music theory online

How to Learn to Play an Instrument and Study Music Theory Online

(Part 1 of a 2-part series about studying music online. The second part of the series focuses on how to earn a college music degree online.)

For centuries, teaching and learning music stayed pretty much the same. The aspiring musician would start by studying an instrument privately, preferably with an established master. As the student progressed, he or she would learn to read music and be exposed to music theory. For serious students, this initial training might be followed by formal classroom study at a conservatory, with additional lessons in composition, conducting, and learning a second instrument. It was accepted that mastery of music and playing an instrument requires years of study, so students often started very young. Besides studying with a Teacher and practicing daily, students gained performing skills by playing regular recitals, alone or in a group. As concertizing gained popularity from the mid-1800s, attending concerts was also seen as an important part of gaining a solid music education.

As a preview, in this article we’ll discuss how to find the best ways to learn to play an instrument or study music theory online:

  1. Instructional Videos
  2. Mobile Apps and Streaming Websites
  3. Streaming & Downloads
  4. MOOCs
  5. Teacher Websites
  6. Skype or Video Chat Lessons
  7. Webinars and Podcasts
  8. Time-Shifted Video

All of those time-tested educational practices seem to be changing with widespread adoption of the internet as a means for communication, entertainment, knowledge transfer, and interactive learning. Aspiring musicians now learn by watching YouTube videos, taking online courses, or even studying remotely with a teacher using Skype or other video chat services. While distance learning may still seem foreign to the older generation, for students who grew up using the internet and are used to spending long hours staring at screens playing video games or using social media, it’s a natural progression to study and learn online. Now you can earn a music degree online (I will cover this separately in the next article), study privately with a Teacher, watch instructional videos, attend a webinar, use tutoring software, or take classes via the web. It seems there’s something available online for everyone, regardless of level, background, or goals. Education has become more accessible to everyone since the growth of web-based learning, and that’s a good thing.

Not all web-based learning resources are equally effective or worthwhile. As more becomes available it becomes a challenge to find the best training. Since time is limited, how do we choose the best options for online learning? Since people learn differently, what works well for one student may not be great for another. Some online learning programs are free, while others cost money. It’s hard for the beginner to figure out where to start and Google searches won’t always instantly present the best options. For the advanced student, it can be even more challenging, to avoid repeating what they’ve already learned, or to focus very narrowly on a specific aspect of learning. Bottom line? If you want to learn and study online, you will need some strategies for finding the best ways.

Where to Start: Get Organized

Learners who are organized have an advantage. To start, I recommend you make a running list of all the things you’d like to learn. Be as specific as possible, but don’t shy away from generalities. For example, you might want to improve at playing guitar, and to gain a better understanding of music theory. Or you may feel the need to improve your reading on your instrument. Staying with this example, here is a potential list of related subjects to start to break it down:

Improve at Playing Guitar

  1. Learn new chords
  2. Learn new scales
  3. Improve at changing between chords
  4. Learn barre chords
  5. Play better rhythm
  6. Learn how to solo (play lead)
  7. Learn new songs
  8. Improve single note reading ability
  9. Improve right-hand picking technique
  10. Improve left hand fingering technique
  11. Learn “tapping” technique for soloing

Increase Music Theory Knowledge

  1. Rhythmic note values
  2. Pitch recognition
  3. Circle of 5ths
  4. Key signatures
  5. Major scales
  6. Pentatonic scales
  7. Blues scales
  8. Chord spelling (triads and 7th chords)
  9. Harmonic tensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths)
  10. Voice leading
  11. Notation

These are just examples; your list could be shorter or longer. Don’t worry if you don’t yet fully know what you need or want to learn, just make an initial stab at it. If you have a Teacher or know other accomplished musicians, show them your list of topics and see what they might advise you to add.

As you research topics further and as you achieve your learning goals over time, you can add or remove topics from your list. The main idea is to identify the things you want to learn and those you feel would be most useful, and write them down in an organized way. It’s crucial preparation for the research you must do to find the most reliable and useful tools for online learning.

