Last updated June, 2016
Note: software here is often listed as FLO for "Free/Libre/Open". Read the first section to understand what that means.
- On Software and Freedom
- Windows vs macOS vs GNU/Linux
- Mobile issues and iOS vs Android etc.
- Local software versus online services
- Recommendations for every computer user (not music specific)
- About computer music hardware
- Audio recording software
- Plugins (effects, virtual instruments)
- Audio speed/pitch change for practice with recordings
- Music notation software
- sequencers, loopers, and other composing software
- Music theory and ear training
- Misc: drum-machine, jam-tracks, metronomes, tuners, games, online jamming
- Other online resources
- additional resources and notes
Of course, any guitarist has the freedom play however they desire and to even modify the instrument if they are so inspired. After all, it is your guitar. Only basic physics place limits on what you can try. People even do things like placing strange objects around the strings to get unusual sound effects. And, surely, if you develop a new guitar technique, you wouldn't think to patent it to stop others from copying your way of playing, right?
Imagine a choir learning a song arrangement where some of the pitches are out of range for the singers. With understanding of music theory, the director can alter the arrangement while working to keep the overall musical effect. Maybe the director would then wish to share their update with other choral groups who might have the same issues. Unfortunately, our restrictive copyright laws make this excessively difficult (see my article A Rational View of Copyright). Still, any director can at least adjust things for their own singers.
Similarly, a computer user may wish for something to work better or differently. If they have some programming skills, then they can make adjustments as desired — if they have access to the program code and permission to change it. Furthermore, the global community (programmers and non-programmers alike) can benefit from programmers sharing their software improvements. Unfortunately, as with sharing music arrangements, excessive restrictions can get in the way.
I learned about these issues after reading the preamble to the GNU General Public License (GPL) that came with some of the programs I was using (including many listed below). Curious about the ethical and political values it mentioned, I learned more about the the Free Software Foundation and its founder, Richard Stallman and eventually (but slowly) came to really understand and embrace the importance of software freedom, even to a non-programmer like me.
In this context, "free" refers to freedom rather than price, and this is often clarified by borrowing the Romance language term libre (as in liberty) to contrast with gratis (zero price). The official Free Software Definition specifies the following four freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it as you wish
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to release your modified versions to the public, so that the whole community benefits
Access to readable source code is necessary for software freedom to be possible, and that led to the term "Open Source." The term "open" also brings emphasis to community, access, transparency, and collaboration; but the Free Software Foundation rejects "open" and "Open Source" due to concerns about deemphasizing the ethical issues of freedom and civil liberties.
Seeing value to all these terms and no overall consensus, many people now use the term "FLOSS" for free/libre/open-source software (and sometimes "FOSS" without the "libre" part). Obviously, "free software" on its own will always lead many people to think just about price, so that term isn't adequate. I sometimes talk about "software freedom", but for the rest of this article (and in general), I use the term FLO for free/libre/open which has the added benefit of working as a general adjective we can apply to other items that have the same issues, such as music.
The GNU GPL is also the first and most prominent among a special class of FLO licenses called copyleft which means that derivative versions must be also shared under the same terms. Copyleft means not only having the core rights for some software currently but also protection of those rights for new versions into the future.
Proprietary (non-FLO) software issues today
Unfortunately, restricted proprietary software dominates much of modern computing. Our current economic and legal system isn't designed well for funding of FLO works. So, many developers choose to restrict their software in part to ensure their pay (and control). Such proprietary software gives developers the power to control how it works, how it is updated, and thus to keep users tied to their system. The power proprietary software companies have helps them ensure continued funding and out-compete any FLO alternatives.
In principle, all software could be FLO. Developers who care about the ethical issues (or even just about their own freedom) have already created many robust alternatives to restrictive proprietary programs. In some cases, FLO software dominates. Much of the internet today runs on FLO software.
How do FLO works get funded today? In many cases, institutions such as schools, governments, and businesses hire developers to make software for specific purposes and then license the programs under FLO terms. Besides supporting ethical values, the original institutions share the benefits of improvements made by others in the community. Some companies create FLO products and then offer optional support services. Finally, individuals around the world donate funds and volunteer their time to support FLO development, promotion, and documentation. Despite these mechanisms, much FLO software struggles with low funding. These issues led me to help co-found a new non-profit cooperative system to help improve the situation: Snowdrift.coop
Though I support FLO ideals, I am not dogmatic. Reality demands pragmatism and compromise. I respect and support some software developers who choose proprietary licenses for their work (even though I disagree with their choice). But I still want a minimum of ethical standards. I accept only software which at least: does not include intrusive advertisements; has no significant anti-features such as Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) or invasions of privacy; does not have unreasonably frequent update costs; and is not limited to saving work in proprietary file formats.
Furthermore, whether to accept any proprietary software should depend how much power the proprietary developers have. A proprietary puzzle game is benign (assuming the developer can truly be trusted not to do anything malicious, such as spying on the users or worse). On the other hand, developers of proprietary operating systems (such as Microsoft Windows and Apple macOS and iOS) have the power to influence everything about users' whole computing ecosystem.
Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux?
As an alternative to Windows or macOS, I now use a FLO computer operating system: GNU/Linux.* Renowned for its security, privacy, and flexibility, GNU/Linux has traditionally appealed to computer programmers and professionals. However, thanks to recent improvements in features and user-friendliness, GNU/Linux systems are now in use by schools, governments, businesses, and individuals all around the world (including even my computer-illiterate parents).
For basic computing (web browsing, music and photo sorting, word processing etc.), GNU/Linux systems work as well or better than any other system with little learning necessary. Supportive communities and other resources can help at any level from beginner to advanced. GNU/Linux has software for everything from office and school work to scientific research to games to video-editing and 3D modeling — nearly all FLO.
