Going Digital for Musicians

A guide to working with sheet music paperlessly

From Paper to Pixels – Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution – THE BOOK!

About a year ago, I started this blog called “Going Digital for Musicians” with several goals in mind:

  1. Provide a resource for musicians looking to make the transition from paper sheet music to digital reading tools and applications
  2. Get feedback from folks and turn questions about digital sheet music into blog posts to help others
  3. Use this blog to keep me on track for my larger, ulterior project: writing a book.

I’ve been absent from the day-to-day postings in this blog for some time, but that’s been mainly due to the fact that I’ve been squirreling away in my digital underground to finish – THE BOOK!

And so, I’m delighted to announce that THE BOOK is finally available – right now in digital formats, and in a few weeks as a blast-to-the-past paperback tome.  The original title – “Going Digital for Musicians” – has been supplanted by one that I hope is a bit “catchier” and is thanks in part to my editor extraordinaire, James Townsend:


From Paper to Pixels

Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution

(Speaking of James, he has been an absolute blast to work with on this project!  He instantly understood the goofy, quirky tone that I was trying to capture, and managed to amp up the “fun factor” exponentially!  It’s really true what they say: a good editor is worth their weight in gold.)

This blog provided a great skeletal framework for the book, but FPTP really fleshes out the content and – in a lot of cases – updates the material to reflect the rapid changes in digital sheet music technologies.  Who knew that Apple was going to ditch the 30-pin connector, or that Android tablets would start outselling iPads over the course of a year?  But of course, I didn’t get to the really good stuff with this blog – I was saving it for the book (wink wink).

Here’s a sneak peek at the additional content you’ll find in FPTP:

  • Chapter 9: Transferring Digital Sheet Music to an Android Tablet (we cover using email, a USB cable, and thumb drives)
  • Chapter 18: Screen Aspect Ratios (a geeky way of explaining how the shape of a computer/tablet screen affects the view of scanned paper music)
  • Chapter 24: Set Lists (and my favorite section title of the book on p. 202, “Bwahahahaha! The Evil Megalomaniacal Set-List Manager” – this talks about apps where you can have one master iPad actually control the opening of songs and even page turns on several slave iPads.  Gives a whole new meaning to “keeping everyone on the same page”, eh?)
  • Chapter 32: Cocktail Napkins, Canadians, and Chordpro (a short history and primer on Chordpro, a text-based format for musicians that enables them to do all sorts of nifty things, like transpose music on the fly)
  • Chapter 33: Creating Musical Notation Content (covers various software options for creating traditional music notation compositions, including web-based applications, commercial and open-source software, and a category I call “free-play” software.  Oh, and we also take a brief look at the hardware needed to make all this work.)
  • Chapter 34: Containers: Transforming a Digital Reader Into a Music Stand (beware the “beer bump”!)
  • Chapter 35: Controllers: Expanding Ways to Work With your Computer (this is the chapter that gets into the story of how I came up with pedals for turning digital sheet music pages hands free)

“From Paper to Pixels” is available now as an eBook (Kindle, iBooks, and Nook file formats available).  You can also pre-order the paperback version, which has an ETA of August 1, 2013.

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“From Paper to Pixels” is also available directly from Amazon as a Kindle eBook:




Content, Part 8: Text-Based Sheet Music Apps for iOS

Text files are like Cinderella stories in the digital world.  At first glance, their simplicity and utter lack of eye candy makes them look as worthless as a gumball ring in a Tiffany store.  Ah, but it’s precisely their lack of excess code that makes them able to magically transform into the widest array of digital bling.  Barebones text files make them universally readable and readily adorned with malleable properties to make even Audrey Hepburn blush.  Resize your words!  Slap on a vibrant coat of color!  Dress it up with an eye-catching font!  And with the right setup, even transpose your text chords into any key on the fly!

Whenever possible, you’ll want to try to make sure your lyrics and chords are saved as text files (typically identified as file names with .txt at the end).  That will ensure your previous words are given carte blanche to the widest availability of digital wardrobes.  But even if your text-based music was created in Word (.doc files), Pages (.pages files), or Rich Text Format (.rtf files), you’ll be able to find apps that can accommodate your digital flavor.

While you can work with word processing programs to read your text files right off of a standard Mac or PC computer, you’ll want to check out text reading apps that are specifically designed for today’s digital sheet music musicians.  Here is a sampling of apps that work with iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), with a look at the text file formats they can work with and a spotlight on one cool feature for each.


