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Music Instruction On-line By Mark Wherry
Published September 2001

Songplayer uses your own CD collection to help teach you to play the songs of your favourite artists, via this specially designed software utility.Songplayer uses your own CD collection to help teach you to play the songs of your favourite artists, via this specially designed software utility.

Want to learn an instrument or improve your playing skills? Forget instructional books, videos, even human contact. As Mark Wherry explains, you can get your music instruction on‑line.

The concept of teaching yourself new skills has never been more popular; if you want some proof, you only have to walk into WSmith or Borders to see the vast array of self‑help books and CD‑ROMs that are now available. However, the static nature of these media doesn't always provide ideal learning conditions — which is where the Internet is poised to take over as the ultimate teach‑yourself platform for the future.

The advantages that the Internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, can provide for distance learning are fairly clear. Not only can the student be presented with a rich media experience, but content can constantly evolve and even be tailor‑made on the spot for a particular student. There's also the potential to communicate with other students and teachers anywhere a telephone line and computer can be found.

The Online Conservatory

Check out the free on‑line interactive guitar lessons at the Songplayer site.Check out the free on‑line interactive guitar lessons at the Songplayer site.

The Online Conservatory ( is one of the most prominent sites on the web for live on‑line music teaching, and specialises in keyboard and piano technique. The site itself acts as a gateway between students and teachers, so if you're already a piano teacher you could sign up to start teaching through the Online Conservatory.

To experience the teaching, only a modest Windows‑based computer is required, plus a MIDI keyboard and a headset (or microphone and speaker combination). The Melodus software used by the Online Conservatory can be freely downloaded from the site, and provides a two‑way streaming MIDI connection with another user on‑line, which in this case would be your student or teacher. An on‑screen keyboard display with a sustain‑pedal indicator is provided so you can see, as well as hear, what the other person is doing.

If you would like to try this for yourself, the Online Conservatory offer a free trial lesson, so you can see if this method could work for you without having to part with any money. Simply fill in the on‑line forms, download the software, and you will be contacted via email to check everything is set up properly and to arrange a suitable time for the lesson. At the agreed time, you visit a special waiting‑room area of the site, where your teacher will meet you and direct you to open a connection with them, so that the lesson can commence.

The Melodus application supports text‑based chat, but it can also work with Microsoft's NetMeeting, which you will also have been asked to install, so you can actually talk to your teacher verbally, rather than spending ninety percent of the lesson playing a different sort of keyboard.

Although, like most distance learning, the emphasis is placed on the student, the idea of being able to find a teacher anywhere in the world who can teach you the style you're interested in is quite amazing. This approach has already attracted interest from major companies such as Yamaha. The fees are pretty much the same as real‑world piano lessons, with most teachers asking 20 US dollars per 30‑minute lesson.


If imitation is the highest form of flattery, maybe this goes some way towards explaining why people often learn their instruments by playing songs from their favourite artists. Which brings us to the Songplayer system (, a clever way for you to teach yourself to play songs from your very own CD collection.

To get started, you need to download and install the free, but unfortunately Windows‑only, Songplayer application from the web site. This application works with special song‑instruction files downloaded from the Songplayer servers online, which then work with the relevant audio CD in your collection to teach you the song, meaning that you have to already own the CD album featuring the song you want to learn.

Although it sounds like a drawback, having to use your own audio CD is actually a good thing, because rather than making you learn with some poor computer MIDI‑synth alternative, the Songplayer application is able to synchronise its on‑screen display of the song with the original recording. This also means that the download time is negligible and you don't have to lose Megabytes of hard–disk space to store the songs you want to learn.

Your first song is free, but the way Songplayer makes money is to charge you for subsequent song downloads, though the pricing is very reasonable. For example, a single song is £2.95, but three songs cost only £4.95, seven songs cost £9.95, and 15 songs cost £14.95 — less than a pound each!

With the software running, your free song downloaded, and the all‑important original CD in your CD‑ROM drive, you're ready to learn. (Here comes the clever bit...) The song is displayed bar–by–bar on a virtual chart with the chords, lyrics, and any riffs that are going on. The current beat is highlighted as the song is playing, and the chart automatically updates itself, which makes it easy to sing and play along.

If you don't know how to play a particular chord, you can open the guitar‑chord‑sheet window that shows you the fingerings for all the chords in the current section of the song. And yes, while the song is playing, the chord sheet automatically updates itself so that the relevant chords are shown for the section of song playing at that time. Clicking a particular chord opens a larger explanation window, though unfortunately this window doesn't follow the current chord while the song is playing, which is a shame.

