Musical instruments and apps that teach you how to play

An experienced human teacher is the best, but these gadgets can get you started.

musical instrument tech
Melody machinesTravis Rathbone

Hearing music can make us dance, laugh, or cry; it has the power to excite us or give us goosebumps. Playing music, on the flipside, can make you smarter. Learning an instrument improves your brain’s executive function—the ability to manage resources and achieve goals. In doing so, being musical also strengthens your capacity to consider multiple concepts at once, a key facet of creative thinking. Instruments with baked-in teaching tools might be no replacement for an experienced human instructor, but they’re easy, at-home ways to help start the process. Bonus: They won’t get on your case about practicing your scales. 1. Strum the strings Fretlight FG-621 guitar’s ­translucent polymer fretboard show your fingers where to hold the strings to craft chords. Compatible smartphone apps, such as Guitar Tunes and MyJam, wirelessly send signals to those lights to guide you through fingerings, scales, and power chords. You can slow down or speed up the lessons to match your skill level. Once you’ve mastered the basics, turn off the lights and rock out on your legit ­electric ax until your fingers bleed from too much shredding.

2. Slap the skins

A beginning percussionist's practice sessions can sound like an elephant charging through the local hardware store, so there's good reason to be thankful for the volume-controllable rubber drums on Yamaha's DTX 400 electronic setup. Each kit includes pads to represent the toms, snare, kick, and cymbals that you'd find in a standard set. Its built-in training mode plays examples of the most common patterns and rhythms in genres like rock and jazz. Groove along at increasing tempos until you're pounding out rhythms like Neil Peart.

3. Tickle the keys

With 61 full-size keys, optional battery power, and 400 selectable instrument sounds, the Casio LK-260 is a familiar sight in music classrooms, but it can teach you to tap out tunes all on its own. The keys light up in sequence to show you the notes for simple scales to complex compositions. The onboard teaching system guides you through a gradual learning process: First you listen, then watch, then jam along. You can speed up the beat as you progress and review your performances via a built-in digital recorder.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 Intelligence issue of Popular Science.