To learn more about the whole concept, the pros and cons, and how to get started, one good introduction is at GetGNUlinux.org
With many variants of GNU/Linux (called distributions or distros for short), choosing among the options can be confusing. Specific systems are designed for multimedia, for business, for science, or for younger children… Because GNU/Linux software is mostly interchangeable, advanced users can mix and match different elements in any way they like, and they can offer their variations to others — which is why we have so many options. Thankfully, it's easy enough to try different systems and change your mind later. For the most part, all the same programs work on any version of GNU/Linux, only the default setup and window-dressing varies.
You can try GNU/Linux on your Mac or Windows machine without affecting your current system. On Windows, the user-friendly program Linux Live USB Creator provides an easy way to set up GNU/Linux for either testing or installation using a USB flash drive. It even can automatically set up the FLO Virtual Box software for testing without installing. Mac users might try Mac Linux USB Loader, although I have not tested it myself.
When ready to make a full install, you can still dual-boot and keep your existing macOS or Windows OS on the same machine. Each time you start your computer, it will give you the option to choose between the systems. There is also a FLO program called WINE that can run many Windows-based applications within GNU/Linux!
Most computers will work with GNU/Linux, but you can search online for information about any issues with a particular computer model. You can also just purchase a new GNU/Linux-dedicated computer from any of the companies listed at LinuxPreloaded.com.
GNU/Linux audio is modular and flexible. Basic audio software works adequately without hassle, and advanced tools can do serious music production. I recommend (and use myself) the superb KXStudio, which is essentially a pre-compiled collection of GNU/Linux audio software along with powerful tools for configuring and working with the system. It includes everything from synthesizers to recording programs to special effects and more.
KXStudio can be installed as its own GNU/Linux distribution or the KXStudio repositories can be added to any system based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution (including any Ubuntu-based distro). Also, the Cadence tools, which are the heart of KXStudio, will work on any distribution of GNU/Linux. All of this a work in progress but is already quite capable. Documentation and beginner tutorials are in progress as well.
I'm happy to advise any student interested in trying GNU/Linux. Also see helpful community forums, such as linuxmusicians.com. A reference wiki is at wiki.linuxaudio.com, and see also this full list of Linux-related audio groups. Another good resource: libremusicproduction.com
Regarding iOS (iPhone/iPod/iPad) and Android systems:
Before moving to GNU/Linux, I mostly used Macs, but Apple's secrecy and locked-down control went past the tipping point for me when they introduced iOS. The iOS system (iPhone/iPod/iPad) requires users to go through Apple for their software, a situation called a walled garden. This makes support, security, and profit easier for Apple — at the expense of user freedom. As Richard Stallman puts it:
"Apple iThings pioneered a new level of restricting the users: they were the first general purpose computers to impose censorship over what programs the user can install." [source]Apple has used this control to lock users in, violate their privacy, and embed a whole advertising system into the software. That a simple guitar tuner program now flashes ads at you is frustrating enough. For me, the most troubling issue is that Apple's Terms of Service are incompatible with FLO terms, thus sabotaging the use and development of FLO for iOS. Essentially, the FLO licenses guarantee certain rights (see above), but Apple wants to add further restrictions. So, copyleft software can't be published to Apple's App Store!
Users can legally bypass many of Apple's restrictions by jailbreaking their devices, but this is not a real solution. Apple does all they can to stop jailbreaks, and if only a minority of users jailbreak their devices, it limits the size of the market for apps that require jailbreaking.
Besides Apple's awful App Store terms, the whole ecosystem Apple's Crystal Prison and the Future of Open Platforms. Apple uses truly outrageous terms for any software included in their iOS app store. Also, for music concerns specifically, using Apple's iTunes and music-streaming service can result in complete loss of your music.
Google's Android system is (currently) somewhat better for freedom than Apple's iOS (and also better than Microsoft's Windows Phone). Android is based on the FLO Linux kernel, and the base system is FLO — although many of the programs and other system functions are not. Android devices allow users to install software from multiple sources without too much hassle.
All Android users should install the fully free/libre alternative app repository F-Droid. With F-Droid, you can trust that every app is FLO (some even have been adjusted to remove tracking or other problems compared to Google Play versions of the same programs!). For musicians, F-Droid includes some options like a metronome and a great tuning app. VLC is also available for simple speed change for playback.
For those especially committed to software freedom, a first step is to "root" your Android device to have a little more control and use better ad-blocking. Further steps include installing a more free build of Android (I've used OmniROM, and CyanogenMod is imperfect but popular; I haven't kept up with the complex status of alternate Android builds). You can use Android without the proprietary Google Apps even (and you can add those back also if you accept the compromise of your freedom and privacy). The process can be a bit screwy and varies from device to device. For hardcore software freedom, Replicant is a 100% FLO version of Android that works on select devices if you accept the compromise (at this time) of giving up some basic functions like wifi and video recording.
Various attempts to create FLO mobile systems have been tried, but nothing is fully there currently. Mozilla had Firefox OS, but that project is dead. GNU/Linux mobile via the Ubuntu Phone OS is in the works.
Issues of freedom aside, both Android and iOS devices have tons of useful proprietary apps available for music students. There are apps for these devices for all the categories mentioned on this page. I would certainly hesitate to buy separate chord-chart books over simple chord-finding apps. Unfortunately, the options can be confusing and overwhelming. Android and iOS systems have incredible numbers of apps (the vast majority of which are redundant clutter, mediocre gimmicks, and app versions of fully functional websites). While some apps are worthwhile, others are a scheme designed to get you hooked in and then sell you more features or content; and free/gratis (i.e. not libre, not FLO) apps commonly show ads. I have not evaluated the options, but if you know of particular apps that you feel truly deserve mention here, please let me know.
Side note: one iOS app that seems really neat to me: Composer's Sketchpad (which is proprietary, but the author expresses hope to get comfortable enough with making it FLO eventually and available for other systems). I like it especially for being free-form and not fitting the rigid grid of timing and pitch that most apps assume.
