This is a question that I first asked myself, and then I asked a group of other colleagues. We live in a digital world, and there are apps to help musicians in all sorts of areas. For me, some help me as a performer, some as a composer, and some as a teacher.
Apps, not hardware
For the purposes of this post, I am not talking about hardware, such as computers, mixers, headphones, keyboards, or any instruments. I'm not talking about any physical tools such as music stands, stand-alone metronomes, or digital recording devices.
I'm talking about software, which often are classified as apps, programs that go on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.
Before getting an app, be sure to make sure it's compatible with your device. Some of these recommendations only work with Apple, and I've tried to note where I know that for sure.
A Quick Defense of Paid Apps
When I first got a smartphone, I would go to the app store, and filter my search to only show Free apps. Some apps are free, and others are paid. In my mind, I wondered, "Why should I bother paying for an app when I could get a similar product for free?" There are some genuinely good apps for free that I'll be sure to mention. However, to take your music seriously, if you have an aversion to paid apps, you need to get past this way of thinking.
Paid apps usually don't have ads. You may think you don't mind watching a 15 or 30 second clip every time you want to use a feature, but this is not an efficient use of your time.
Free apps are often limited in features. Pay for more and you usually get more.
Free apps sometimes are reflective of the developer's lack of confidence in the app.
Apps of all types are usually updated. When your computer gets out of date, you'll have to pay for a new one, but the app update will still be included in your original purchase price (assuming you're not on a subscription - which has its own merits)
The vast majority of Paid apps are FAR LESS EXPENSIVE than hardware counterparts. (See the metronome app example below)
Types of Apps
In no particular order...
If you took lessons with me from 2000 until the early 2010s, one of the first things I would tell you that you need is a metronome. If you were on a budget, I would tell you to purchase one of the few digital metronomes between $15 and 20. It wouldn't do much. It would keep a steady beat, have 1 type of sound, speed up and slow down (often by pre-determined increments, so you couldn't possibly go from 120 to 122), have 1 volume, and 1 or 2 meter patterns (3 and 4 beats). If you wanted more options such as rhythmic subdivisions, volume control, tone control, rhythm patterns, automated speed control, and more...then you needed to look more at the $100+ metronomes. I always liked to say that buying a metronome was like buying a calculator in terms of price range.
What I use: My app is called Tempo. It's available for iOS and Android devices. It has everything I just listed above on a $100+ metronome with the exception of programmable rhythm patterns. You can find one that do that. However, this metronome has a great volume control, nearly 2 dozen sound options including voice beat count. You can also use "Setlists" to save your progress on a given piece or technique. What this metronome does would be way past $150 back in the day as a standalone, but on the Android app you get it for less than $2. On Apple, I think it's $3. It's updated several times and I keep learning more of what it can do.
Another Highly Recommended Choice: Pro Metronome
Other highly-reviewed options: Dr. Betotte, Metronome Plus, Tonal Energy
If you play an instrument that you have to tune yourself, a tuner app is essential. Some of the metronomes I mentioned above actually include a tuner, such as Tonal Energy and Metronome Plus.
Recommended: I'm a pianist and don't need a tuner app. If I was recording another instrument, a tuner is built into my DAW. However, Tonal Energy is highly recommended, as are: Cleartune, Tunable, insTuner, and iStroboSoft. If you want to tune your piano yourself, try TuneLab.
Subcategory - Pitch Generator: If you're a singer and need to hear a pitch, the Tempo metronome app has a built in pitch wheel, but you can also try PocketPitch or Pitch Pocket.
Sheet Music Reader
Sheet music often comes in digital format. You can always print it and place in a notebook. More often, musicians are going green and keeping them on a tablet. The disadvantage is that you often have 1 page at a time instead of 2. The advantages are many: control over the brightness, ability to attach a bluetooth foot pedal to turn the pages, the ability to write and cleanly erase annotations, and not to mention...the HUGE amount of sheet music you can easily carry with you. If you play outside, having a tablet with a PDF sheet music reader is a MUST! If you've ever tried to navigate playing on a windy day at a wedding, you know what I'm talking about. I bought a refurbished iPad JUST for this purpose.
What I Use: (1) ForScore. I had a colleague once tell me that ForScore might be the sole reason that hundreds of thousands of musicians even have an iPad. It is for Apple devices only, but it is one of the most universally beloved apps of all time. It allows you to turn pages with a natural motion, add all kinds of annotations, and even allows you to create playlists from different books. It costs $10 as a one-time fee.
(2) IMSLP - This is, of course, a website where you can find nearly any piece of music that is public domain (https://imslp.org/). They also have a free app that integrates with their website. You can also upload outside PDFs on the app. It's not as smooth as ForScore, but the integration is very valuable.
Other recommendations: TEF Viewer (for guitarists), Piascore
Music Players for Practicing
One of the most amazing advancements in how technology can improve practicing as well as the ability to transcribe music is the development of independent speed control that does not alter the pitch. I'm not currently using this type of app, but I know many who do, and here are some of their recommendations.
Recommended Apps: AnyTune, The Amazing Slow Downer App (which integrates with Apple Music)
Tutorials for Music Theory and Ear Training
Whether you're a beginner or a professional who just wants to brush up on some skills, there have been great apps for music theory and ear training for years. I was using one on an early Mac computer as a piano student in 1990!