There are many websites where you can access free and paid instructional videos, along with other kinds of training. For vocalists, one of my favorites is voicelesson.com, created by Mark Baxter. Mark is a leading Voice Teacher teaching all styles and levels. Mark teaches privately out of his studios in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. He has taught some of the top singing stars and is in great demand as a Teacher for beginner to professional level learners.

Getting Serious

Now that you have your list of topics, it’s time to identify these potential learning resources. After, you can narrow it down to a few and decide where you want to begin studying. You will need to prioritize and plan your approach. But first, there are two very important questions you should consider:

  1. What is my learning style?
  2. Am I willing to spend money? (What can I afford?)

Let’s address the first question. Everyone learns differently. Some people learn better by seeing (visual) and doing (tactile) while others are good listeners (auditory) and can more quickly assimilate new material through reading or listening. What kind of learner are you? If you think carefully about the things you are good at and consider how you learned them, you should be able to form some idea of the learning style that suits you best. Do you perform well on exams after reading books and listening to lectures? Or are you better at grasping information visually through diagrams, charts, or graphs? These are important questions to consider as you develop your online learning plan.

There are personality tests such as The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator that use a questionnaire to identify psychological preferences in how people perceive the world around them and how they learn. The Myers-Briggs test is administered by a trained and certified consultant who must adhere to ethical standards and maintain confidentiality. There are other types of tests you can take online for free, which may not always be accurate, but could give you some insight into your learning style and offer suggestions about how to improve your learning. Getting a handle on how you learn can provide some useful criteria to help decide which learning resources are best suited to your learning style.

Choices for Free Online Learning: Use Search Creatively

If you are looking for free instructional materials, there’s a wide variety of content available. Use your list of topics to search for online resources. This takes time and energy but you will find the results you need if you work at it.

Carefully consider the search terms you use. “How to” is a widely used prefix for searches, so you might try looking with and without that term, or vary the order of the words in your search to alter results. You can also try a Boolean search to get more specific results. (A Boolean search combines keywords with modifiers such as AND, NOT and OR to narrow down your results.) Searching with terms in quotation marks can also make the search engines dig deeper, according to Google.

Searches tend to return results most others have found useful, so if you aren’t getting good results try to rethink your search terms. Even if the initial results aren’t exactly what you’re seeking, one source can lead to another, so pay close attention to the links in the pages your searches return. Treat it like a game, as a puzzle to be solved, and you will eventually get to where you want to go. Search is your friend, so use it creatively.

Carefully evaluate the free content as you go. Blogs and websites offer posts and articles, which in turn can lead you to other resources. The comment threads can give you some idea how useful they are. Instructional videos abound and run the gamut from professional “teasers” designed to get you to purchase access to courses, to amateurs making videos to share their knowledge with the world. The key here is to be selective and use search engines creatively to find the free content you want.

Now, get even more organized and make a page for each topic on your list where you can cut and paste links to your most useful results. As you look for free content and catalogue your resources, also make note of the resources that charge for access. At this stage you just want to keep track of anything that seems useful, so even if you aren’t sure about a source, include it. Make a brief note to accompany each link describing what it is. Excel or Word works well for this purpose. At the end of this process, you should have a lengthy list of potential resources for your online learning, with a brief description of each. The next step is to formulate your plan of attack.

Should I Pay?

The question of cost is equally important. While there are many helpful online learning resources offered for free, some are better than others. Some may be completely useless and you don’t want to waste your money or your time. Since so much is available, it’s challenging to separate the wheat from the chaff. To mix metaphors, it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Usually content is worth about what you pay for it and there really is no free lunch. People expect to pay for what they get and hope to get what they pay for (there is a difference). Let the buyer beware; caveat emptor. Always, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. If someone is after your money and promises you will become a master overnight, run! If you are planning to pay for anything, carefully examine the value proposition for each source.

