You’re never too old to learn to play a musical instrument, but finding a tutor and the time for lessons is another matter. If working with a personal teacher isn’t an option for you — or your interest in noodling around on a guitar, a piano or another instrument is still at the casual level — turn to your laptop or mobile device to learn the basics in your own time and space. Here are a few ways to get started.
Step 1: Find your hardware
Obviously, you’ll need an instrument to play. If you’re not ready to commit the cash to buy, check your local listings for rental options. Music Rental Central is one national site that leases a wide variety of band and orchestra instruments; prices depend on what you’re playing, but a starter violin rents for less than $16 a month.
Buying a used instrument can save you money over a new one, but check the return policy. If you can, try the used instrument before you buy it to make sure the sound and feel suit you. In addition to eBay and Craigslist, you can search and buy used gear on Reverb.
Step 2: Explore music instruction apps
If you want the flexibility to take your music lessons anywhere, your app store has plenty of options. Most have a free lesson and then charge a subscription, although old-school Windows and Mac software like eMedia Music’s instrument training programs are complete by download or disc for about $60.
For keyboard instruction on a mobile device, Simply Piano (for Android and iOS) takes a student from finding middle C to playing along with on-screen guides and gamelike animations. The program is free with in-app purchases, and you can start the lessons with an on-screen keyboard. Eventually, though, you’ll need to get your own external keyboard; the software provides performance feedback by listening to you play.
Yousician (for Android, iOS, Windows and MacOS) uses videos, animations and performance feedback to teach guitar, bass, piano, ukulele or voice; monthly plans start at $20 a month; cheaper annual plans are also available. Fender Play for Android and iOS ($10 a month) has similar instructional videos with “bite-size” lessons for learning guitar, bass or ukulele. And, in addition to apps for specific instruments, you can find instruction for specialty styles — like Tunefox for bluegrass.
Step 3: Get free or inexpensive video lessons online
If you don’t want to invest in an app and just want to learn a specific song or technique, a quick search of YouTube or Vimeo can reel in homemade video lessons made by players sharing their knowledge.
You can get more structured video lessons from the pros on the ArtistWorks site. For as little as $24 a month, for example, you can learn French horn from William Caballero of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or mandolin from Mike Marshall, a longtime recording artist.
Got a Mac? Apple’s free GarageBand software is another outlet for guitar and piano lessons through video and on-screen graphics, and you can download lessons from within the program. (The lessons are not available in the iOS version.)
Step 4: Take live lessons with real people
If you learn better with immediate feedback from a human teacher — but don’t have one in your area — you can get video-chat lessons with a qualified instructor on the other side of the webcam. Sites like Lessonface, LiveMusicTutor, Musika and TakeLessons let you search by instrument or browse the instructors. Prices vary, and some teachers offer a free sample lesson.
Step 5: Study further
Most recorded instruction demonstrates how to play the instrument through video or animation. You may also get chord diagrams or tablature (notation that shows where your fingers go on the strings) as a reference. But if you want to study music theory, train your ear or learn how to read music, search for an appropriate app.
EarMaster (for Windows, Mac and iPad; prices vary) is one option. You can also dive into a theory class or study an instrument on LinkedIn Learning for $25 to $30 a month. Among others online, the Open University site has a free introductory music-theory course.
Once you have found the app, site or online teacher that works best with your life, you just need to do one more thing: Fire up that calendar app and schedule time to practice, practice, practice.