Concerns about the future of macOS and Windows desktop systems
The introduction of the Mac App Store now has macOS moving toward the walled garden of iOS. Apple says that they will never restrict macOS quite as much, but while this may be technically true so far, they have implemented anti-competitive designs to effectively lock-down their monopoly in the macOS world as well.
macOS users can still adjust their system to install whatever software they like, but the system default is for Apple-approved installations only and a scary message if anyone even tries installing something else. The dominance of the Mac App Store means that developers will have to play by Apple's dictated rules if they want to reach the widest audience.
The latest macOS version is also full of built-in connections to services like Facebook which are based on spying on users in order to display ads. Facebook is itself a closed system which works in opposition to the values of an open internet. We can now expect our computers to be always advertising at us even when we don't actively access the internet.
If you still aren't convinced about Apple's anti-freedom direction, consider that the latest Apple hardware now uses non-standard pentalobular screws just to stop users from upgrading or repairing their own machines. Some MacBook models even glue in the battery, so it is virtually impossible to replace, and this planned obsolescence lowers the machine's life-span.
Using Apple's otherwise high-quality products means losing freedoms and becoming locked in to their restrictive platforms. At the same time when technology could be more freeing than ever, we are facing digital feudalism imposed by unethical monopolies and oligopolies.
Despite the marvelous technology, I am ending my own use Apple products. I am not happy with this situation. I miss some of the programs. I wish we had legal protections of user freedom and privacy. If Apple were forced to respect these rights of users and the community, then I might consider Apple products again. Side note: macOS users can take a tiny step to protect a little more privacy by following the advice at fix-macosx.com.
Microsoft Windows, of course, presents its own complex issues for freedom. Microsoft has a long history of monopolistic business practices, an anti-freedom philosophy, and are following Apple's lead toward locking-down the systems even more. Worse Microsoft now follows Google and Facebook in focusing on data-mining with Windows 10being the most invasive, controlling system yet — it spies on users and tracks their every action. And then there are the problems with Windows viruses and other malware — issues which the much more secure GNU/Linux handles dramatically better…
For the time being, both macOS and Windows still retain the ability to install FLO programs, and there are admittedly some advantages to using the most popular systems. I don't expect everyone to switch to GNU/Linux right away. For those who do switch, the GNU/Linux systems have built-in tools for managing and discovering software. Once inside the GNU/Linux world, it is easier to be aware of the FLO versus proprietary options.
What about online services?
Today, many of the functions you would otherwise do on your own computer can be run through a web interface. Some websites even work as direct music recording and composing tools. I find this trend worrying as it removes user control far more than even proprietary software. Websites may change without notice. You have no access without internet connection. If a web service disappears, you could lose everything.
Despite the benefits and convenience, I urge everyone to reject any web service that seeks to replace the software you could run yourself on your own computer. For more perspective, see the gnu.org article: Who does that server really serve?
MY SOFTWARE RECOMMENDATIONSFor practicality, the recommendations below emphasize cross-platform FLO resources compatible with Windows and macOS for those who haven't made the leap to GNU/Linux. Many programs here are also GNU/Linux compatible, and not all the suggestions here are strictly FLO (but I will mention the FLO status of each).
General recommendations for all computing:
f.lux for Mac/Win (Free/gratis) or Redshift for GNU/Linux (FLO). This software adjusts your screen color (not just brightness) based on time of day to make it healthier for your eyes under indoor lighting and better for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm and healthy sleep. It is fully user-adjustable. I love this and would not want to go back to using any computer without it.
Note: F.lux has been available for Apple's iOS for years, but its functions don't fit Apple's restrictions, so Apple didn't allow users to install it! After years of this, Apple now includes this functionality in the system itself, so if you use iOS, you should enable that mode (I haven't checked what the defaults are).
For Android, the closest apps do not work as well because they add color instead of subtracting, thus brightening the black colors, so the result is not as good. Adding red and then turning brightness down may still be worthwhile. The best FLO Android app for this is called Red Moon and is available from F-Droid
To be in control of my web browsing, I use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. DuckDuckGo doesn't track or bubble you and has many useful features (for example, you can search other sites instantly with "!bang" syntax such as "!w" for Wikipedia).
I also use the FLO Firefox web browser (available for macOS, Windows, GNU/Linux, and Android) which has features including security and privacy protection, password management, syncing of history and bookmarks across many devices, and more. By contrast, the other popular browsers (Chrome, Edge, Safari, etc) are all proprietary and have various anti-features.
Within Firefox, I use the FLO ad-blocker and privacy plugin uBlock Origin which stops nearly all advertising (even video ads) and blocks other tracking. You can whitelist particular websites if you prefer to allow their ads — you are in control. uBlock is also available for Chrome (and for the FLO browser Chromium that is the foundation for Chrome; if going with alternatives to Firefox, consider the Chromium-based and FLO privacy-focused browser Iridium).
On iOS, Firefox is not actually the real thing, just a variation of the built-in browser adjusted to work sort of like Firefox. It doesn't work with uBlock. The best way to protect privacy on iOS is with the app Better (fully FLO code, but restricted in the end by Apple's iOS terms).
For complete listings of freedom and privacy tools, especially for advanced users, check out prism-break.org.
Organizing:Task Coach is a nice FLO task management/to-do/organizing software. It is cross-platform (Mac/Win/Linux) and has a companion iOS app that syncs to the main program. A companion Android app (but non-FLO unfortunately) is also available from a third party developer.
Task Coach is powerful yet flexible. The features include limitless levels of subtasks, marking prerequisites, time tracking, flexible priorities, reminders, schedules, tags, sorting, notes, and more. Organizing systems like GTD can be easily implemented, but no particular system is forced on you.
Though powerful, Task Coach is far from perfect. There are many bugs to fix and hundreds of feature requests that the small team working in their spare time cannot get to. Since 2012, I have been on the team volunteering to help where I can. Anyway, please try it out, be patient getting used to it, feel free to ask questions, report bugs, request features, and otherwise get on task, track your time, and be productive!
