With school across the country slashing budgets for arts education, many parents worry their kids won't get a foundation in music appreciation. More and more parents are opting for private instruction, but what if you really cannot afford to pay someone else to help your child develop an ear, or a skill, for music?

We wanted to find out what parents on a tight budget could do to ensure their children learn about music, a vital component of any well-rounded education, so we asked Nikolas Sideris, professional concert pianist, composer, voice-over and sound effect artist — and father of two young children — for some suggestions.

Music Education is More Than Piano Lessons

The first thing Sideris wanted parents to know is that there are plenty of alternative options to paid private tuition. One should be fully aware that music can be:

  • listened to
  • performed
  • composed
Listening to music is definitely not as simple as it may sound (pun intended). The listener somewhat needs training (education?) to be able to fully appreciate what any composer, from Bach to Lady Gaga have to offer.

Judging from my own children, aged 6 and 4, I can safely report that they don't mind the style of music, whether classical, rock, R&B, atonal or otherwise, as long as it's accompanied with the right explaining and/or a movie. Nine Inch Nails, Stravinsky, Marilyn Manson, Bach, Chopin, film music, Queen... everything and anything can be taken in.

Sideris stresses that music education and aesthetics did not stop in the 19th century with the masterpieces of Beethoven and Chopin, but moved on to change, adapt and still offer, despite our personal agreement or disagreement on what it is the music is offering!

Sample Musical Greats on YouTube

According to Sideris, YouTube offers a wealth of videos for everyone to listen, as long as they know what to look for. Inputting the name of a composer in the search option will usually offer multiple links. So for example, entering names like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Ligeti, Messiaen will immediately yield results.

He recommends these channels:

Sideris says music videos and mp3s are not enough and suggests beginning a more formal study at Wikipedia's Lists of Composers.

Despite the inability of Wikipedia to act in academic circles (Wikipedia links are definitely not allowed in most universities and colleges), it still offers an opening unheard of until recent times.

Finally, for all classical music lovers, the depository of all copyright-free (thus LEGAL and not pirated) recordings can be found at Classic Cat.



Learning to Perform Music

To perform music, you will first need an instrument. Music takes daily practice in order to lead to any decent results, regardless of the existence of a teacher, or a formal program, or even the style of music played. As a pianist, Sideris says that even a piano, the most expensive instrument, can be acquired inexpensively (or free) by the creative student. Here are his suggestions for doing so:

  • For a beginner, instead of a real acoustic instrument, one can always attempt a digital one first. Easier to carry, easier to buy, much cheaper, and rather close to the real thing. The price of digital pianos ranges from very cheap to extremely expensive. But slightly older models might be found VERY cheap on eBay or other websites.
  • Another relatively risk free option is the rent-to-buy option. You rent a piano for a year or two and if you decide to buy it, the price already paid for renting is deducted from the full price of the piano. If not, at least you've not paid the price of a full piano.
  • A third option is classified ads. You can find instruments for very cheap or even free. While they may not be in good condition, the repair bill may be a good investment. It's worth scouting the ads.
  • Another option is not owning an instrument at all. While this might be tricky for woodwinds and any blown instruments, for the piano this is a choice. Many institutions and colleges will offer a rehearsal room where students can study should they wish, for a small fee or even free. This is not usually the case for most private studios, but it's always worth checking out with the teacher.
  • Another venue to consider is community colleges, services, etc. Even churches. Offer to play for free at your local religious service every Sunday and get access to their organ or piano for free the rest of the week.
  • Finally, there are scholarships and grants for a huge variety of students. Even if you have never considered it, there might be scholarships for exactly yourself or your son/daughter.

Free Musical Scores Available Online

Musical scores can be found in any music store — bound, printed in good quality paper and with commentary — but there are free options for this as well.

The most famous of all is IMSLP, a huge library of copyright-free scores. There are some 67,000 scores ready to be downloaded and printed and bound and used for FREE! There is a large community supporting this effort, and while publishing houses have attempted the closure of the website, an attorney firm managed to counter the lawsuit and keep the website open.

The website holds ONLY legal scores that are copyright free. This means that the composer either has been dead for 70 years or that the composer has given permission for IMSLP to host the works. In either way, this is as legal as it gets and as free as it gets as well.

Sideris also says that many contemporary composers offer their scores for free sometimes, so it's always worth approaching them in high hopes.

