Learn to Play Piano on Your iPad

Believe it or not, your iPad is a great piano teacher

The iPhone and iPad are wonderful tools. They can teach you math, how to read and spell, and even how to play an instrument. These surrogate teachers really shine when it comes to learning how to play the piano. Dozens of apps are designed for just this purpose, and most of them listen to what you play and detect whether you're hitting the right keys. The result is highly interactive learning.

Here are the best seven apps to get you on your way to piano virtuosity, including an app that turns your iPad into a virtual piano, several apps that teach music, a great app for buying sheet music once you're further along the path, and a keyboard specifically designed to work with iOS.

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How to Use Your iPad as a Piano: GarageBand

An iPad with musical notes running across it
Public Domain / Max Pixel
What We Like
  • Download free instruments from the Sound Library.

  • Connect a MIDI keyboard for the full piano teacher experience.

  • Piano lessons are built in.

What We Don't Like
  • App customization options are limited.

  • Lacks many options for woodwind instruments.

The number one requirement to learn how to play the piano is access to a keyboard, and that's where GarageBand shines. This free download from Apple turns an iPhone or iPad into a digital audio workstation. In other words, it turns your device into a piano (or a guitar, drums, or another touch instrument). This trick works better with the larger screen of the iPad, but you'll be surprised by just how handy it can be on the iPhone, as well.

If you're just starting out and using the on-screen keyboard, you can only learn the basics. A big part of learning an instrument is building up muscle memory so that your fingers know what to do, and that takes a real instrument. The good news is that GarageBand can connect a MIDI keyboard to your iOS device.

A MIDI keyboard is an electronic keyboard that has MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports. MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface, communicates what is played on the instrument to a device such as an iPhone or iPad. This means you can connect a MIDI keyboard to your iPad and use GarageBand to produce the sounds.

A lot of great MIDI keyboards are available, including keyboards with only 29 keys. These smaller keyboards can be great for practicing while away from home.

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The Best Music App for Teaching Kids: Piano Maestro

Screen captures from Piano Maestro
 Piano Maestro
What We Like
  • Organize exercises by level or genre.

  • Great for young and adult learners.

  • Progress reports let you know how you're doing.

What We Don't Like
  • Can't search for songs.

  • The app is free, but to get the most from it, you need a subscription.

  • Can't print sheet music.

Piano Maestro is an awesome way for adults to learn piano on the iPad or iPhone, but it is specifically awesome for kids. This piano teaching app features video lessons that emphasize good technique through a Rock Band–like process for learning both how to play the piano and how to read music. Your kids will come out the other side able to sight-read music, which will help with any instrument they choose to learn in the future.

The app is broken into a series of chapters that focus on a specific skill. These chapters start with playing middle C, slowly bring in new notes, and eventually add the left hand into the mix. The piano lessons are scored on a one- to three-star basis, so your child can go over a lesson multiple times to improve their score. Because the lessons flow into each other, Piano Maestro can become addictive, even for someone who already knows the basics.

Piano Maestro uses the iOS device microphone to listen in on your playing, but it also supports a MIDI keyboard that can be connected to the iPad or iPhone. You can go through the first lessons at no cost to get a feel for the app before you purchase a subscription.

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The Best Music App for Adults: Yousician

User interface of Yousician
What We Like
  • Makes learning the piano a game.

  • Progress trackers give real-time feedback.

  • Videos provide visual examples of notes and chords.

What We Don't Like
  • The app doesn't always "hear" you play correctly.

  • Subscriptions are pricey.

  • Can get a bit crowded on smaller screens.

Yousician is a fantastic way to learn piano, guitar, or bass. Or, even ukulele. It follows a Rock Band–like process of gamifying learning. For piano, you can choose the more game-like feel of colored notes flowing across the screen, or the app can scroll sheet music, which helps you learn to sight read as you learn to play.

If you're serious about learning music, the sheet music option may sound daunting, but you'll be better for it in the long run. If you just want to sit down at the piano and play songs, the more game-like colored notes are a good shortcut.

One area where Yousician shines is determining your current skill level through a quick test. It may not pinpoint your skills perfectly, but it can find out where you're weakest and take you to the point in the lesson plan where you should begin.

Beyond being geared more toward adults, one big difference between Yousician and Piano Maestro is the multiple paths you can take in Yousician. Instead of linear chapters, you can go down three different paths:

  • A classical path where you learn more about reading music and playing in the classical style.
  • A knowledge path that focuses on music theory.
  • A pop path that focuses on rock, blues, funk, and other styles of music.

Similar to Piano Maestro, Yousician uses the microphone to detect what you're playing, and it also supports MIDI keyboards. You can get started at no cost before deciding on a subscription. A solid alternative to Yousician is Simply Piano by JoyTunes, which includes sheet music that can be purchased through the app.

