Whether it’s for virtual learning or just to let kids have experience with new instruments, virtual instruments come in handy. The internet is full of free instruments that students can play with. Some common music apps also have built-in free virtual instruments that students can use. All of these are free, and most of them are web-based and cross-platform.
Why Use Virtual Instruments?
Virtual instruments are engaging for students, and give them a way to make music when they don’t have a real-life version of that instrument available. They can also make playing certain instruments more accessible for students with special needs. They can help to visually show musical concepts, give students new ways to create, and provide exposure to instruments students might otherwise not get to hear. Additionally, virtual instruments can be a great way to hit on music standards about connecting to other subjects (technology, culture, history, etc.).
Here are some virtual instruments to check out:
The Rhythm App within Chrome Music Lab has two different options for playing the included percussion instruments. You can click on an instrument to play it, or use the simplified staff at the bottom to create a rhythm to be played. Clicking the right arrow next to the animals brings you to different sets of instruments and characters. This is a really fun option best suited for elementary school students. I always use this tool to work on steady beat and simple rhythms – the visualization at the bottom always helps some of my students grasp the concept of eighth notes.
Who doesn’t love boomwhackers? The colorful tubes are always my students’ favorite, and the online version is no exception. The Music K-8 website has two sets of virtual Boomwhackers, the chromatic set and diatonic set. You simply click a tube to play it. Both sets include one octave of notes, with the accidentals taken out of the diatonic set. This instrument is most appropriate for elementary school students.
One of my favorite lessons to do with this tool was to give students “mystery songs” to figure out. I would type out the letters of a common tune (or use notation for older students), and students would have to click those notes and figure out what song it was. Some even flipped the script and sent me back a mystery song of their own that they had figured out the notes for.
Sometimes, the best tech tool is the simplest. These bongos are intended to be played with a MakeyMakey invention kit, but they work just as well with a conventional mouse and/or keyboard. The label on the top of each drum is which key to press to play it. This instrument is perfect for early elementary students, it’s very simple and easy to use with no settings or reading required. It is possible to play both drums at once, which my students think is the coolest.
This is a highly-customizable, very accessible keyboard from Google. It can be played with the keyboard and mouse, but with a webcam, it can also be played simply by moving your body. This is a great tool for students with special needs, especially those with limited motor skills who may struggle with using a keyboard and mouse. The body tracking settings are pretty robust, and allow for different body parts to be used to move between notes. Additionally, three different scales and a range of notes from 5 to 15 are available, and 6 different instrument sound options. This instrument would be great for students with special needs of any age, or for very young students. It could also be used to explore connections between dance and music, with choreography created to play certain notes.
This Google Doodle is an interactive mbira thumb piano. The mbira is an instrument played by the Shona people in Zimbabwe. There are 4 interactive levels to go through (very much Guitar Hero style), then a free play mode is unlocked, where students can create their own tune for mbira. There are lots of interesting facts about the mbira sprinkled into the experience, so it would be a great tool for exploring this fascinating world instrument.
Designed to celebrate the 78th birthday of synth creator Robert Moog, this doodle lets students play a virtual synthesizer. Clicking the keys of the keyboard plays notes, and clicking the knobs at the top of the instrument allows you to adjust the specs of the synthesizer. Additionally, there are play and record functions available. I was able to get a wide variety of sounds out of the virtual synthesize just fooling around with it for a few minutes, so it’s worth experimenting with for sure!
Most of us don’t have a theremin at our school, but this tool allows you to still share the quirky instrument with students. Click in the yellow box to play it, or adjust the parameters at the bottom with the sliders. This would be a great tool for a movie clip soundtrack project.
The iOS version of GarageBand includes many free virtual instruments. They include common instruments, like drums, piano, guitar, and bass, but also world instruments like the Erhu pictured above. These instruments are all very simple to use just by touching the screen. Another feature of the GarageBand virtual instruments is Smart Chords. I wrote an article about Smart Chords and how to use them here.
You can record the instrument’s sound in GarageBand too, just tape the red record button and have at it! Each instrument has different settings for scale, length of notes, and so on that can be adjusted. You could even make an iPad band with different students using different virtual GarageBand instruments on different iPads so they can jam together!
The MusicTheory.Net virtual piano includes 4 octaves of clickable piano keys (from C3 to C6). Only the C notes are labelled, though a “mark” feature lets you put a red dot on other notes as needed. Increasing the zoom of my browser made the keys bigger and easier to play. This would be a great instrument for upper elementary through high school students to use to explore the piano. Since the piano is clickable only, it is only able to play one note at a time, so performing chords isn’t possible.
This virtual instrument is a great tool for teaching chords on the piano keyboard to students. Simply click a note, and the chord for that tonic will play. Flip the switch to toggle between major and minor chords. This visual representation of chord intervals can be a big help in making music theory a little more concrete. While any age can play around with this tool by clicking the keys, using it to teach theory is probably best suited to middle school and high school ages.
Whether you’re teaching in person or remotely, virtual instruments are a great tool to use with students. There are so many free virtual instruments to check out! Most of them are very easy to play, so let students explore and see what they come up with. While it’s not the same as playing a real-life instrument, playing virtual instruments still helps students develop their musicianship and musical skills.
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Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?
Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.
I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.
I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.
If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.