09/20/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

14 Music Games and Apps for Budding Composers

By Shira Lee Katz, Director of Digital Media, Common Sense Media

My friend Nina's teenage son, Carlo, is impressive. He's not a typical achiever in the A's-and-honor-roll sort of way, but he's quietly determined and creative. The kind of kid who has a lot going on under the surface.

The thing is, he's just not that talkative. When I come over for dinner, Carlo greets me at the door with raised eyebrows and headphones that swallow his ears. But his ultra-cool look softens when I ask him what he's been up to.

"Writing music!" he exclaims.

I've never seen him grin so big. Nina explains that he recently discovered Garageband -- Apple's easy-to-use music-creation program -- and hasn't emerged from his room since.

Carlo found his connection to music as a teenager, but it's never too early to introduce it your kids. Music can benefit kids in so many ways: by helping them express themselves, by teaching them to be patient and disciplined, by training them to think creatively, and by giving them a pathway into other topics and interests. Plus, it's fun.

Here are ideas -- along with our favorite games, apps, and websites -- to get kids into music or sustain their already-ignited passion.

Introduce kids to new sounds

Bing. Bang. Waahhhh. Ding! Whether your kids bang on a virtual can or run their itsy-bitsy fingers across a tiny piano, hearing a variety of sounds at a young age can develop their ear. Try these fun apps to help prime the pump.

  • Music Sparkles All in One Musical Instruments Collection HD (age 2+) lets kids freestyle with a xylophone or drum kit -- all with the option of playing along with prerecorded loops. Testing out different types of percussion or mixing them with other instruments exposes kids to different tone qualities.
  • Musical Me - by Duck Duck Moose (age 3+) has kids tap out the melody to well-known children's ditties like "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Sounding out songs kids already know shows them how notes and rhythms compare to one another.

Let them be rock stars

Performing can be part of the allure for aspiring musicians. These exciting games and apps will get kids used to being on stage, which is great preparation for everything from performing live to giving a speech.

  • In Toca Band (age 3+), kids pick from more than 15 musical characters and "play" them on stage by dragging and dropping them into the spotlights. Not only are kids exposed to a host of sounds; they can alter them in real time as they move the characters.
  • Rock Band (several versions for ages 8 and up) lets kids and teens rock out for real as they jam on a plastic guitar and faux drum set in time with on-screen cues. They'll feel the rush of stardom while getting a sense of the timing and skill that it takes to play the songs they love.

Show them the music

Seeing music play out visually teaches kids the characteristics of music. These intriguing apps and games subtly show kids how qualities like color, direction, and speed parallel elements of music like tone, pitch, and rhythm.

  • The creators of Morton Subotnick's Pitch Painter (age 3+) compare it to finger-painting because it doesn't require formal training to make a final product. Kids create short pieces by moving their finger over a blank canvas. The lines they make help them internalize the properties of the music as they hear what they've created.
  • Scape (age 8+) lets kids generate ambient music as they combine shapes, colors, and textures onto a blank palette. They can learn that music has different "moods" and explore the tranquil sounds of an often-forgotten genre.
  • Audiosurf (age 9+) levels are constructed anew for each player based on what's already in their own music library. Seeing each song map out as tiles on a winding road, they'll observe how a song's intensity, speed, and more are visually represented.
  • Sound Shapes (age 9+) is a platformer that doubles as an evolving musical track. Whatever actions kids take impact the accompanying music, resulting in a song that becomes deeper and richer as players progress. Sound Shapes can help visually oriented kids understand principles of music as they watch how the player's actions make an impact.

Encourage kids to compose

From hip-hop to bluegrass, these terrific tools let kids and teens make their own unique tunes. Some are better suited for kids who know standard notation or want to learn; others are good for kids who prefer to play instruments or experiment more freely with sound.

  • When they visit Incredibox (age 8+), a handful of sleepy-eyed hipsters become your kids' very own beatboxing crew. Assign repeating musical elements (beats, melodies, voices) to each character, and listen as the sounds layer on one another. Because all of the sounds seem to "fit" together, kids are encouraged to experiment freely.
  • Garageband (age 10+) is a powerful app that allows kids to sequence pre-recorded loops, play virtual instruments, and record live instruments and vocals. You'll find a sophisticated music-making tool that's surprisingly good for kids who don't know formal notation.
  • Noteflight (age 13+) is a site well matched for teens interested in learning about standard notation. Teens select a key, clef, and other elements, helping them gain some music theory fundamentals. They'll also get to observe how effects like a crescendo alter the sound. Be sure to note our recommended age, as there are site forums and comments.

Help them discover new artists

Stumbling across new bands can be life changing for tweens and teens. These picks will serve up a variety of both famous and little-known artists, prompting kids to listen harder and with open ears. Just be sure to pay attention to privacy and sharing capabilities.

  • Franktown Rocks (age 10+) is a social networking site that encourages kids to meet friends and learn about music through an eclectic but tween-pleasing G-rated collection of songs, games, videos, and virtual-world play. Pre-screened songs and sweet music appreciation games help kids form a common bond through music.
  • Songza and Pandora (both "pause" for age 13) are good choices for teens who want exposure to new artists. Songza lets teens search for new music by distinct categories like activity, genre, decade, and mood. Staff "music experts" also offer a library of playlists that they've curated carefully. Pandora's strength is its recommendation engine. Pick a band or song, and you'll get suggestions like it for you to evaluate. Once your preferences are registered, Pandora will spit out other ones like it.

Has your kid discovered any music tools you'd like to recommend?

About Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. We exist because our kids are growing up in a culture that profoundly impacts their physical, social, and emotional well-being. We provide families with the advice and media reviews they need in order to make the best choices for their children. Through our education programs and policy efforts, Common Sense Media empowers parents, educators, and young people to become knowledgeable and responsible digital citizens. For more information, go