Music Apps Roundup
A look at the best music apps for jazz fans and musicians
That we use the Internet for everything, including our homework, is nothing new. But in the 2010s, that idea has taken on a new guise. The Digital Era has gone mobile; the virtual study guides that not long ago still confined us to our desk—or at least a table at the coffee shop—now travel in our pockets, ready to be pulled out on the bus or while walking down the street.
Accordingly, the “there’s an app for that” world has made its way into music education. You, too, can now do your homework on the way home, or anywhere you might end up. Yes, you still can’t practice without an actual instrument in your hands—heaven forbid—but when it comes to sight reading, ear training, even master classes, you can accomplish quite a bit on a smart phone or tablet.
In searching for the coolest, most useful and most downright fun apps for jazz players, JazzTimes spoke to musicians, teachers and students, researched tech articles and app-store user ratings, and experimented with two dozen apps. That said, most of the recommendations that follow are very popular and acclaimed in music education circles; to put it more directly, these apps are the industry standards.
Of all the apps mentioned here, iReal b users come the closest to consensus: It’s not merely a cool and useful app, it’s an essential tool for musicians at any level. iReal b is the portable, digital version of The Real Book, the definitive book of jazz lead sheets. It also includes MIDI playback for those sheets, letting you learn the chords by playing along, or practice the melody with the app providing harmonic accompaniment. (You can control the playback with regards to tempo, time signature, repetitions and number of count-in measures.) The initial download of the app comes with 50 “exercise” lead sheets. These are run-throughs of the basics: blues, ballads and bossa novas, as well as the most common jazz harmonic structures (II-V-I, “Rhythm” and Trane changes, et al.) and other devices. But with the touch of the screen, you can enter the iReal b forums, where you can download hundreds of charts for jazz and other genres (or upload your own transcriptions) for free. But the app’s most amazing feature is that you can select any of the 12 keys for each song in your library and iReal b will automatically transpose the song to that key.
[JOHN NASTOS, $2.99]
There are any number of metronome apps (Clockwork, Tempo and Polyrhythm, for example), but few offer the kind of flexibility you’ll find in Metronomics. The app can create rhythms as simple or as multilayered as you choose. There are countless possibilities mixed into the functionality: You can set tempo in BPM; choose beats per measure—including mixed-meter patterns—and number of measures per repetition; set any subdivision, even custom ones, and set and play several at once in cross-rhythms (with individual volume controls for each subdivision you’re using); arrange rhythms in any time signature, even meters like 33/16; and run a sequencer and randomizer simultaneously. You can set clave patterns. You can even set your rhythm to have a swing feel, with adjustable strength, or have the metronome drop out after a given number of measures, to allow you to practice the rhythms unaccompanied before it resumes (again, at whatever interval you determine). All of these can be voiced using more than 40 sound samples, including different drum sounds. Best of all, you can save your settings and even share them with friends who also have the app.
CLEARTUNE CHROMATIC TUNER
No explanation necessary, surely, for why you’d want or need a chromatic tuner. The interface for Cleartune comes in the form of a wheel or dial and pointer, with two settings: frequency measure and reference tone. With the frequency measure, you play a note on your instrument into your device’s microphone and the wheel turns to indicate the pitch you just played (with 1/10 increments marked off between the semitones); you can also set it to indicate the frequency in Hz—it automatically calibrates to A-440, but you can adjust that, too. The reference tones setting allows you to turn the dial manually, then press “play” to get the tone you want (the 1/10 increments don’t work in this case). In addition to calibration and frequency viewing, the settings let you adjust for temperament, notation, transposition and the appearance of the pitch waveform. Cleartune is really designed with guitar in mind—and bears celebrity endorsements from the likes of Rosanne Cash—but it works just as well with other instruments. This writer used it with a piano, and raters at the iTunes Store note that it was successful with woodwinds and brass.
What EarTrainer does for your ears (see p. 35), iNoteTrainer does for your eyes. It, too, is a set of exercises designed to improve your ability to identify notes. Instead of ear training, however, this app is geared toward sight reading. You can start with the treble clef, in basic A-B-C and keyboard notation and in extended and extreme range; you can do the same, then, with the bass, alto and tenor clefs. (Custom settings allow you to control register, use of sharps and flats and whether you hear as well as see the notes you’re identifying.) In addition, rather than simply testing you in order to qualify for the next round of questions, iNoteTrainer is formatted as a game. The app scores your performance based on both accuracy and speed, giving you a high score to beat while simultaneously providing a baseline against which to sharpen your skills.
AMAZING SLOW DOWNER
[RONI MUSIC, $14.99]
The Amazing Slow Downer is easily the most expensive app on this list, but also one of the most popular and highly rated by users (as well as by the surveyed musicians). It pulls the songs from the music library on your phone or iPad for you to play, and lets you change the tempo—as slow as 25 percent of the original recorded speed, or as fast as 200 percent—without changing the pitch. That said, you can change the pitch if you’d like, and without changing the tempo! (You can also adjust the mix to one side or the other in your headphones.) The usefulness of this app? It’s handy for transcribing. Slow down a tune to catch the fleeting notes or tricky phrases; Amazing Slow Downer even lets you loop a fragment of a tune if you need to work on a specific section. A careful adjustment of the pitch control lets you transpose songs for transcription, too. The app also works well for learning a tune play-along style.
