New Apps Show The Music Education Revolution Is Just Getting Started

Music will never be the same. But you knew that. You see it everyday when you share a playlist from Spotify or Songza, comment on a SoundCloud waveform or discover an artist who, as it turns out, got their start not in some Brooklyn dive bar, but on YouTube. Both the creation and distribution of music have been radically altered by technology.

So too has the way people learn how to play it

This revolution is still young. As neat as some of this stuff is, innovation in music education is just beginning to heat up, and a handful of recent apps point to a future where learning music is easier, more accessible and even fun.

That technology is changing music education isn't exactly breaking news. Music lessons come installed with GarageBand on every new Mac and app stores are overflowing with portable software that teaches music theory and guitar chords. Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a feature detailing how music teachers are using Skype and other digital communication tools to interface with students regardless of their physical location, a phenomenon that opens up new possibilities for teachers and learners alike. Meanwhile, sites like Coursera and Berklee Music offer comprehensive university-level classes in everything from songwriting to record production.

Sheet Music & Guitar Tabs Get A Digital Makeover

Even the guitar tablature, long a mainstay of any musician's brower bookmarks, is getting re-imagined for the 21st Century. SoundSlice is an innovative Web app that mashes those old-fashioned, text-based guitar tabs up with YouTube videos so budding guitarists can learn songs in time with the music. It's brilliant. SoundSlice's cross-platform-friendly UI not only layers a crucial visual and sonic element on top of guitar tabs, but it lets you slow the video down and loop specific parts, making it easier to learn songs. 

SoundSlice is the brainchild of Adrian Holovaty, creator of the Django Web development framework, as well as the hyperlocal data journalism outfit Everyblock. After selling his Knight Foundation-funded news startup to MSNBC in 2009, Holovaty turned his attention to other projects. 

"For years, I'd spend hours transcribing stuff, either on paper or in ugly text files," says Holovaty. "Then I'd come back to it later and have to re-listen to the music to make sense of my own tab. I started to think, it would be so much easier to learn if the tab were synced with the original audio."

The project has only been live for two weeks, so it's still in its early stages. It's up to users to annotate YouTube videos with guitar tabs, which anybody is free to do. One of Holovaty's top priorities at the moment is adding more collaborative editing features. YouTube and text-based guitar tabs are already both established tools for self-taught musicians, so merging them together makes total sense. 

Another newly launched music-learning aide is Chromatik, a Web app that lets musicians import and manage sheet music. Pages can be digitally annotated and highlighted and students can record their practice sessions for their teachers to review. Chromatik's killer feature is probably its iPad app, which brings the same functionality to tablets that are easy to prop up on a music stand and carry around.

A more simplified approach to learning music comes in the form of FourChords, a Finnish guitar tutorial app for iOS that recently went live globally. Very much designed for beginners, FourChords has a dead-simple interface that boils popular songs down into digestible chunks. It starts by naming the main chords used, diagramming how to form them and letting the user play back a sample to hear what each chord sounds like. Once familiar with them, you can play along with the song as the app flows through each chord in a Guitar Hero-style timeline that stays in sync with the music. It's a lovely-looking and intuitive app. Like SoundSlice, FourChords adds a visual element to the process of learning an individual song that makes the whole experience easier.  

For the already musically-inclined, tools like this can make a world of difference. What's far more interesting, though, is how this technology opens things up and makes learning music accessible to more people. What used to require a pre-existing, serious interest and steep hourly fees can now be casually explored from one's couch on a smartphone or tablet. The ubiquity of mobile devices and broadband combine with innovative interface design and programming prowess to fundamentally change the way human beings learn music. This not only democratizes a once specialized craft, but will inevitably lead to the creation of more of it.