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Best App for Learning Songs: Synthesia

Screen capture of Synthesia showing keyboard
What We Like
  • Choose from more than 100 instrument sounds.

  • Supports digital keyboards.

  • Notes fall down from the top, or you can view traditional sheet music.

What We Don't Like
  • Comes with just 20 songs; you need a subscription to get more.

  • Sounds aren't realistic.

Beginning development at the same time the Guitar Hero craze was ramping up, Synthesia was the piano equivalent of the popular music rhythm game. Unlike Piano Maestro and Yousician, which use a scrolling, game-like method from right to left, mimicking traditional sheet music, Synthesia scrolls the music down from the top, with each colored line eventually landing on the on-screen keyboard.

There's a lot to be said for this method. Similar to reading sheet music, you learn to see the relationship between the notes and predict where they'll land based on the relation to the previous note. Synthesia can also slow down the music so that you can learn at a slower pace.

The Synthesia app comes with more than 20 free songs so that you can try the app out. After you unlock the app with the in-app purchase, you gain access to more than 130 more songs, mostly classical and traditional songs. You can also add new songs by importing MIDI files.

Synthesia is a great way to get started, you don't need to import MIDI files or purchase the expanded library to learn songs using the Synthesia method. Thousands of videos on YouTube are simply Synthesia versions of songs. This means that you can set your iPad or iPhone on a music stand, launch the YouTube app, and search for the song you want to learn by adding "Synthesia" to the search string.

The YouTube videos don't have the same controls to slow the lesson down, although some videos are uploaded at a slower rate specifically for people who want to learn the song. YouTube won't let you hook in a MIDI keyboard and keep track of how well you performed the song, but access to so many songs more than makes up for it.

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Best App for Sheet Music: Musicnotes

A photograph of piano sheet music

Public Domain /  Pixabay

What We Like
  • An awesome way to organize and take sheet music anywhere.

  • Music is saved as PDF files that can be transferred to and from Dropbox via iTunes.

  • Automatic transpositions save time.

What We Don't Like
  • Licensing means that each song can only be printed once.

  • Doesn't support file uploads from iCloud.

If you already know how to read music or want to be better prepared after learning to sight-read through Piano Maestro or Yousician, Musicnotes is essentially Apple Books for sheet music. Not only can you buy sheet music through the Musicnotes website and keep it organized on your iPhone or iPad, but the MusicNotes app offers a playback feature to help you learn the song, even allowing you to slow the song down.

Musicnotes supports traditional piano sheet music as well as C-instrument music, which generally includes the melody in traditional form, with the chords noted above the melody. If you play guitar, Musicnotes also supports guitar tablature.

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The Best System for Learning Piano: The ONE Smart Piano Light Keyboard

ONE Smart Piano Light Keyboard
The ONE Smart Piano
What We Like
  • Light-up keys make you feel like a pro in minutes.

  • Choose from 128 instrument sounds.

  • Free app has tons of sheet music and more than 100 videos.

What We Don't Like
  • It's pricey.

  • Additional songs require in-app purchases.

  • The keys aren't weighted.

Are you looking for an all-in-one package to learn piano? The ONE Smart Piano Light Keyboard is a smart keyboard. It has 61 keys that light up to show you exactly what to play and the ability to produce sounds from more than 128 instruments. When you download the free The ONE Smart Piano app, it communicates with the keyboard and simultaneously displays the sheet music on the iPad screen while lighting up the keys on The ONE Smart Piano Light Keyboard.

The app comes with more than 4,000 sheet music options, a hundred videos, and games; you can also download many popular songs for around $4. Want the real thing but still need iPad backup? Buy The ONE Smart Piano or The ONE Smart Piano Pro, which at $1,500 and $2,000, respectively, have a much nicer presentation but don't offer much more than the $300 Light Keyboard other than the feel of weighted keys under your fingers.

The best part about these keyboards is their support for MIDI. You can use them with the other apps on this list, including using the keyboard in conjunction with GarageBand. You can also connect the keyboard to a PC and use software such as Native Instruments Komplete, which is a popular package among studio musicians.

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The Best Metronome: Pro Metronome

Screenshot of the Pro Metronome app

  Pro Metronome

What We Like
  • Programmable playlists.

  • Choose from three pitch options.

  • Automatic speed-up is a huge bonus for musicians.

What We Don't Like
  • Hasn't been updated since 2015.

  • May take beginners a while to figure out the interface and options.

  • Some useful options require in-app purchases.

A metronome is a perfect companion to practice. Whether you're playing scales or sheet music for a favorite tune, a metronome keeps you in time and develops your natural sense of rhythm. Several great metronome apps are available on the App Store, and most of them are free, with in-app purchases that unlock more advanced features.

If you'd rather download and go, Pro Metronome offers all the basic features you need to get started at no extra charge, including changing tempo and time signatures.

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