Low Cost Music Lessons

Now, where to get actual lessons? There are variety of options:

  • You can of course find a teacher close to your area that fits your budget. Not everyone charges $60 per hour.
  • Students may not be able to carry on teaching for a long time or offer an ultra-high quality service, but they still will be able to teach and do so at very small charge.
  • It might be worth haggling with a music school, a conservatory or even with private studios to get a better price. A discount might be negotiated if you offer to pay the yearly fees in advance.
  • Books (especially for adult learning) can also be used to teach a student with rather precise instructions and pictures, or even CD examples.
  • YouTube videos range from very bad to very good and finding them can be tricky. But they are still worth exploring, since they offer video footage on how to play a specific song, a specific technique, and perhaps even more advance lessons, etc. Searching for specific songs or techniques is as easy as stating the instrument you want and the technique or work, along with the word lesson.
  • Community colleges, adult learning centers, etc, also offer another option to learning on the cheap side.
  • Finally, one of the most interesting venues are Internet forums. Core members of any community can be very useful and will offer all kinds of advice, from what to look out for when buying an instrument, to issues in the technique of a particular student, or anything in particular.

Sideris points out that none of the above should be taken as a full replacement of a music lesson from a teacher.

Learn to Compose Music for Free or Cheap

In order to create music, Sideris points out the importance of the right tools: theoretical knowledge and practice. A comprehensive list of studies needed in the theoretical knowledge include:

Theory: In language terms, theory is like spelling. It's the alpha and the omega of music. You may be able to talk but you can't write or read. It includes learning about notes, rhythm, dynamics, tempo markings and any other detail to do with scores.

Useful Links:

Harmony: Continuing the language analogy, harmony could be seen as grammar. In formal terms, it is the art of writing for a four-part choir (with four voices), under certain rules established by the practice of classical composers (19th century).

There are no free websites out there for harmony (perhaps because the course is much more complex than music theory, which is also the case with anything else below here), but there are a number of great books.

Counterpoint: Counterpoint could also take the role of grammar in language terms. It is the art of writing melodic lines in conjunction with other melodic lines so that they both work well together, or individually. Some recommended books:

Orchestration/Instrumentation: Knowledge of all instruments in the orchestra. How they are played, from a theoretical point of view, what are their limitations, what is their range (how high or how low they can go), literature and any other detail for any instrument. Knowing how to combine the instruments to reach the desired result.


Composition: Here we come, finally, to the essence of creative writing. Exactly as in text writing, you can be the greatest speller, brilliant with grammar and syntax and be excellent in Word and yet your outcome always ends up in the bin. Creativity is not fully dependent with the tools, but the tools used can influence the way creativity is expressed.

There are a number of ways to get in the habit of composing, but it usually starts with mimicking existing works.

The Practical Approach to Music Education

Apart from reading and writing, if you have a mobile phone capable of capturing sound, you could be creating music by singing on the microphone.

Paraphrasing Brian Eno, one could argue that technology has eliminated the issue of knowledge. Instead, there is the use of computers and (good) judgment. Producing music on the computer comes down to having the right tools and the right mindset. Following are some of the most useful (and free) links for music production:

  • Reaper: a fully functional sequencer, used by many advanced users, which offers an unlimited trial version, and a license costing only $60.
  • KVRAudio: The ultimate forum for music technology, and especially digital instruments, synths, plug-ins, etc. Contains a very comprehensive database, which covers any kind of plug-in or instrument one would desire.
  • Young Composer Forum: A forum dedicated to youngsters and their composing efforts.
  • Gearslutz: Anything you've ever wanted to know about music gear, mastering, mixing, etc. All in one forum!

It should be noted that as a beginner, chances are good that your question has already been answered.

Free and Cheap Musical Software

Sideris mentioned several free/open source software, including:

  • Blender: A free 3D software, capable of amazing tasks!
  • Linux: The alternative to Windows and Mac OS.
  • Open Office: The alternative (and compatible) to Microsoft office.
  • Krystal: A music sequencer.
  • Audacity: Another music and audio sequencer.

Many, many thanks to Nikolas Sideris for his very generous contribution to our collective musical knowledge! Please check out his website. I am inspired, even though he left out my very favorite musical foundation from my own childhood, Carol King's 70s children's classic, Chicken Soup With Rice!



Nikolas Sideris of Athens, Greece has been studying music since the age of five and is currently awaiting confirmation of his PhD in composition. He has played piano concerts all over Greece and his music has been featured in documentary films and video games. Please visit his websites, www.nikolas-sideris.com and www.northbysound.com.