Six (or more) iOS apps for practicing

If you think of it,sax players (and any other musicians,for that matter) need a lot of accessories when practicing. You need your horn,of course,but you also need a metronome,a tuner,a robust music stand,one or more exercises books,the RealBook or other music scores. To practice improvisation you also need a CD or MP3 player with some Aebersold play-along records. If you study harmony you surely need a piano or at least a keyword where you can play chords.

It’s a lot of stuff to carry around,uh?

The good news is that today all you need is an iPhone or an iPod Touch,or an iPad if you like larger and more screens. Well,you still need your saxophone,but nothing other than that!


If you search for “metronome”in the App Store you get about 350 matches,so it’s easy to pick up that one that fits your needs. Some of these matches are programs that do a lot more than just keeping the time,but even not counting them you still have a couple hundred apps to choose from. All those that I have tried out are accurate enough for training purposes.

If you just need a “plain”metronome there is no point in spending your money,because most free metronome apps are enough accurate and complete. I especially like the Steinway Metronome,because of its nice “wooden”interface. It supports most common time signatures and has a handy visual indicator that doesn’t force you to connect your iPhone to a loudspeaker to make its click audible when playing your horn.

There are many other apps that offer fancy variations on the basic metronome job,for example progressive changes towards faster or slower tempo. I am not interested in these variations,because they defy the main goal of a metronome. However,they are in the store,if you need this and other additional features. For example,you might invest 0.99$ for the Ultimate Metronome,which additionally supports weird time signatures,different sounds for each click,custom/compound time signatures inside a single song,and more.

Another interesting metronome app (also at 0.99$) is PolyRhythm,which helps you work with compound polyrythms,such as 7-over-2 or 11-over-3. This is more geared towards drummers,but mastering this sort of complex rythms can be useful to any musicians. Its author Wolfram Winkel has also created a reduced version of this software that runs inside any browser,so you can have an idea of how the apps works before purchasing it. (The main difference between the iPhone app and the browser-based app is that the latter doesn’t let you specify the exact BPM value.

As for most music apps,remember to disable auto-lock when working with metronomes,else you’ll spend most of your time unlocking the screen.


The category of tuners is nearly as crowded as the category of metronome apps and,like for metronomes,you can find a tuner inside many popular apps,especially apps for guitarists such as AmpliTube,AmpKit,and iShred Live. As for metronomes,you can save your money and get a free tuner.

For my setup I chose n-Track Tuner. There isn’t much to say about it,except that it works well and that only a few years ago I spent about 30$ only to get a “real”chromatic tuner that does the same thing and that I never carried around because I had no room in my sax case.

Ear Training

There are many iOS apps that can help you develop the ability to recognize individual notes or even chords. Several free apps cover the basics (e.g. simple intervals),but you might need to spend a few bucks for a complete ear training course. It’s a good way to spend your money,though. The good news is that all commercial apps also offer a free version that lets you try before you purchase.

The three apps that you should try are Karajan at $14.99 (or its free version Karajan Beginner),Ear Training at $14.99 (or the free Ear Training Lite),and Ear Trainer at $5.99 (or Ear Trainer Lite for free).

Play By Ear offers a different and interesting approach to ear training. In this case,instead of touching the screen to indicate your guess,you just play the note on your instrument. Last but not the least,it is absolutely free!

Tempo/pitch changers

If you are transcribing,studying,or practicing a solo you badly need a player that can slow down a song without changing its pitch,or maybe by changing the pitch so that all notes are in a more comfortable key. In the good old days,when records were made of vinyl,it was possible to play a song at half velocity (and lower the pitch by an octave,more or less),by playing the LP at 16 r.p.m. This is how I learned by first solos by Bird or Coltrane,but luckly there are better means today.

In my opinion,the most versatile app in this are is Slow Down Music Player,that supports importing from the iPod library,the ability to bookmark a point and to loop over a section of a song,and to share individual phrases via email. Best of all,its absolutely free! It’s only limitation is that it doesn’t work with DRM-protected songs,becase they can’t be imported from the iPod library (a limitation that is common to all apps of this type,though).

In the App Store you can find other programs with similar features,though. For example,you may want to try Slow Notes Music Player,which has a better user interface and is free as well.

