Learning to Play Piano – There’s An App For That!

At this point in my life, there aren’t many things that I set out to accomplish and haven’t done. There’s one thing that has eluded me: learning to play piano. I’ve taken lessons several times over the years, but never stayed with it for more than a few months. All told, I had about a year’s worth of study, but the unfinished goal of learning to play was always in the back of my mind.

I’d looked at piano learning apps in the past, but few did what I wanted because they were based on using an onscreen keyboard. Any app that requires me to play on the device’s little keyboard or plug in a midi connection was disqualified from my list. In August of this year, I looked again.

Bingo! Simply Piano by JoyTunes was exactly what I wanted.

Simply Piano lessons screen
A few of the many songs that keep learning interesting

The Simply Piano app runs on iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. While you can plug in midi-capable keyboards, the brilliance of the Simply Piano app is that it listens to you play and guides you to play the correct notes or chords. You set your mobile device on the keyboard and read the music while the device listens to what you’re playing. It teaches you the basics of reading music and has you practice with familiar songs of many styles. You can take the first lesson and play a few songs for free, but you need a subscription to advance. I only had the app for one day before I signed up for the six-month subscription. I pulled out an old iPad that had been gathering dust, and it is now dedicated to helping me learn to play.

Simply Piano 5 minute workout screen
The 5 Minute Workout changes every day and is great for reviewing older material

The Simply Piano app is incredibly effective at teaching and reinforcing learning. I have learned more in a few weeks than I did in months with my last teacher. The app motivates me to practice, and the variety of songs keeps the learning interesting. There are even three new “5 Minute Workout” pieces every day that give me a quick review of older material. My sight-reading has improved, though I still find the sight-reading lessons to be difficult. I’m blessed to be married to a musician and he fills in music theory as I’m learning the piano basics.

What’s the down side? The app doesn’t know if you’re using the wrong fingers or hand position. Though it has reminders about correct hand position, the app certainly can’t replace a human teacher in that regard. The first few weeks I used the app, it often didn’t “hear” the notes correctly, so the feedback said I played them incorrectly. That was frustrating. Some tweaking of the microphone settings and piano volume mostly fixed the problem. A recent update changed the “listening engine” and the app hears the piano much better than before, at least on newer devices.

Is Simply Piano the only app of its kind? Certainly not. I tried Yousician and Flowkey and didn’t like either of them much.

Yousician ran slowly on my 2nd generation iPad, and quit randomly as I was using it. More than that, I didn’t like the color coding showing you which finger to use: it seems like an unnecessary technique that you have to unlearn when you start playing real sheet music.

Flowkey behaved better on my iPad, but I found the exercises tedious. For me, Simply Piano is not only friendlier, it gives better feedback and correction.

I also looked at a couple of apps that are supposed to help you learn by playing songs.

OnlinePianist uses colored bars to show you which notes to play and how long to hold them. I’m sure that’s great for many people, but I want to improve my sight-reading and it doesn’t help me at all. The app has a large library of popular songs: if your goal is to be shown how to play popular songs, OnlinePianist might be a good option.

Yokee Piano has a silly casino-like “earn coins and use them to buy songs” concept that put me off immediately. I deleted the app faster than I downloaded it.

Simply Piano Halloween screen
Seasonal content is available for limited periods of time

In the time that I’ve been using Simply Piano, they’ve added several new lessons, songs, and features. There’s also a seasonal section, currently with “spooky” songs for Halloween.

Learning piano requires, more than anything, time on the bench. I’ve found Simply Piano to be a great motivator for me to practice and improve my skills. My goal is to be able to play publicly—at a gig–within a year. So far I’m on target.

Find the version of Simply Piano that’s right for you:

Simply Piano in the iTunes store
Simply Piano on Google Play


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