My Lyric Book – http://www.dctsystems.co.uk/Software/My_Lyric_Book/

File Formats: Pages 09 (.pages), Word (.doc), PDF (.pdf), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Text (.txt)

Cool Feature: If everyone in your band is using iPads running My Lyric Book, you can have everyone sync together so that the band leader can open everyone’s iPad to the same song.  No more errant band members blaring the intro riff to the wrong song!


OnSong – http://www.onsongapp.com/

File Formats: PDF (.pdf), Word (.doc), Pages (.pages), JPEG (.jpg), PNG (.png), TIFF (.tiff), ChordPro (.cho – we’ll talk about this format in the next article), Text (.txt)

Cool Feature:  OnSong is such a Swiss-Army knife app that it’s hard to pick just one cool feature, but a particularly handy one is OnSong’s ability to search and pull down text lyrics right from within the app.  It’s built-in compatibility with Rockin’ With The Cross (http://www.onsongapp.com/rwtc/), an online Christian Worship Song Resource, is a great example of synergy between app and content.


Set List Maker – http://www.arlomedia.com/apps/setlistmaker/main/home.html

File Formats: PDF, Word (.doc, .docx), PowerPoint (.ppt, .pptx), Pages (.pages), Keynote (.key), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Text (.txt), JPEG image (.jpg)

Cool Feature: Set List Maker is really all about its namesake: making and managing set lists.  You can attach text documents containing your chord charts and lyrics to audio files and set the order of your songs for your shows accordingly.  A musician’s database dream come true.


Setlists – http://www.setlistsapp.com/

File Format: Text (.txt)

Cool Feature: Setlists is designed to show your lyrics a phrase at a time.  You can sync your iPads together in a band and not only open everyone’s iPad to the same song, but also advance the lyrics a phrase at a time simultaneously.  I’ve used this pun so many times it’s wearing a groove in my keyboard, but here goes:  this is a great way to – literally – keep everyone on the same page!  (insert circus seal laugh here)


SongBook Chordpro – http://linkesoft.com/songbook/ios

File Formats: Chordpro (.pro, .chordpro, .chopro), Text (.txt), Tab (.tab, .crd)

Cool Feature:  A true “gumball ring at Tiffany’s” app.  SongBook Chordpro’s simple interface belies it’s ability to manipulate text files in multiple ways, from transposing keys on the fly, to changing font sizes and displaying fingering options for multiple instruments.


iReal b – http://www.irealb.com/

File Format: Just like the cool kats of Jazz, iReal b is an app that – while technically text based – really stands in a league by itself, due to its proprietary file format.  You can edit or create your own iReal b files either within the iReal b app, or by using the iReal b web editor at http://www.irealb.com/editor/

Cool Feature: iReal b for iPad can play audio accompaniments to your tunes in any key.  You can customize the output by adjusting the volume for (or muting) different instrument tracks, so that you can riff and shine like the star you are.

Content, Part 7: Free Text-Based Sheet Music Sites

A little while back, I was working at a music trade show demonstrating how iPads could be used as digital sheet music readers. Thinking like a classical musician, I thought that setting up the iPads to display pages of – what else? – sheet music would make perfect sense. This is what appeared on the iPad screens:

For the next couple of hours, I watched a steady stream of folks walk right past our booth. Every now and then someone would take a glazed glance over at our iPad farm, but then would continue on their way without so much as a skip in their step. I was perplexed. The iPad had just been introduced to the world with incredible fanfare – why didn’t anyone share my geeky enthusiasm at how cool sheet music looked on the hottest piece of technology of the time? Then it hit me. Duh. I was thinking like a classical musician. I should’ve gotten a clue over the wail of electric guitars and thundering drumset riffs. I quickly changed the iPads to show this:

Almost immediately, a burly guy paused, pointed at one of the iPads, and remarked to his friend, “Hey, look! You can read music on this thing!” It just goes to show that one man’s music is another man’s hieroglyphics. To put this in perspective, this reads like hieroglyphics to me, but makes perfect sense to a jazz musician:

You say “to-may-to”, I say “to-mah-to”…hey, it all works, right? Whatever makes your digital sheet music screen rock! As I hope my convoluted illustration explains, when I refer to “text-based sheet music”, I’m referring to music primarily written using words and chord symbols, as opposed to calligraphic clefs, staff lines for “Every-Good-Boy-Doing-Fine”, and black dots with flags, beams and racing stripes. There are generally four types of text-based sheet music:

  1. Lyrics only
  2. Lyrics and chords
  3. Chords only
  4. Tabs

As you can imagine, there are almost limitless online resources for text-based sheet music, the vast majority of which are free. More often than not, you’ll start your Google search with the name of the song or the artist/band rather than worry about the file formats available, but it may still be helpful to see examples of sites that provide each of the four types of text-based sheet music so that you can narrow down what best suits your needs.