Other general tools:Finally, just a quick mention of some of the best FLO options for non-music creative software (all cross-platform for Mac/Win/Linux):
- LibreOffice: a powerful suite for all types of office and school work: word processing, basic graphics, presentations, spreadsheet, charts, database, and more.
- Inkscape: for vector-based illustration and other graphics
- GIMP: for raster-based graphics like photo editing
- Krita and MyPaint: amazing illustration and virtual painting/drawing
- Blender: a complete 3D graphics, animation studio, includes video editor functions and lots more
- OpenShot video editor and Natron video compositor (and Kdenlive is another great video editor but is GNU/Linux only)
- Scribus: for page-layout, publications
- Open Clip-Art Library: an online library of public domain, unrestricted images
- For FLO fonts, check out openfontlibrary.org
Hardware: audio recording
In addition to what I've written here, another simple introductory resource is the well-illustrated hardware section of the Audacity manual (the first software program listed below under recording software).
Nearly all computers today include a microphone adequate for basic practice feedback or playing around. However, built-in mics pick up the nearby noise from the computer. For better sound, the first step is to get the microphone close to the sound source and away from unwanted noise.
The built-in 3.5mm jack on today's laptops comes in two versions. If you have separate headphone and microphone jacks, then the mic jack is probably stereo. If you have only one, then it uses a combo headphone/mic input with only mono mic. The stereo mic inputs can work with two types of sources: (A) dynamic microphone(s) and (B) stereo line-level sources from electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps. Though far from optimal, direct connection of electric guitar or similar instruments is also possible.
The cheapest functional option is to get a budget mic designed for computers. While not ideal, any external mic allows you to get the away from the noise of the computer and closer to the sound source.
Note: computer-focused mics usually have 3.5mm plugs, but it is common for other lower-end mics to have larger 1/4" plugs. There are also microphones now with built-in USB connections. Professional mics use XLR plugs designed to work with an appropriate interface or microphone preamp (see "better studio recording" below).
For larger microphones (as opposed to the little lapel style), you'll want a good mic stand and appropriate mic clip(s) in order to record with your hands free (such as while playing an instrument).
Electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps
Electronic instruments like digital piano or line-level outputs from a mixer or other preamp can simply be plugged into your computer's mic jack (with appropriate cables/adapters if necessary). Make sure to turn the gain (sometimes called "boost") down in the computer's settings (on some systems, just switch the setting from "mic" to "line") and set the volume output from the keyboard, mixer, or preamp.
Recording electric guitar or similar instruments
For basic recording or sound effects, it is possible to plug electric guitars directly into a computer's built-in input using the right adapters. The sound can be a bit noisy but won't harm the computer or anything, so that works for just playing around. Far better, however, is to use a guitar preamp with the right impedance such as a mixer with a true guitar input, or the line-out on some guitar amps or appropriate guitar pedals or effects units. The output from the preamp can then go into the computer's audio in jack.
For basic options just above simple adapters, there are under $20 guitar-to-USB interfaces that provide proper impedance. These interfaces can also directly link input and output (the setting in this case is done in on your computer, whereas some interfaces have a physical switch). This bypasses the computer's processing to remove any latency while monitoring your playing.
Some guitar multi-effects pedals include USB audio interfaces. For amps with USB, consider the Fender Mustang line which ranges from the least expensive Mustang I to several larger amps. In addition to USB audio, the Mustang amps include a wide range of built-in effects, and the settings can be saved and tweaked with software (and the PLUG project brings these features to GNU/Linux).
Better studio recording
For electric guitar or similar, look for mention of "guitar" or "hi-Z" unless you plan to use a separate preamp. For microphones, anything with specific mic inputs will work, but phantom power is required for condenser mics (which are used for their high-sensitivity and crisp studio sound). When moving beyond intro-level interfaces into professional quality, there are a range of picky details to consider.
I recommend "class compliant" hardware that works well with GNU/Linux for those already using that or wanting to consider switching. Of options there, the highest quality sound for reasonable enough price is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, and a good budget option (functional, clean signal, just not as premium sounding) is Behringer UMC202HD. Those both have two inputs and preamps and standard options otherwise. For an interface with more inputs, all with built-in preamps that all work with hi-Z inputs, and is still USB-bus powered, consider the Behringer UMC404HD.
Hardware: MIDI controllers etc.The other common music hardware used with computers are controllers which can play computer-based instrument synthesizers and samplers, enter notes in notation and sequencer software, and activate software commands. Your computer's alphanumeric keyboard is a type of controller and lots of programs include settings to actually play musical tones using your computer keyboard. However, the precision, expression, and options from dedicated music controllers is much better.
USB-MIDI Cable Converters are available under $5. Thus, an old keyboard or your state of the art digital piano can both be used to control and input musical data to your computer.
With these controllers, your computer can be a full expressive musical instrument able to be performed with live; or they can simply assist the process of inputting and adjusting notes and parameters while creating and recording music.
Other hardware notesSome sort of headphones are necessary to hear recorded tracks while adding new ones with a microphone. Over-the-ear closed headphones offer further sound isolation. I suggest also having external speakers (ideally dedicated studio monitors, although any decent stereo speaker system or external computer speakers will be better than a computer's built-in speakers). Once you get started, there are lots of resources out there for learning more about recording tools and techniques. Most hardware works with Windows or Mac. For GNU/Linux, all the options above work; if you are considering other choices, it is best to get advice or check wiki.linuxaudio.org to see whether specific interfaces are compatible.
Audio recording software:
Audio recording can help with music practice and offers amazing creative possibilities. Computer software is by far the most flexible tool and offers much more features than separate dedicated audio recorders. Audio software can also be used to play and edit lesson recordings. I generally record all my lessons and transfer the files to students on a USB flash drive. Instead of just listening the whole lesson, however, specific parts of a recording may be clipped out and saved separately.
Audacity is a FLO audio recording and editing program for Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux.
