GarageBand (2): Learn to Play

By Graham K. Rogers


Tim Blane - guitar

With the most recent updates to iLife, GarageBand had a redesign of the interface; but making music (which I looked at last time) is not the sole function of this application which has evolved considerably since its introduction in January 2004. Apple previously added "Magic GarageBand" for jamming, a movie soundtrack facility and ringtones, as well as updated sound effects and loops.

Garageband now has a new and useful feature of music lessons. This was well received when it was introduced, but there is much more to this feature than was initially demonstrated. There is a series of basic lessons bundled with the iLife installation. The first is pre-installed and the others can be downloaded.

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When the application starts, users are offered several options to work with Garageband. Selecting, "Learn to Play" reveals a panel with two icons: a piano and a guitar. With the piano icon, we are asked to plug in a keyboard so that the learner can play along with the teacher. To simply view the lesson, this can be ignored. The guitar lesson uses an acoustic guitar, so this begins almost immediately.

Anyone familiar with Apple's online tutorials presented by their own staff, will recognise the easy-going but in-control style used here. The piano and guitar lessons are taught by Tim Blane, a musician from Boston, who was one of several hundred who applied. He was apparently hand-picked by Steve Jobs for the task.

Tim Blane - piano

Each lesson is split into easily absorbed sections. The first piano session, for example, highlights Black and White Keys, Playing Position, Sustain Pedal, Chords, Chord Progressions, Rhythm and Next Steps, which all takes around eight minutes with Blane explaining the basics and building up gradually, giving a learner confidence.

At the bottom of the screen is a keyboard which highlights the finger positions as music is played. There are also a number of other controls, such as the metronome, speed, playback controls and volume.

Tim Blane - paino play session

When the lesson is complete, there is a Play session which lasts a couple of minutes. Tim Blane features in one half of a split screen, with the other panel showing his fingers on the keys. As in the lesson, the keyboard in the learner's panel shows the keys pressed.

Tim Blane - guitar

The guitar lesson differs because of the nature of the instrument. The first lesson is split into several parts. For the guitar these are Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar (which show differences in the instruments), Holding the Guitar, Tuning, Picking and Strumming, and Strumming an E Chord. As with the piano, when the lesson is complete, the learner can select the play button and the two panels are used again.


At the top of screens in both lessons are Setup and Mixer icons. The setup allows several changes to the musical notation and physical setup of the lesson, and to the way the information is displayed. As simple examples, a user can change from right-handed to left-handed guitar and the fretboard may be angled differently.


The Mixer allows changes to software and real instrument input, including the teacher's voice, using similar controls to the GarageBand tracks. Along with volume, for example, it is also possible to mute input entirely from one or more sources.


The guitar lesson has an additional icon: the tuner. This is demonstrated by Blane in the lesson and there is a pause to give the learner an opportunity to tune the guitar strings. This may be used at any time.

There are also two more icons at the bottom of the screen: Change Lesson; and Open in Garageband which switches to the normal interface with the loops used in the Play section displayed ready for the learner to play more music.

The Change Lesson icon depends on lessons downloaded. If there are none, the user is taken to the start panel and a text offers to connect to the Apple Lesson Store to download these. Another eight piano lessons and eight guitar lessons are available and may be downloaded in any order. One of the lessons I selected was some 246MB so these may take a while to download. As with all good teaching, students are reminded of earlier lessons.

These downloadable lessons are part of the GarageBand package and are available (free) to anyone who buys iLife '09 or a new Mac: iLife is part of the standard installation. However, the much-touted Artist Lessons at $4.99 each are not available in Thailand.

These extra lessons feature recording artists who perform and explain the mechanics of the songs they wrote. Brief introductions from the artists may be viewed online at the Apple GarageBand pages, where we find currently there are nine artists, including John Fogerty, who talks about Proud Mary; and Sting, with Roxanne.

Learn to Play makes this application both enjoyable and useful. The lessons and other features may be seen online.

Tim Blane - piano


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