Lyrics only

Lyrics from “Proud To Be Here” by Trace Adkins

Lyrics.com – How can you go wrong with a site name like that? You’ll find lyrics to just about anything, especially popular songs of today, in languages spanning the globe. Many of the entries include embedded YouTube videos of the songs, so that you can hear how they go and see how they’re danced to.

CowboyLyrics.com – Yippie-ay-yay! Need I say more for the country song lovers out there?

Lyrics and Chords

Lyrics and Chords for “Amazing Grace”

Chordie.com – This is another great resource for lyrics. You’ll find some versions with chords included, but it can be hit or miss, so be prepared to click and wade.

WorshipArchive.com – This site has a nifty feature where you can transpose the chords (which appear in blue) to any key. Contemporary worship songs and traditional hymn lyrics and chord progressions can be found at this site.

Chords Only

Chords only example: “I got rhythm” by George Gershwin

JazzStudies.us – Over 1,200 Jazz Charts that can be transposed into any key on this site, then downloaded as image files (which can then be converted to PDF files and used in a PDF reader. See the section on PDF reader apps).

iReal b Forums – Based on the jazz chord formats found in “The Real Book”, this site is actually a discussion forum, where users post collections of thousands of songs in a wide range of styles and genres. You’ll only find chord progressions in these arrangements in the iReal b format – no lyrics, no melody lines written out, presumably in an attempt to prevent copyright issues. Keep in mind that you will need to purchase install one of the iReal b applications for Mac, iOS, or Android in order to be able to view and work with these files. We’ll talk more about this in the upcoming Text apps article. In the meantime, visit http://www.irealb.com/support/ for more information.


Guitar Tab example: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift

Tabs – short for “tablature”, not “tabby cats” – are an innovative number/letter/hyphen system primarily for guitar players showing which frets to place your fingers on to strum chords (you can also find tabs for other instruments, by the way – see below). Basic tab sheets (on freebie sites) will only show the chords in succession within sections of a song; “pro” tab sheets (which you generally have to purchase) will include time signatures, measures, and rhythmic indications in the form of “note-less” stems and rhythmic flags/beams. In free sites, most of the non-pro tabs are arrangements of popular songs written by fans. Site visitors can vote for their favorite renditions, with the hope that the better versions climb to the top of the rankings.

Ultimate-Guitar.com – The Tabs section of this mega-site does a great job of showing the type of arrangement along with the song title. You can find chords and “pro” tabs, along with the basic tab versions. The chord and tab versions are free, and you can sample some of the pro tab songs before making your purchase.

911Tabs.com – This site boasts access to over 3 million tab arrangements of almost any song imaginable (within popular reason – no 12-tone Schoenberg arrangements here!) You’ll find tabs for piano, bass, and drums, as well as guitar. Transposable chord versions are also available for versions that include piano tabs.

In the next article, I’ll take a look at applications that take advantage of the unique properties of text-based sheet music to be able to dynamically change things like the key of the song, the size of the words, and other features.

Content, Part 6: Free Sheet Music Sites – Classical Resources

Free?  Did someone say, “free”? Yes siree, thar’s gold up in them cyber clouds!  Free for the taking – if you don’t mind wading through buckets of shale to find yer treasure, that is.  Old gold’s the best, Sonny boy – stuff that’s been waylaid in musty warehouses and library catacombs suddenly find themselves pristinely preserved and free for the takin’, thanks to the wonders of public domain and a faithful army of anonymously scurvy scanners scattered as far as the virtual eye can see.  Then, there’s the digital underbelly, “full of scum and villany” as ol’ Obi-Wan Kenobi might say – “we must be cautious,” particularly when it comes to dubious copyright issues.  But that doesn’t seem to stop the explosion of sites that shower the virtual silicon streets with lyrics, chord charts, and guitar tabs for the latest and greatest popular hits to make even the most moribund emo-lescent riff shredder smirk with glee.