Score Readers

If you own an iPad you can finally leave all your Real Books at home! In fact,there are several great apps that allow you to browse music scores in PDF format.

For starters,any PDF reader can work as a music score browser,for example the great GoodReader,which also supports annotations and the ability to display two pages in landscape mode. For example,I use GoodReader to store the PDF version of my exercise books. However,there are a few apps that fit the specific needs of musicians much better than generic PDF readers.

The two apps that I regularly use are forScore and forScore Both are available on the iPad only,because it would make little sense to view a score on the iPhone’s tiny screen.

At $4.99 forScore is the less expensive of the two,and includes virtually any feature you may desire,including importing from iTunes or Dropbox,bookmarks,the ability to search for title,genre,composers,etc.,annotations,zoom,landscape support,and page cropping (so that you can discard large margins and make better use of iPad screen estate). It comes with an integrated metronome,a tuner,the ability to automatically turn pages (even half pages) or link two portions of a score (great for repetitions,codas,etc.),score sharing via Bluetooth,a piano keyword,output to an external monitor,support for AirTurn pedal (for hands-free operations),and more.

iGigBook costs three times more ($14.99) than forScore,however if you are a jazz musician the extra money might be well spent. The main iGigBook feature,in fact,is the index of about 60 fake books,including all the most popular ones (e.g. all Real Books editions,including their Bb end Eb variants). This means that –if you have the PDF version of one or more such books –you can find all the versions of a given song in a few seconds.

iGigBook includes many other interesting features,such as chord changes (no themes) for 1200+ popular jazz standards,that can be transposed to any key,and the ability to build a PDF book of selected stored (quite useful to hand out printouts to your fellow musicians before a rehersal). As for forScore,you can point at repeats,D.S.,D.C. so that iGigBook can turn pages for you,and in my opinion iGigBook is slightly better in how you can organize your score lists. The authors also offer a separate iPhone app,named iGigBook Pager,which allows you to wirelessly turn pages on the iPad,a great feature if you are display the score on an external monitor. On the other hand,iGigBook doesn’t support half-page turns,doesn’t include a tuner,doesn’t support sharing via Bluetooth or DropBox,just to name a few of its current limitations.

To recap,as of this writing forScore and iGigBook apps aren’t perfectly equivalent. For this reason,you should carefully compare their features before you pick your choice. Or maybe buy both of them and use one or the other depending on the circumstances,as I did.

Play Alongs

In this area there is only one app that you should absolutely have:iReal b. This app has been in the store for at least a couple years and it’s updated and extended on a regular basis. When it started it just offered a “chord-only”version of the Real Book (the melodies could not be included for copyright restrictions),with the added ability to transpose it automatically to any key and to account for Eb,Bb,F,and G transposing instruments. Great for all wind instruments.

Some time later the author added a few in-app purchases (for jazz,pop,and latin styles) that allow you instantly generate the accompaniment for any song in the archive,using the style and the tempo you like most (see left image below). Thanks to this great feature not only can you practice on Giant Steps at a slowed down tempo,you can even try changing the style,and maybe play Donna Lee with rock or latin flavor.

The newest releases of iReal b come with no songs,but you can easily download 1300+ chord changes or enter your own (see right image below). On the authors website you can find several tutorial videos that teach you how to leverage the many features of this great software.

iReal is priced at $7.99,and the jazz,pop,and latin style packs cost $5.99,$4.99,and $3.99 respectively,so be prepared to spend about $23 for the entire suite. It’s much more than the typical iOS app,but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s like owning the entire Aebersold series in your pocket:the computer-generated accompaniment can’t compete with the great musicians that play on Aebersold records,but the result is absolutely first class and can keep you busy for years and years of practicing.

Even if you aren’t interested in the play-along feature,iReal b is still a must-have even just for its repository of chord changes. I never go to a jam sesssion without my iPhone now.

1 comment to Six (or more) iOS apps for practicing

  • I’ve used this quite a bit for both practice and with students. I actually downloaded it when it came with all the music as well and kept it on my old iPhone 3g,but it’s fairly easy to get hold of them even with the new iReal B version. So I’ve heard…..

    I agree that it’s a affordable price for the whole suite and it works great. As long as you don’t plan to use it as a backtrack machine. The sound isn’t THAT great but for practice it’s perfect.

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