Having said all that, there are many useful free videos and blogs you can find if you are willing to look through a lot of useless ones. Go for it. However, if you can afford to spend a little money, your choices for quality instruction will improve. You’ll be able to use your self-knowledge about how you learn to choose from the various methods, including video tutorials, online courses, time-shifted videos, remote private instruction, learning software, or blended “hybrid” options which might even include face to face meetings in more traditional physical settings mixed with online resources.

Online learning can quickly get expensive, especially if you are planning to earn a degree online. It doesn’t always have to be costly, but be careful to work within the budget you have. Even a small budget can go a long way if carefully managed. If paying, be sure to take full advantage of the resources. Next, I’ll briefly describe some of the currently available online music learning resources and modalities.

Instructional Videos

Among paid options, the most common are instructional videos. Instructional videos (sometimes called video courses) are an effective way to learn a musical instrument or to study other music subjects. Video courses now widely inhabit the web, for streaming or as a download. Full length videotaped lessons by professional musicians and master teachers show the viewer step-by-step how to play. Instructional videos were formerly sold on CD or VHS videotape in music stores or by mail order, with or without an accompanying book. Now they can be downloaded or streamed to your computer, tablet, or phone for a fee. Physical copies are still sold, but it’s a lot easier and less clunky to watch videos on the web via a streaming service or by downloading a file. You should expect much more content from a paid full-length video than from the free content streamed on sites like YouTube.

One shortcoming is that most of the video courses are geared toward learning to play an instrument, and it’s hard to find many for music theory and other subjects. With streaming becoming the norm, this seems to be changing, so in the future, you will likely find more videos on music theory topics, plus orchestrating, arranging, and especially music production. (Music production and audio engineering seem to be particularly well suited to the instructional video format.) There are even new online video courses covering music business topics, such as how to publish your music.

One clear advantage offered by the webinar format is that if there is a language barrier between the participants, an interpreter can act as moderator and translator. There are many variations on the webinar theme, and the convenience and immediacy offered by webinars are very alluring, so they are bound to become more prevalent. Students usually pay a lower fee to attend a webinar than a private lesson, and many schools use them to bring remote lectures to their students.

Mobile Apps and Streaming Websites

On the road to streaming, and as more people began to access the web via mobile, instructional videos appeared on mobile apps. Apps can deliver streaming video from the internet. There are many music apps for Apple IOS and Google’s Android that you can download to your phone or tablet; some contain tools for learning or will sell you short instructional videos inside the app. Since most websites are now optimized for mobile, you can also find websites that will stream videos to your phone. Many sites and apps use a “freemium” model, where they give you some free content and then push users to “convert” to paying customers through in-app purchases. You can watch the first video for free but you must then pay a fee to access more videos.

Streaming Vs. Downloads

This raises the question of whether streaming or buying a video for download is preferable. The answer depends on how you plan to use the content. If you want to view the videos without using the internet, or want to share the content across devices via a network hub, then owning the download is better. If you just plan to watch once or twice or always have internet access readily available, you might prefer streaming. Depending on the source, there will be a paywall allowing you to access videos after payment using their pay system or an external payments platform such as PayPal.

Not all streaming sites will offer you access to specific content indefinitely, though some may. Always read the fine print before signing up for a subscription or paying for any materials. Some sites allow you to access the materials for as long as you are a subscriber, others may end your access after a set amount of time. With downloads, you can access the file forever, because you own it.

MOOCs

MOOCs (stands for Massive Open Online Course) became popular about 10 years ago and are offered by colleges and universities for free as a way to market themselves to prospective students. Most MOOCs are offered at specific times on the calendar, are between 6-10 weeks long, and follow a schedule of opening and closing each lesson on a weekly or biweekly basis. A MOOC is created and run by an actual Professor, but direct interaction with the Professor is limited due to the high number of enrollees. A MOOC is like a mini-online course with homework assignments and can be a great way to learn if you are disciplined and can stick with it. The completion rates for MOOCs are very low, so if you complete one you will be in the minority.