Audacity is great for basic audio recording, editing, multi-track mixing, effects, and more. It can also open and save in a wide-range of file formats and can use many add-on plugins. I recommend it to everyone. Audacity is the best simple introduction to recording and offers lots of depth as you dig in.
Ardour (Mac/Win/Linux, FLO), a robust full Digital Audio Workstation. Ardour emphasizes asking for donations before letting users download fully-working version, but (being fully FLO) anyone who gets a copy of the software can share it freely with everyone else. In fact, GNU/Linux users often get it from system packages at no charge. So, while everyone can legally use Ardour fully without donating, the developers ask for donations for the convenience of an easy download — which is reasonable enough as the software is high quality and takes a lot of dedicated work to create and update. I recommend Ardour as the best option for anyone doing more complex recording and mixing than can be easily handled in Audacity.
Although proprietary (not FLO), an honorable mention goes to REAPER as another professional multi-track audio and MIDI sequencer (Mac/Win with Linux support in testing). REAPER allows unrestricted trial with the honor-system requirement that you pay the $60 non-commercial license fee if you decide to keep using it. REAPER offers a lot of high-quality features, a set of effect plugins, and has advantages in various areas compared with Ardour.
Garageband: If you have a Mac that came with it or have this for iOS, Garageband works for many things. The main benefits of Garageband are ease of getting started, lots of ready-to-go loops and effects, and aesthetic appeal. But Garageband has restrictions and simplifications that reduce its creative potential. Of course, Garageband is not FLO and does not respect other values I've expressed here.
Other proprietary options: Many other proprietary recording programs exist (the list can be overwhelming). I do not endorse any, but I will mention that Tracktion ($60) and Bitwig Studio ($250) deserve some acknowledgement for supporting GNU/Linux fully. I have not used either, but if they happen to really fit your needs where FLO options do not, using those over other proprietary tools means at least not necessarily being stuck with Apple or Microsoft systems (i.e. even if you don't use GNU/Linux now, using tools that will work with GNU/Linux gives you the freedom to switch systems more easily later).
GNU/Linux FLO options: Note again that this page emphasizes cross-platform programs. For GNU/Linux users, several other FLO tools exist that I haven't mentioned here such as Qtractor, Muse, Rosegarden, Non, and more.
After getting the basics of recording and editing working, you can visit KVRAudio.com or Hitsquad.com for their huge databases of plug-ins and related software. Search options can specify types of effects such as distortion or reverb, or virtual instruments (electronic synthesizers or samplers), free/gratis plugins, compatibility with your operating system, and other parameters. These plugins can be installed to add further options beyond the built-in effects in Audacity, Ardour, REAPER, Garageband, or other programs (which are also listed in these databases).
The most common plugin type is called VST (for Virtual Studio Technology), and is cross-platform. There are other types such as Audio Unit (AU) on macOS and LV2 on GNU/Linux. The plugins installation process varies based on what system you are using, but it is mostly a matter of just unzipping the files and putting them in the right folder. Some plugins come with installers that take care of this. The VST and AU frameworks are unfortunately proprietary, so they are not widely supported by FLO developers. NOTE: GNU/Linux users who install KXStudio (see above) will automatically have a large set of FLO plugins and effects, but you can additionally download Windows-based VST plugins and many will run successfully within GNU/Linux through Wine.
Audio speed/pitch change for practice and learning:The ability to slow-down recordings for practice is very useful. Also, speeding up is useful for lesson recordings so students can quickly review their lessons (also for quickly studying song form!). Pitch-change is useful to adjust songs to match capo changes.
Audacity (FLO, Mac/Win/Linux, see above under audio recording) can handle this with "change pitch" and "change tempo" effect options.
Note: Audacity also a setting called "Sliding Time-Scale / Pitch Shift" which can create the effect of speeding up or slowing down (or sliding pitch) over time. The "sliding" effect uses a superior algorithm which takes longer but sounds better than the "change…" effects, and you can set a steady speed or pitch with the "sliding" algorithm by making the end and beginning amounts the same.
The FLOSS program VLC (Mac/Win/Linux/Android) is already the best all around media player for all sorts of file formats. VLC also has a simple control for playback speed. Because it handles video too, you can slow down video performances for careful study or speed-up instructional videos or lectures to save time. Note: You can download audio or videos from YouTube videos and to then open in VLC by using the Firefox extension YouTube MP3 Podcaster (or any of several competing plugins).
Note: many advanced studio recording programs, such as REAPER (see above), include pitch and speed changing features, but they are overkill and the wrong tool for just studying recordings or practicing.
Sonic Visualiser (Mac/Win/Linux, FLO) which controls tempo with a simple knob. It also has many additional advanced features for audio analysis. Notably, Sonic Visualiser has a greater speed range than any similar program. Pitch change isn't as simple but can be achieved with optional plugins. Users of KXStudio (GNU/Linux) will have access within Sonic Visualiser to the whole range of included plugins, and the best for pitch change is probably the Rubber Band plugin.
Mixxx (FLO, Mac/Win/Linux) is a DJ-focused program with a full library setup to browse programs and more. It can be set up for easy pitch and speed adjusting and looping of sections, but the defaults need to be tweaked (I hope to sometime create a setup file for it that can easily be installed in one step). To increase the speed range, a preference setting will need to be adjusted, and the default views show many other buttons and options beyond what's needed for this purpose. Overall, Mixxx sounds great and is probably the best FLO option.
AnyTune, and Android some of which are free/gratis but have ads). The best proprietary tools feature high-quality sound, easy controls for looping, changing tempo and pitch, additional tools for identifying pitches, marking song sections, and more. The overall best is Transcribe from Seventh String Software (Mac/Win/Linux, $39 — note: license purchase is system-specific, i.e. must purchase separately for Mac vs Win vs GNU/Linux). Transcribe has a large range of features, is easy to use, and also handles video. Capo (Mac, iOS) is also great, more guitar-oriented, and has a very clean and simple interface.
