Simply Piano review: What is it?
The popularity of online piano learning services has snowballed over recent years, particularly since the pandemic. In these turbulent times, more people than ever have turned to learning the piano as a way to get through lockdowns and beyond. One of the more prominent and popular services to emerge over this period is JoyTunes' Simply Piano (opens in new tab).
Price: 3 months for $59.99/6 months for $89.99/12 months for $119.99
System requirements: iOS, Android
Courses: Piano Basics, Essentials, Soloist/Chords
Format: Interactive lessons, introductory video, song library
Song Library: Over 100 songs
Sign up: Simply Piano (opens in new tab)
With a strong focus on getting beginners off the ground quickly, the Simply Piano experience is based around a downloadable app that runs on your iOS or Android mobile device. (There's currently no desktop version available). Various subscription levels are on offer - you can opt for 3 months for $59.99, 6 months for $89.99 or 12 months for $119.99.
There's a 7-day free trial to test the water and you can create up to five profiles on one subscription, giving the whole family the opportunity to learn together if so desired. As a bonus, if you sign up to the full subscription plan, you also get family access to the companion Simply Guitar program, if anyone in your household would rather try their hand at the guitar. All app users get to try two free courses, with the option to upgrade to a premium subscription package at any time. Subscribers receive full access to all courses, with new content currently being added each month.
Simply Piano review: Performance & verdict
Once installed on your tablet or phone, Simply Piano can be used with any keyboard, from an ancient acoustic piano or an arranger keyboard with built-in speakers to USB MIDI-equipped digital pianos or beginner keyboards - you select which instrument you want to use when the app launches. If there's no keyboard handy, you can opt to use Touch mode, which turns your device into an on-screen keyboard, although JoyTunes are at pains to point out that this is not intended as replacement for a real keyboard, merely as a way to check out the app's features on the go.
The app either responds to MIDI input as you play or listens to the output of your keyboard speakers via your device’s microphone and interprets your playing in real time. This is pretty impressive, and for the most part works very well indeed, although when using the mic connection, we did encounter one or two occasions where there was a delay between us playing a note and it being correctly acknowledged on screen. This proved confusing initially, as we weren't sure whether to play the note in time with the audio or with the moving playback cursor on the screen. In one particular case, the backing track we were playing along with began wavering up and down in pitch, throwing us completely off track. For the most part, we found note detection was better using the MIDI connection method, as this is less prone to interference from ambient noises such as passing motorbikes, lawnmowers and the like.
The overall course is very well structured around a total of 27 mini-courses - if you're a complete new starter, you begin on the free Piano Basics course (opens in new tab), which teaches you how to recognise musical notes and play them on the keyboard with proper hand position, with some basics of rhythm thrown in.
Flowkey (opens in new tab) Offered as a free trial with most new Yamaha keyboards, This incredibly intuitive app is well designed, well presented and perfect for beginners and returning pianists
Playground Sessions (opens in new tab) Founded with the backing of legendary producer Quincy Jones, and with Harry Connick Jr as one of the tutors, Playground Sessions has some heavyweight credentials, and even have their own branded keyboard you can buy to use with the service.
Skoove (opens in new tab) Approachable app-based service that offers clear and easy-to-use online interactive piano lessons for all ages.
Beautifully designed with slick, absorbing animation and a game-like interface, the basic course plunges you right into an introduction to sight-reading both treble and bass clefs, introducing the left hand fairly early on in the proceedings. The first lessons take a sort of quiz-like form, asking you to play the notes that pop up on the stave. Every note you get right turns blue, while notes that are wrong turn red. The app guides you through each level and instalment with a minimum of fuss, giving you the option to go over each section again if necessary. For instance, if you run into trouble more than a couple of times in a section, the app automatically enters 'Practice Mode' which slows things down and adds a metronome click to give you more of a chance to get the hang of what it's asking you to play.
From there, you proceed through three levels of Essentials training, introducing the left hand, expanding your note range to a full octave and introducing sharps and flats and other music theory basics. From this point, the curriculum divides up into two separate pathways - Soloist and Chords.
The Soloist pathway concentrates mainly on playing melodies, expanding your note range and polishing up your technique. This is the way to go if you're interested in a more classical-themed repertoire. Meanwhile, the more pop-oriented Chords pathway focuses on teaching you how to accompany songs in different genres, the fundamentals of chords and playing in different accompaniment styles. You can either stick to one path exclusively or you can mix and match lessons from both courses, so it's fairly flexible - there’s a good range of content on offer from either pathway, so we’d definitely recommend taking both.
Going for a song
The song library is unlocked on completion of the Piano Basics course, after which more songs are added at various points as you progress through the higher levels. Initially the play-along parts are very basic indeed, consisting of a pre-recorded backing track over which you’re asked to play single note every bar or so, but this is pitched at total beginners - if you're a more advanced player, you can plough through these levels fairly quickly to build up the library of available titles. Categorised according to skill level, songs can be slowed down if desired for easier learning.
Downsides we encountered included the inability to turn off the backing track when playing a song, the fact that the tempo change function is fixed to one of three available tempos - 60, 80 and 100%, and there’s no independently controllable metronome feature. There’s also little in the way of dynamic recognition - the software doesn’t seem to acknowledge how hard or soft you’re hitting the keys when playing, which we found a little disappointing since dynamic control is a core part of learning to play the piano properly.
Simply Piano review: Verdict
In keeping with its name, Simply Piano’s approachable interface design and compelling, game-like architecture is perfectly pitched for beginners, offering an appealing and encouraging hand to guide newcomers to the world of the piano through the initial stages of learning. The animation, sound effects and the way the courses are paced contribute to that ‘just one more go’ factor particularly well.
Despite this however, Simply Piano is not aimed solely at children or absolute beginners - there's a lot to dig into here for all ages and skill levels. The interactive, stave-based approach is a refreshing alternative to the multitude of synthesia-style, cascading piano-roll videos found on YouTube. Even advanced players will enjoy the fun, quiz-like elements and may be surprised how useful some of the content proves to be for refreshing the basics, filling in knowledge gaps and encouraging a disciplined practice schedule.