What I Use: (1) musictheory.net or Tenuto app. The website is free. The app is $3 (Apple only) and provides a much smoother experience for the exercise portion of the website (the only part I recommend) if you're on a smartphone or tablet rather than a computer. I recommend this highly to all my students for everything: learning notes, keys, intervals, chords, scales...and ear training on all of it. I occasionally will do a tutorial for the exercises such as this one:
(2) NoteRush - The cool thing about this notation learning app is that it's fun for younger students and works with your phone's microphone. You don't tap the answers in text form. You answer by playing on your instrument.
Other recommended: EarMaster, ToneGym (a bit expensive for this type of app, but highly touted), SoundGym (for audio engineers and one I need to try myself), Rhythm Cat (for basic rhythms),
I will likely barely scratch the surface here, but practice apps and digital journals are prevalent and highly useful for students. I've only used a Google Doc file, but there are lots of apps here that others recommend.
Recommended: Modacity, Tonara, Remind, Andante, and Music Journal Pro
This can be a big expense and it used to be that it HAD to be a big expense. For a while, if you wanted to create good looking music notation at home, you had to have Finale, but Finale is not quite as expensive as it used to be, and that is thanks to a proliferation of some very good, less expensive and, in some cases, free alternatives. If you're a composer or an arranger, even just exercises for your students, you MUST have a notation app.
What I Use: Finale. I've used this program for 24 years, and have never had an incentive to change. They improve every few years, and it does everything. Some tasks have a steeper learning curve than others, but this is one of my core apps for working as a composer and an arranger. It retails for $600, but there are so many ways to get a discount, and it's currently 50% off for a promotion. They also have lighter versions that work for people who don't compose professionally.
Other highly recommended: The big and expensive brother to Finale is Sibelius. When it first came out, it was marketed to people who wanted less of a learning curve than Finale had. Since then, the next big one is Dorico (which doubles as a DAW in pro versions). Notion and MuseScore are two very good budget items. MuseScore is still completely free, and musicians have told me that it's very good!
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
A Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW in the industry) is what I would have called a sequencer when I was in college. It's software where you can record multiple tracks of either audio through your microphone and audio interface (or upload audio you recorded elsewhere) or MIDI that you play with a controller (such as a keyboard) using sounds that sometimes are included with the software. You can also edit the sound, mix it, master it, and everything you need to create a good sounding piece of music. Lastly, you can export the file as music that you can stream or burn to disc.
What I use: One of the best purchases I've made in the past 10 years was Logic Pro (called Logic Pro X) at the time. It is for Mac only, recently modified to have a special version for iPad pro tablets. At the moment, it is $299 and is automatically upgraded provided you maintain an updated operating system. It is very user friendly, very intuitive, and continues to surprise with just how much you can do with it.
Other Recommended: There is so much to choose! Your 2 free-to-cheap choices are GarageBand (for Apple) or Audacity (free open-source software for all devices). You'll be limited in what you can do, but if all you're really doing is recording demos, or perhaps making some accompaniment tracks for students, it may be all you need. Higher end recommendations include: Cubase, ProTools, Digital Performer, Reason, and quite a bit more.
Plug-Ins are added elements to programs, sometimes included with the software, to complete your experience. This would be, in all likelihood, the longest list of any category if I tried to name brands. I'm just going to share a few categories of this type, and just some of what I use.
VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS: In the 20th century, composers and keyboardists wanted keyboards with LOADED sound banks. You can still do that if you want, but the modern standard is having a basic keyboard connected to the computer (sometimes with no onboard sounds), and having large collections of the instruments you want as virtual synthesizers. I use instruments from Spitfire, Native Instruments, Apple (on Logic Pro), Aria Player, and 8dio.
AMPS and PEDALS: If you want to record electric guitar or bass, you don't need your fancy live amp. Just plug your instrument into your interface, record on your DAW, and then load up a virtual amp and pedals. I use Native Instruments Guitar Rig as a main choice, which has hundreds of amp presets that are all customizable.
EFFECTS: Reverb, compression, gate, delay, EQ, chorus, and so on are used with your DAW to create certain sounds. You can spend money, sometimes top dollar for these, but I've only ever used and had success with the extensive onboard effects that come with Logic Pro.
A Few Other Musician Apps
In no particular order, here are some apps either I use, or other musicians have told me that they use.
Voice Memo or similar - a simple means of recording audio on your phone or tablet
BandLab: a DAW specifically for groups or classrooms of students
Mainstage: an Apple only software for smoothly programming keyboard patch changes throughout a performance, often used in musicals.
Bands in a Box: for creating backing tracks to use live
Chordie: Syncs the image of an animated keyboard with your actual keyboard to allow you to demonstrate pieces live or to record instructional videos.
4D Music Player: a database of accompaniments for vocalists
Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube: streaming music players
Neck Diagrams: for guitarists who want to show vivid fret charts on their videos.
What I left out
Quite a bit I'm sure. However, of the technology tools that I included: as I mentioned before, I didn't mention any hardware or instruments. That is a separate topic.
I also did not really include any business apps, but there are a lot of general business apps that musicians find very helpful, and there are also some business apps just for musicians. Professional musicians also make use of social media apps, designer apps like Canva and Adobe, video editing apps, and so forth.
If you're not technologically inclined, this can be intimidating. However, keep in mind that this list is from a group of people, not an individual. I have probably around 10% of what I listed, and my field of focus is technology-dependent. You might not need much, but there may be an app that would greatly help you be a better musician, and I hope this list will give you some ideas.
Musicians, what apps do you use specifically for music?