Some other FLO GNU/Linux options exist: Stretch Player is limited-but-easy and opens many formats but not mp3 (because the mp3 format is actually burdened by problematic patent restrictions — learn more about this issue at xiph.org and the related vorbis.com). Play It Slowly is a similar simple program for GNU/Linux that does play mp3 along with other formats, but the system it uses doesn't sound quite as nice.
Notation software is designed to work with the Western music staff, guitar tablature, or sometimes other notation styles that represent music symbolically. In many cases, writing notes with paper and pencil is great, but software offers valuable features. Notes can be entered for any number of different instruments, and then the computer can play the music. It is like word-processing for music, with copy, paste and many other edit functions, but with additional control over computer playback. Some programs also have many additional features to support instrument practice.
MuseScore is the premier FLO notation and composition program for Mac/Win/Linux. MuseScore is especially great for printing, but also plays the score.
Notes can be entered with mouse, computer keyboard, or with an external MIDI Keyboard. All manner of time-signatures and rhythmic groupings are possible. Individual notes can also be independently edited (though a bit tediously) for exact timing, volume, and tuning. MuseScore also handles lyrics, drum tracks, guitar tablature, and more.
The other great option for high-quality notation printing is the FLO program GNU Lilypond which produces supreme scores with a text-based input interface. There are also some graphical front-ends for Lilypond such as Denemo and Frescobaldi.
Tux Guitar is a FLO guitar-based tablature/notation program for Mac/Win/Linux. Everything is based in tablature, though it can be hidden to see only notation. Includes basic sounds; a drum pattern editor; and a virtual guitar neck which shows chords, scales, and the location of notes in a song. The guitar neck can be also be used for entering notes. Fretted instrument with other tunings and numbers of strings are also supported. Adjustable pitch-bending and other effects are included.
Tux Guitar can import files from many proprietary formats including Guitar Pro (v5 & older), TablEdit, and PowerTab. Music in these formats can be found online for an extremely large selection of music, particularly for pop/rock music (see online resources below).
Tux Guitar vs MuseScore: Musescore 2 now covers many of the functions of Tux Guitar including file import and tablature. Musescore is likely to eventually include nearly all the Tux Guitar features, but currently there are still many elements of Tux Guitar worth using when working with guitar and tablature specifically.
Among the most popular from a number of proprietary guitar-tab focused programs, Guitar Pro (Mac/Win/Linux, $60). This is the program the free Tux Guitar is mainly modeled after. Guitar Pro has higher quality sound, adjustable effects, better printouts, and a nice-looking interface. It does most of what Tux Guitar does along with additional features. One notable benefit over Tux Guitar is the ability to incorporate non-fretted instruments without forcing them to be based in tablature. It is specifically designed around guitar and pop/rock/folk type ensembles but can also do piano/keyboard, bass, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, drums, woodwind, brass, classical strings, and percussion. Printouts are decent, but less adjustable than MuseScore or other notation-focused programs.
Although I suggest sticking with FLO software, I respect the older program Harmony Assistant (proprietary, Mac/Win/Linux) for its wide range of quirky unique features. It costs $85, but that is a one-time charge—Myriad software doesn't charge fees for any updates ever (unlike most other commercial software), but the license is platform-specific (you have to pay again to switch from macOS to GNU/Linux, for example).
H.A. also has many of the features of Tux Guitar, including tablature, guitar-neck interface, and the ability to import Guitar Pro files. It also has some additional features including:
- Virtual singer, $25 extra (again, only one-time charge; functional demo is included in regular program), not the greatest but surprisingly functional and lots of features.
- Sounds for hundreds of instruments from around the world and the ability to expand more and even record your own.
- Audio recording and editing alongside the notation.
- Automatic arranging features
- Adjustable sound effects
- Automated tuning based on rules
Sibelius/Finale/Notion and others...
There are many other programs, notably some expensive ones. The most popular high-end programs are Finale, Sibelius, and Notion. They all include professional instrument sounds with subtle variations that are used to play different sounds for different markings in the score. They also run plugins in VST or AU formats (mentioned above under audio-recording), and thus have an unlimited variety of sound outputs including everything from professionally-recorded orchestral and ethnic samples to the latest complex techno synthesizers. They also offer various types of "humanized" playback where either the computer creates more subtle interpretations in dynamics and rhythm, and/or the user can choose to "conduct" the score by tapping a key. None of these features are currently available in less expensive products.
These all are available in discounted versions that are okay in some ways but intentionally limited. List prices for full, unlimited versions cost hundreds of dollars. These companies also charge substantial fees for regular updates. For really getting into composition, preparing scores and parts for large ensembles, or creating really high-quality sounding audio for movie soundtracks and such, these may be worthwhile. However, MuseScore now competes with these in *some* respects (and is better in a few ways), and I hope it will eventually grow to compete with these proprietary products for playback and other features.
There are a handful of additional programs out there each with their own quirks, some more dedicated to avante-garde contemporary notation. Many may warrant some attention, but I don't have time to discuss them further here.
REAPER and others (mentioned above under audio recording) are often sequencers combined with audio recording. Music notation programs also do much of the same things as sequencers but with a focus on preparing visual symbols for printing and display. Many sequencer programs also include some traditional notation as well. So there is a lot of overlap, and the distinctions are confusing.
Put simply, if your goal is to work with traditional notation or tablature, go with notation software. If you want to record live performances or just mix and edit recordings, go with audio recording software. If your goal is control over the details of how the computer generates sound, consider sequencers and loopers.
Aria Maestosa (FLO, Mac/Win/Linux) is a good basic sequencer for beginners. It has the traditional "piano roll" view which lays out pitches vertically and shows timing horizontally using lines of different lengths. It also has a notation mode but is not appropriate for preparing printouts. The drum sequencer mode is nice. It is a good tool for record live keyboard input. It offers some odd rhythms and changing time signatures.
