How to Learn to Play Piano on Your iPad

The iPad has become a wonderful tool for all kinds of music, including learning an instrument. This ability to act as a surrogate teacher really shines when it comes to learning how to play the piano. There are dozens of apps that are designed for learning piano, and most of them can actually listen to what you play and detect if you are hitting the right keys. This makes learning how to play very interactive.

We've picked out the best of the best, including an app that will let you use the iPad as a virtual piano, several apps for teaching music, a great app for buying sheet music once you get further along the path, and even a keyboard specifically designed to work with the iPad to teach you how to play.

Public Domain / Max Pixel

The number one requirement for learning piano is access to a piano or keyboard, and that is where GarageBand really shines. This free download from Apple will turn your iPad into a digital audio workstation (DAW), and it includes access to virtual instruments like piano and guitar. In essence, this turns your iPad into a piano.

Unfortunately, if you are just starting out, you can only learn the very basics using an on-screen keyboard. A large part of learning an instrument is building up muscle memory so that your fingers know what to do, and for that it takes a real instrument. The good news is GarageBand can help out with that as well by connecting a MIDI keyboard to your iPad.

A MIDI keyboard is any electronic keyboard with MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports. MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface, is a way of communicating what is played on the instrument to other devices like an iPad. This means you can hook up a MIDI keyboard and use GarageBand to produce the sounds.

There are a lot of great MIDI keyboards you can buy, including keyboards with only 29 keys. These smaller keyboards can be great for practicing while away from home. More »

Make no mistake: Piano Maestro is an awesome way for adults to learn piano on the iPad, but it is specifically awesome for kids. This piano-learning app combines video lessons that emphasis good technique with a Rock Band-like process for learning both how to play the piano and how to read music. This means your kid can come out the other side able to sight read music, which will help out with any instrument they choose to learn in the future.

The app is broken into a series of chapters that contain lessons surrounding 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 hoping for a higher score. And because the lessons flow into each other, it can become quite addicting even for an adult who already knows the basics.

The app uses the iPad's microphone to listen in on your playing, but it also supports using a MIDI keyboard hooked up to the iPad.

Piano Maestro will let you progress through the first lessons for free, so you can get a feel for it before you purchase a subscription. More »

Yousician is a fantastic way to learn piano, guitar or bass. Or even ukulele. It follows a similar Rock Band-like process of gamifying the process of learning, and 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 will help you learn to sight read as you learn to play.

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

One area where Yousician shines is determining your current skill level with a quick test. It might not nail it down perfectly, but it can find out where you are weakest and pinpoint the place in the lesson plan that is best for you to start.

Beyond being geared more towards adults, one big difference between Yousician and Piano Maestro are the multiple paths you can take with Yousician. Instead of linear chapters, you can go down a classical path where you will learn more about reading music and playing in the classical style, a knowledge path that will put some of the focus on music theory, and finally, a pop path that will bring in rock, blues, funk and other styles of music.

Similar to Piano Maestro, Yousician uses the microphone to detect what you are playing and also supports MIDI keyboards. You can get started for free before deciding on a subscription. A solid alternative to Yousician is Simply Piano, which includes sheet music that you can purchase through the app. More »

The original name for Synthesia was Piano Hero. Beginning development at the same time the Guitar Hero craze was ramping up, Synthesia was the piano equivalent of the popular music rhythm game. While Piano Maestro and Yousician use a scrolling game-like method, they scroll from right to left mimicking traditional sheet music. Synthesia clearly gets its inspiration from Guitar Hero, scrolling the music down from the top, with each colored line eventually landing on the on-screen keyboard.

There is 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 will land based on the relation to the previous note. Synthesia also lets you slow down the music, so you can learn at a slower pace.

The Synthesia app comes with a number of free songs to try it out. After you unlock it with the in-app purchase, you will gain access to over a hundred songs, mostly classical or traditional songs. You can also add new songs by importing MIDI files.

The Best Way to Learn With Synthesia May Be on YouTube

While the Synthesia app is a great way to get started, you don't need to import MIDI files or even purchase the expanded library to learn songs using the Synthesia method. There are thousands of videos on YouTube that are simply Synthesia versions of songs.

This means you can set your iPad up on your music stand, launch the YouTube app and search for for the song you want to learn adding "Synthesia" to the search string. If it is a popular request, you will likely find a video of it.

Obviously, the YouTube video doesn't give you 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. And YouTube won't let you hook in a MIDI keyboard and keep track of how well you did performing the song. But the access to so many songs more than makes up for it. More »

If you already know how to read music or want to be prepared after learning to sight read through Piano Maestro or Yousician, MusicNotes is essentially the iBooks for sheet music. Not only can you buy sheet music through the MusicNotes website and keep it organized on your iPad, the MusicNotes app offers a playback feature to help you learn the song, even allowing you to slow it down while you are still in the learning process.

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.

As an alternative to MusicNotes, you can check out Yamaha's NoteStar, which provides the actual song to go along with the sheet music. This is a nice feature that can make you feel like you are really playing along with the band, but NoteStar is strangely missing any way to print the sheet music and displays only a limited amount of the song (a few measures) on the screen at any one time. On the bright side, songs are cheaper on NoteStar compared to MusicNotes. More »

The ONE Smart Piano

Are you looking for an all-in-one package for learning piano? The One Keyboard is a "Smart" keyboard with keys that light up to show you exactly what to play on the keyboard. This is accomplished by downloading the free app, which communicates with the keyboard and simultaneously shows you the sheet music on the iPad's screen while lighting up the keys on the keyboard itself. 

The app comes with over a hundred lessons, and you can download many popular songs for around $4. which is cheaper than the sheet music in MusicNotes and about the same price as Yamaha's NoteStar app. You can also buy The One Grand Piano, which at $1,500 has a much nicer presentation, but won't offer too much more than the $300 keyboard version other than the feel of weighted keys under your fingers.

An interesting alternative to The One keyboard is McCarthy Music's Illuminating Piano. At $600, this will cost you twice as much as The One, but instead of just lighting up in red, McCarthy Music's keyboard illuminates the keys in different colors. And this isn't just for show. The different colors will guide which fingers you use to play the keys.

The best part about these keyboards is the support for MIDI. This means you can use them with the other apps on this list, including simply using the keyboard in conjunction with GarageBand. You can also hook the keyboard up to your PC and use software like Native Instruments Komplete, which is a popular package among studio musicians. More »