Generally speaking, free sheet music sites offer their wares in one of two file flavors:  PDFs, the universal picture-book darling format, and Text files, for musicians who like their music served up with consonants and vowels rather than black dots and beams with racing stripes.  To give you a comprehensive overview of the free sites available would be another Moby Dick tome in itself – I’ll let Google be your guide down the branching rabbit holes.  At the very least, here’s a broad sampling of some of the best known sites to satiate the most ravenous tablet/computer hard drives:

Classical/Public Domain

IMSLP.org – the International Music Score Library Project

File format: PDF

Five sweet letters of the alphabet that sing to the classical musician’s WiFi antenna like few others.  IMSLP is the motherlode of all digital sheet music sites, the portal to an incredible repository of (at the time of this writing) nearly 60,000 works and 215,000 scores, representing almost 8,000 composers.  And to think, this incredible cyber-monument to the world’s greatest musical compositions was starting by a bored 19 year old conservatory student one winter month in 2006 (see The New York Times article “Free Trove of Music Scores on Web Hits Sensitive Copyright Note” by Daniel J. Wakin, Feb. 22, 2011).  If you’re looking for a piece of classical music in the public domain, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll find a version of it on IMSLP.  Availability will vary depending on the copyright laws of each country (the site tries to flag works restricted by copyright accordingly – some works will be available in the U.S.A. but not the E.U., and vice versa).  Gorge yourself accordingly.

CPDL.orgChoral Public Domain Library

File formats: PDF, Finale, Sibelius, among others

In an age where smartphones are obsolete minutes after they become available, having a site that’s been around since 1998 is akin to being prehistoric.  The brainchild of Rafael Ornes, CPDL is the largest online resource of choral music in the public domain, making (at the time of this writing) over 14,600 scores by over 2,060 composers available for free in a variety of file formats.  If you like to sing with friends, this site is sure to make you get along even more harmoniously.

Free-Scores.com – the name says it all

File Formats: PDF, MP3, MIDI

Free-Scores.com is originally a French-language site, but you can select an English option from a drop down menu or by going directly to http://www.free-scores.com/index_uk.php3.  As of this writing, there are approximately 40,000 pieces of music offered for a wildly wide variety of instruments, including recorder, saxophone, banjo, accordion, lute, flugelhorn, vielle a roue, bouzouki, as well as instruments more commonly represented in symphonic orchestras.

Sheet Music Consortium – http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/sheetmusic/index.html

File format: PDF

This is like the music inter-library loan system on steroids.  Sheet Music Consortium is an incredible collaboration between several major universities (Johns Hopkins U., Duke U., Indiana U., and the National Library of Australia, to name a few) and the Library of Congress to make their digital sheet music collections available for online viewing and study, and in many cases, even as PDF downloads.  Of particular note are the vast collections of early American Songs, giving a vivid look into the evolution of popular music as a cultural phenomenon.

Scholarly Editions

Yes, it’s true – the best things in life really are free!  Here are some examples of online scholarly editions that no serious classical musician should overlook:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Neue Mozart-Ausgabe – http://dme.mozarteum.at/DME/nma/start.php?l=

File format: Image (JPEG)

The Neue Mozart-Ausgabe is by far the best online resource for all of Mozart’s works in a scholarly edition. The site states that usage is restricted to “personal study, educational and classroom use”.  The entire collection can be searched by category of work, a variety of KV. catalogue numbers (KV, KV6, KV6 Anh. A B or C…who in the world knew that so many librarians had so much time on their hands?), and even by key signature and preferred editor.  Pages can be viewed a portion at a time by scrolling down the sidebar, or by clicking the page number hyperlinks along the top. Beautiful typography makes viewing easy on the eyes and friendly for study. Kudos to the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum and The Packard Humanities Institute for making this treasure of musical art freely available to the world!

The only drawback to this site is that the music is only available one page at a time.  You can right-click and save each page individually (add a .jpg to the file name to have your computer recognize the image file in JPEG format), and then use a PDF converter to combine the images into a multi-page PDF file (I like iCombiner for Mac and doPDF for Windows).