The assumptions made in most music theory and ear-training are problematic. For example, consider the flawed idea of identifying individual intervals completely out of context. In my experience, intervals work mainly in relation to their categorical function, not as pure musical distances (see my article on Absolute vs Relative Pitch).
If you still want traditional ear-training (i.e. out-of-context testing of different intervals and chords etc.), the best FLO option is GNU Solfege (Windows and GNU/Linux compatible — Mac is possible but installation involves complex advanced setup). GNU Solfege does the full gamut of traditional ear-training tests as well as several extra tests for rhythms, tempos, and more.
Another option for traditional music theory/jargon/notation is the interactive textbook combined with exercises LenMus Phonascus.
Nootka, (FLOSS, Win/Mac/Linux). Nootka is guitar-oriented but works with other instruments or with vocals. It is a training / testing program for standard notation. It tests inputting of different notes, location on guitar fretboard, and it will recognize notes when played into a microphone. It includes some flexible exercises and quizzes.
A good overall intro book on music theory is Music and Memory: An Introduction by Bob Snyder. It does not teach the generic Western music jargon at all, but actually describes theories about what music really is as we perceive it. Though far from basic or simplified, it makes no assumptions of the reader having any prior music theory knowledge. Snyder describes the basic ways that the human mind experiences music over time and groups events into pitches, melodies, rhythms, and more. It is completely universal in scope rather than focusing on any particular music culture. Readers will even gain insight into the nature of human consciousness. The one major element of music not addressed by Snyder is harmony. For harmony and many other subjects, there are other books and resources I recommend, and I hope to organize a separate page of book reviews in the future.
For the study of pitch, one tool I use in my teaching is a Tonal Plexus keyboard from H-Pi Instruments. With its unique 205-pitches-per-octave layout, it is unique in being visually clear, flexible for accessing any pitch, and more precise and consistent than completely continuous-pitch instruments (though it is not as easy to control smooth gliding and lacks other dynamic subtlety). It is connected to Western theory, but is capable of playing any non-Western tuning. The maker also produces some software for anyone to explore tuning.
Perhaps the best pitch-related software out there is Alt-tuner (proprietary, Mac/Win and Linux via Wine). It works within REAPER or via a plugin bridge called ReaJS. Unfortunately, it isn't available even in a demo version, but it's really excellent overall. It can visualize and perform a wide range of tunings that can be adjusted readily using any regular MIDI keyboard.
For a free, simple tool that is probably the simplest start for exploring just intonation, see tommudd.co.uk/JustIntonation. That tool works on Mac and Windows and Linux via WINE. It simply allows one to play various pitches on the regular computer keyboard.
I also have some music theory / ear-training projects of my own that are just getting started, but it is too early to provide any time-frame on when they'll be available...
Jam tracks, drum beats, metronomes, tuners, and more
There are countless basic metronome programs (including built-in metronomes with many of the software listed above), mobile apps, and websites, but nothing else compares to the phenomenal Bounce Metronome.
Bounce is Windows-native but has been adapted to work with WINE under GNU/Linux (and maybe also Mac). This is proprietary software, but basic features are available at no charge. For $10, you can get more odd time signatures and additional features, and the full extensive program is a reasonable $30 for a lifetime license. Substantial discounts for education or low income users are available, and there is a 30 day free trial. Also, the license is not restricted a single computer, it is a fair and flexible license. This is about as ethical as software can be short of being FLO.
Bounce Metronome provides the ultimate in visualization for beat with many different features found nowhere else. The visualizations are unparalleled for basic metronome use. Plus, it has support for a huge range of different visual presentations, uneven beats, world-music rhythms, poly-rhythms, complete range of swing, even lengthening of the final beat of each measure (something live musicians commonly do). The power and versatility is mind-blowing. It has full Flamenco rhythm circle options, African drum beats, Afro-cuban beats, all varieties of polyrhythms, and novel things like rhythms connected to the harmonic series. It is quite simply the most remarkable software for rhythmic music study. Check out the enormous selection of Bounce Metronome demonstration videos which are educationally and artistically valuable on their own merit!
Beyond metronomes, music that is worth practicing with a steady beat can be fun and engaging with a good drum beat (even for classical music practice). I recommend the Hydrogen drum sequencer (FLO, Mac/Win/Linux). Hydrogen is simple to start at first, just to write your own simple drum loop, but it has many advanced features. It can vary the sounds in many ways, play with a swing rhythm, arrange complex shifting patterns, and download many free extra sound sets. It can also arrange full songs with changing drum patterns. Hydrogen even is a full sampler with an interface for adding your own sound sets.
Beyond just drum beats, a jam track is a full musical backing, often in a particular style and structure, such as a 12-bar blues. Some programs include demos with jam loops. Or, search online for free jam tracks, and you will find lots of resources. Some are Creative Commons licensed, some not. Some are tied to sites with obnoxious advertising, some less so. Students can also simply jam along with any music, of course, whether intended for this purpose or not. There are tons of interesting music and sound resources at the sites listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. If anyone knows of any more specific community-oriented jam-track sites that are not just limited gimmicks to promote commercial products, please let me know.
Singing training, karaoke / rock-band gamesThere are many reasons people may be skeptical of the popular guitar hero and karaoke type video games: the excessive focus on prescriptive right/wrong notes, emphasis on social ideals of fame and glory over community participation, pop-music industry focus over other musical styles; and so on; but these games offer some real positives as well. Rock band games encourage musical involvement, active listening, social participation, some legitimate skill building, and they are fun.
Though karaoke games give feedback on pitch, they aren't as flexible or practical for serious singing practice. For visual feedback on pitch for singers, try Canta (FLO, Windows-only, but works w/ WINE for Mac and GNU/Linux). Canta works either open-ended or connected to songs in MIDI format. While Canta only uses standard 12-tone tempered tuning, it is perfectly functional as long as the user knows that sometimes pitches other than the "correct" ones can be musically desirable.