Some popular sites offering MOOCs are EdX, Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy, Canvas, and UoP (University of the People). Some top-name schools, such as Harvard and Yale also offer MOOCs directly. (Look for Harvard Open Courses or Yale Open Courses). Although MOOCs are free to take, if you want a certificate of completion you will usually pay a small fee. EdX charges $49.95 for a certificate suitable for framing. Canvas will give you a digital badge you can display on social media or your LinkedIn profile. Not all MOOCs offer certificates.

Teacher Websites

There are many websites where you can access free and paid instructional videos, along with other kinds of training. For vocalists, one of my favorites is voicelesson.com, created by Mark Baxter. Mark is a leading Voice Teacher teaching all styles and levels. Mark teaches privately out of his studios in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. He has taught some of the top singing stars and is in great demand as a Teacher for beginner to professional level learners. His site has his own books for sale, which are an outstanding resource for any student vocalist. Mark offers free short video lessons on YouTube, private lessons in person, lessons via Skype, and instructional videos. You can access everything on his site. You can book a private lesson with him at one of three locations, read his many articles and pointers on vocal technique, learn about vocal health, and learn about vocal performance, all on his website. It’s a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in learning more about singing.

Mark’s site is just one example, and you will find similar sites for all instruments and music topics out on the web. There are many well-established teachers who base their business model on their individual website. If you find one that is best for you, you might also interact with them individually on and off their site.

Skype or Video Chat Lessons

As you explore the websites further you’ll see many teachers offer lessons via Skype or video chat. There’s some question about how well this works, as there are inevitably disruptive glitches while using this technology. Anyone who has used video chat services will know what I mean: delays, echoes, freezing images, and distortion in sound or image can distract from the call quality. Communicating by video chat can be challenging even when it works well, with ambient noise, interruptions, and camera angles making it hard to read body language, facial cues, and see what’s really happening.

Meeting face to face isn’t always an option. Though it has faults, video conferencing makes it possible to teach and learn over great distances, so it has been embraced by teachers and students alike. As the technology improves, it will likely be an upward trend.

Webinars and Podcasts

A variation on the video conferencing model is the webinar. Webinars have become more popular over the last years. Think of it like a group lesson, conducted live. Students can watch in real time using their computer or their phone from anywhere in the world. A group can gather to watch a webinar on a large screen in a classroom, with the Teacher being remote and other students joining from other locations. Usually, the Teacher presents a brief lecture, workshop, or master class, and then the students have a chance to ask questions.

One clear advantage offered by the webinar format is that if there is a language barrier between the participants, an interpreter can act as moderator and translator. There are many variations on the webinar theme, and the convenience and immediacy offered by webinars are very alluring, so they are bound to become more prevalent. Students usually pay a lower fee to attend a webinar than a private lesson, and many schools use them to bring remote lectures to their students. There are many technology platforms capable of hosting webinars; one of the more popular is called Webex.

Sometimes a webinar can be recorded and turned into a podcast. A podcast is a recorded audio version of a webinar, interview, lecture, or class which is downloaded or streamed over the internet. While there are many free podcasts available to learn from, some sites require you to subscribe or pay for downloads in order to hear their podcasts.

Time-Shifted Video

Another way to study online is time-shifted video. Most people are not familiar with this method, but it is actually one of the precursors to distance learning and it has been around for a while. The Teacher records a short lesson with specific instructions for the student to practice, and an assignment. After watching the Teacher’s video, when the student is ready he or she turns on his or her own camera and records himself or herself playing the lesson assignment. Then the Teacher watches the student’s video and responds with a new video giving feedback and assigning the next lesson. Streaming video over the web has made it quicker and easier than it used to be, when Teacher and student would mail VHS tapes through the mail. (This was sometimes also called a “video correspondence course.”) Now it’s as simple as opening your webcam and talking or playing to the camera. This method works well when internet connectivity and time schedules present challenges to connect in real time.

In addition to the above methods for learning music over the internet, there are now online courses offered by colleges and universities that award course credit and allow you to work towards earning a college diploma or degree online. We will cover all of these options in the second article of this series.

(To be continued in part 2 of this series.)

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