The built‑in chord dictionary is a huge asset, saving you from juggling several resources at once, but even better than the chord display is the riff display that shows you how to play a particular riff step‑by‑step. It can also play a solo version of the riff against a metronome, with an animated display, if you forget how the whole pattern is supposed to sound.

The display can be configured for guitarists or keyboard players, and in keyboard mode the chords are illustrated on a virtual keyboard instead, though the all‑in‑one chord‑strip window isn't supported. Another minor disappointment is that guitar riffs can't be displayed in keyboard mode. The reverse is also true.

To summarise, the Songplayer system is good fun and surprisingly addictive; it's easy to lose a few hours, and more than a few pounds from your credit card, without even trying. If you learn by playing the songs of your favourite artists, this is a dream come true, but I also see it being very useful in the music classroom too. Although Songplayer isn't the only system of this nature (the obvious competition is the more advanced iSong, currently undergoing transformation after being bought by Hal Leonard), it's relatively cheap, simple, and extremely effective.

Guitar Lessons

Another useful feature of the Songplayer website is its free set of on‑line interactive guitar lessons. Making use of Windows Media and Shockwave technologies, you can progress through a course that aims to improve the technique of any beginner or intermediate player. However, at the moment only Windows users running Internet Explorer will be able to take part, as Mac and Netscape users have been left out.

The course launches in a custom‑sized browser window that occasionally spawns pop‑up windows, and you can choose a lesson from the list on the left or start at the beginning, where you'll be guided through the course step‑by‑step. The course presentation is fairly simple, but the use of technology is impressive. There are videos to show you how you're supposed to hold the instrument and how to strum chords, for example, which you can play again and again. You can even scroll through particular frames at your own pace.

Perhaps the most interesting example of the technology is being able to play a chord progression along with a metronome. You can hear what it should sound like with a guitar playing along, or have just the click playing so you can have a go yourself. As the metronome plays, the screen illustrates what beat you should be playing on the chart display, and there are three speeds to help you gradually build up your ability.

As someone who previously thought the way to tune a guitar was to make sure all the strings have equal tension, I found this course quite useful. It would be nice if Songplayer continued to provide a full course right up to an advanced level using the system, but at the moment this is a good start for beginners, it doesn't cost anything, and it's an interesting example of a good use of current technology.

If your guitar ability is already quite respectable, you might like to check out the free lessons at Acoustic Guitar Central ( While these don't have the same polished front end as Songplayer (they're basically standard web pages with text, some pictures and Real Media links), the actual content is very useful. Among the topics covered here for free are reading music (including guitar‑specific elements such as tablature), practising basic classical guitar exercises to improve finger‑picking styles, and even (heaven help us!) tips for arranging Bach cello suites on the guitar.

There are literally hundreds of sites to help you with your guitar endeavours, such as the very useful and comprehensive Cyberfret ( And if you're interested in learning some jazz, Jazz Guitar Online ( offers short, cleanly‑presented lessons with onscreen tab and Real Audio examples. Other good sites for beginners include,‑lessons.html, and More experienced players are also catered for at Vision Music's site ( and www.ultimate‑

Piano Tuition

If you'd like to improve your keyboard technique on‑line and the Online Conservatory is a bit elaborate for your needs, there are many self‑paced piano resources similar to the guitar training just discussed. The best starting point for anyone interested in the piano is The Piano Education Page (, where you can discover everything you always wanted to know about learning the piano.

Even if this site doesn't help you, there are links to other valuable pages, such as the snappily‑titled Piano Practising Principles and Methods Home Page (‑practice.html). But the Net doesn't just provide for classical technique: there are some excellent jazz piano lessons for intermediate‑level pianists at Learn Jazz Piano (, which I found really interesting.

For complete beginners, there's always Piano Nanny (, which also offers some intermediate and jazz exercises, Piano Lessons Online ( and Free Online Piano Lessons (

Who Forgot To Retrain The Drummer?!

Drummers have to put up with many jokes, including the one that between‑set intervals should last no longer than 20 minutes, so they don't have to be retrained! But seriously, there are some basic drum lessons at, (mentioned in the main text) and you can find weekly drum lessons, including a drumming 101 for those new to the instrument, at GR Drums (

However, possibly the best on–line drum‑teaching site is Free Drum Lesson (, where you can read a free, albeit short, drum lesson from a choice of five standards — novice to 'hot pocket'! Lessons include MP3 audio examples and on‑screen drum tab, and if you like what you see you can order further blocks of 20 lessons for just 20 dollars. Even if you don't buy the lessons, be sure to check out their links page, as it includes some really great sites for anyone interested in drums, percussion or rhythm generally.