Free Music Instrument Tuner (or FMIT) (Mac/Win/Linux, FLO) gives feedback for tuning vocals as well as for any instrument, and it includes visualizations of harmonic spectrum, Just Intonation tuning, and more.
Online JammingToday, with high-speed internet connections, musicians can jam in real-time with one another online. It helps to be in the same geographic region, but musicians many miles away can still play together. This technology also works for online lessons. Many proprietary services exist and have nice interfaces and extra features, but I recommend the FLO option Jamulus (Mac/Win/Linux). For video at the same time, use WebRTC options like meet.jit.si and just mute the audio there when using the better audio from Jamulus.
Online resources:blanksheetmusic.net - customize and print sheet music for free. Younger students who want a larger staff can choose that, and it can do tab, notation and various combinations.
One of the most popular of a huge number of guitar-related websites out there. Ultimate-guitar has free user-submitted chords and tabs for all sorts of guitar music. Being tab-focused, the majority are pop-music related, but there's lots more including jazz, classical, flamenco, etc. Many are available as downloadable "Guitar Pro" and "Power Tab" files that can be opened in Tux Guitar or Guitar Pro (Harmony Assistant also opens Guitar Pro files). None of this is the same as carefully edited scores designed for professional publication, but chord-sheets are great for simple strumming and tab and program files often are very detailed for specific work on particular pieces. Some of the pieces here are not available in any other form and there are certain advantages to using these program files that no book or recording can match. The site also features reviews, articles, and a forum (and lots of confusing ads and links, so try not to get overwhelmed). While the resources here are impressive, this is now still connected to the reactionary traditional music industry that seeks to control music publishing. I encourage everyone to instead focus on Creative Commons music rather than the traditional pop music emphasized here; but, to be practical, if you want to play traditional pop music, this is one of the best resources.
Free (no charge) Classical guitar scores (and other sheet music)
Here are just a small selection of the huge number of free music scores on the internet. Search and you can find complete scores of all the classic composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado, Coste, Tárrega, etc. The links here are well-organized enough to be accessible to students and easy to read. Some of the older public-domain material includes full instructional methods.
- delcamp.net — Connected to the forum at classicalguitardelcamp.com, this community-generated collection of tons of PDFs and other resources is quite robust. The forum has more, and there's lots of stuff, though sometimes challenging to navigate or sort.
- www.classicalguitarschool.net — hundreds of great pieces, well-engraved, easy to read, lots of the classics of great guitar composers, a few new pieces
- Jürg Hochweber's guitar compositions — Swiss guitarist and composer's collections from absolute beginner to advanced, mix of pseudo- [classical, folk, flamenco, blues, jazz, and rock styles] all written for classical guitarists
- International Music Score Library Project —Ambitious project to share all public domain sheet music. Mostly PDF scans of original publications, but there are also MIDI files, some other music files, some performance recordings… Lots of the classic etudes and other repertoire are available here. The site has the best open policies without real ads or anything else. I encourage everyone to contribute further. One great contribution would be to engrave the scans with MuseScore (see music notation section above) and upload your files to the IMSLP.
- There are lots of other resources, of course. One worth checking is mutopiaproject.org. Please contact me if you know of other sites worth including here.
- I know of one guitar method with a Creative Commons license, available here: cnx.org/content/col10421/1.2. Please let me know of other CC guitar method resources!
Free Music recordings and more:
There are many online resources for free music. One of the best is the non-profit public-library oriented Internet Archive (archive.org) which is mostly Creative Commons and public domain material. They have videos and recordings of many concerts, lots of other material, and it is all free, and they do not have ads like YouTube or other sites. Users can upload their own material to archive.org as well.
There are also many other resources listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. There are also other great CC-music sites not listed there. Kompoz and FreeSound.org are especially great for samples and resources that can be used in your own creative projects. For a more extensive list of CC content sites, click here. Search online for "creative commons" music and you'll find still more sites, such as Split-notes.com — a free online "record label" dedicated to microtonal experimental music.
Beyond listening and sharing, music that is licensed under Creative Commons (with the exception of the no-derivatives license) may be altered, combined with your music, or used in other multimedia creative projects! Just be sure to follow the license guidelines, including credit for the original creator(s). With all these resources, you can easily find sounds for your own music, music for your videos, music for just listening, and more — all free (as in freedom).
Note: Look especially for the two truly Free Culture licenses: CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. The NC or ND restrictions are problematic even though they permit sharing the original work.
Public library:In Ann Arbor, where I grew up and taught for many years, the Library is one of the best for any city of similar size. The resources are vast and there's something really satisfying about using real books instead of computers. I've reviewed nearly all the guitar methods and related books (a few hundred) that our library has, so I can recommend things when appropriate. They also have huge music CD collection, and instructional, historical, and concert DVDs. And since 2012, they have musical instruments and effects pedals etc.! The Toronto public library has some traditional instruments too!
Of course, one library can't have everything, but that's why they have interlibrary loan systems! I took advantage of that when I reviewed about 800 books on music teaching (about half of them being guitar methods). I encourage everyone to make full use of the public library system!
Future for this page...If you have any suggestions about resources you think should be mentioned here, please feel free to let me know. If you have trouble with or other opinions about the programs mentioned here, let me know. Thanks!
General note about all resources:There are, as you know, seemingly infinite resources online. It may be worth trying all sorts of things. You can watch videos of great performers, chat with fellow students on forums, download various compositions, read about all sorts of related subjects on Wikipedia and elsewhere... I can tell you from personal experience how easy it is to get absorbed in all of this. Every choice you make is not only to engage in one thing but that also means not engaging in something else. Try to keep a balance between checking out new things and appreciating and progressing with what you already have going.
Of course, that is part of my job as a teacher: to provide direction and keep these things balanced for my students. I always welcome feedback and appreciate students who ask thoughtful questions and who are both self-motivated to make use of the resources out there and also willing to follow instructions and try suggestions.