Recording one’s practice and rehearsal sessions and listening back is a crucial element of any music student’s development. Acoustic Mirror is an app designed to streamline that often-cumbersome process. It’s a hands-free recorder and playback device that’s automatically activated by sound. It’s not just any sound that activates the app, though: Acoustic Mirror specifically responds to musical tones, and ignores any other sound in the range of its microphone (although you can set it to varying levels of sound sensitivity, which is helpful if, for example, you’re a drummer). It stops recording when the music stops. But you don’t even need to put down your instrument to hear the playback: It starts automatically, and a jog wheel allows you to configure a delay time between the end of the recording and the beginning of the playback. (There is also a replay button if you want to hear it a second time.) Acoustic Mirror is also a handy app for teachers, so they can record their students’ lessons and find strengths and weaknesses to work on before the student has even put down the instrument.
[SHAKA APPS, $0.99]
Jazz’s musical vocabulary is large and complex enough on its own. With the effort it takes to learn that, it’s easy to overlook absorbing the equally extensive verbal vocabulary that goes with it—particularly when so much of that verbal vocabulary is rendered in Italian. (Giocoso? What’s that?) iMusic Dictionary is exactly what it says it is: a full dictionary of those musical terms, from “A 2” to “zurückhaltend.” The app currently comprises a database of more than 1,400 terms, searchable and continuously updated, defined in concise and simple wording. That includes not only the theoretical terms you find marking your textbooks and sheet music but also the names of obscure instruments (“uilleann pipes”), slang terms (“bird’s eye”), musical styles (“punk rock”) and the occasional odd historical reference (“Council of Trent”). You can mark favorites for reference, or suggest a term for the next round of updates. There are alternatives: Another highly rated dictionary app, Musictionary, contains far fewer terms (about 500), but defines them in greater depth and sometimes with images.
Music students often cite ear training as one of the most time-consuming aspects of their studies—and one that they have to do almost entirely on their own time. So the benefits of having a study aid that can fit in your pocket are obvious. Ear Trainer is a thorough curriculum, too. It provides 161 exercises in interval comparison and identification; chord identification, inversions and progressions; scales; notes played after chords; and relative pitch. Each exercise provides 15 audio comparisons between two intervals, chords, scales, etc., and asks the user to identify the correct one (“Which is the larger interval?” “Which is the major scale?” and so on). It provides a virtual keyboard that you can use to search out the relevant notes, with no time limit. (If you prefer to work by your ears alone, you can disable the keyboard.) Whether you guess correctly or not, the keyboard shows you the specific intervals/chords/scales/etc. it’s just played. Then, depending on your score on each exercise, the app gives you recommendations to either repeat the exercise or continue on to the next one.
[MANCING DOLECULES, $5.99]
Everyday Looper, also called Eydy Looper, is the most fun of all these apps to play with. It’s a popular app, but also a frustrating one because it’s difficult to master. In essence, Everyday Looper is a four-track recorder (six tracks on an iPad) that you control with taps and swipes of your fingers on the screen. Record one track, then use it as accompaniment when you record the second one, and repeat as necessary. You needn’t stop at four, either: The app’s settings allow you to overdub onto the same track you’ve already recorded, or copy a recorded track into another blank track and do separate overdubs in each. The point is, the app will play the tracks back—one, four or any combination therein—on a loop, which you can use as accompaniment for yourself or as all manner of repeated sounds. The complicating factor is the finger controls: The combinations of fingers, taps and swipes are tough to get a handle on. (For example, tapping one finger on a track begins recording on that track. To play it back, you tap it with two fingers simultaneously, but first you have to stop the recording by tapping the track with three fingers simultaneously.) Experimenting and/or fumbling with those commands, though, can lead to some fun accidental discoveries.
MJF’S DIGITAL MUSIC EDUCATION PROJECT (DMEP)
[MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, FREE]
DMEP might just as well be called “Jazzing With the Stars.” It’s an archive of audio and video clips that features more than 160 acclaimed musicians, including such gigantic figures as Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis. On the audio front, they contribute short clips in which they discuss their own musical and artistic influences—with important tunes by those influential figures available for listening—and give advice for players of their instruments. (The advice clips are categorized by instrument, with additional categories for composers and miscellaneous musicians like vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and clarinetist Anat Cohen.) The video section is where the meat is: It features 88 professionally shot videos of performances, master classes and question-and-answer sessions held at the Monterey Jazz Festival and ancillary events (including MJF’s Summer Jazz Camp). There is one major caveat here. In the app, the camp content is somewhat misleadingly titled “Master Class Videos”; in fact, about 3/4 of the videos available are of performances by high-school or college ensembles. Still, unless you have the musicians’ home numbers, DMEP is as close as your phone can take you to getting a jazz education straight from the horse’s mouth.