for short periods of daily practice. They shouldn’t take away from time with the instrument. But they can be great for smoothing out the stickier parts of music learning.  

Mark teaches guitar, ukulele, and literacy at CYM and also is the Manager of Audience Services for the Pittsburgh Opera. Check out this list of music game and app ideas from Commonsense Media. Please share your favorites with your teacher!

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