Felix Mendelssohn: Digital Library Department of the Bavarian State Library – http://www.digital-collections.de/index.html?c=autoren_index&l=en&ab=Rietz,%20Julius

File format: PDF

The Digital Library Department of the Bavarian State Library has an incredibly generous online offering for the classical music community: the complete works of Felix Mendelssohn as digital scores, scanned in high quality for clear viewing. Scores are available as PDF downloads, but you need to navigate a bit of Bavarian German to assent to their download policies (I presume – my German-reading skills are pathetic). This is an invaluable resource for serious musicians who can use these scores, readily available online, for the study and research of one of classical music’s greatest musical masters.

For more wondrously free classical sheet music links, visit http://airturn.com/sheet-music-sites/sheet-music-sites/free-sheet-music/classical-music

Video Tutorial: How to Create Big Note iPad Sheet Music Using a Windows PC

iPads are great for reading sheet music, but many musicians complain that the screen is too small. If you have a low vision condition, this is particularly problematic. This tutorial shows how to create big note versions of sheet music with a Windows PC computer that can be easily viewed on an iPad. You will need to download and install three programs on your Windows PC:
1. Gadwin PrintScreen (http://www.gadwin.com/printscreen/)
2. doPDF (http://dopdf.en.softonic.com/)
3. iTunes for Windows (http://www.apple.com/itunes/)

On your iPad, you will need to install DeepDish GigBook from the Apple App Store (http://airturn.com/ipad-apps/apps/ipad-apps/pdf-readers/deepdish-gigbook)

You will also find the AirTurn BT-105 helpful for turning iPad pages hands free, since you will be creating pages that show only 1 or 2 measures at a time with this example (http://airturn.com/bt-105-for-tablets/bt-105-for-tablets-and-computers)

[youtube http://youtu.be/doDf4oBJVac]

Video Tutorial: How to create Big Note iPad Sheet Music with a Mac

This video tutorial shows how to create a big note sheet music score for use on the iPad by virtually slicing up a PDF file with a Mac computer.  It also covers the steps to transfer that file from your Mac to your iPad via iTunes.

Here’s the shopping list of links referred to in the video:

Adobe Reader: http://get.adobe.com/reader/

iCombiner: http://download.cnet.com/iCombiner/3000-2094_4-11383118.html

DeepDish Gigbook for iPad: http://airturn.com/ipad-apps/apps/ipad-apps/pdf-readers/deepdish-gigbook

AirTurn BT-105 wireless page turning pedal system for iPad: http://airturn.com/bt-105-for-tablets/bt-105-for-tablets-and-computers

Next video will cover how to make big note iPad sheet music scores using a Windows PC.

Carrying Giants, Part 2: How to create big note versions of sheet music for the iPad using a PC

This is really hard for me to admit as a longtime die-hard Windows user, but I really enjoy the smooth workflow of creating custom screen clips on my Mac.  I wanted to see if I could come as close as possible to recreating that workflow with my Windows PC to make the tedious task of creating big note versions of digital sheet music scores a little less so.

Windows 7 and Windows Vista operating systems come bundled with a handy little program called Snipping Tool – just do a search for it from the Start button.

Snipping Tool gives you the option to create rectangular or freehand selections of the screen and save them as image files and even mark them up with ink and highlight annotations.  The only problem with Snipping Tools is that it requires you to move your mouse around to select the tool, activate a new snip, name the file, etc…all the mousing around can make it easy to lose your place on the digital page when you have to scan dozens of cuts per page.  I would rather use as few mouse movements and keyboard taps as possible to keep my workflow streamlined.

Gadwin PrintScreen is a great alternative to Snipping Tool – it’s free, and it’s available for all versions of Windows, including ol’ faithful Windows XP.  You can assign a hotkey (geek talk for a specific key on your keyboard to activate the program – the default for Gadwin PrintScreen is the “PrtSc”/PrintScreen button) and a host of other custom features.  Here’s a walkthrough of my recommended setup:

After you install Gadwin PrintScreen, you should see its icon appear in your taskbar:

Right click on the icon to bring up its menu options, and select “Properties“.

Along the left hand column, click on “Source”.  In the main window to the right, within the “Captured area” pane, select the radio button for “Rectangular Area”.

Next, select the “Image” option in the left column.  In the main window under “Type of Image”, you will see that the default file format is Windows Bitmap (*.bmp).  Click on the drop down menu and select JPEG Bitmat (*.jpg) instead.

Click the “OK” button on the bottom and your preferences will be saved.

Next, we will want to install a virtual PDF printer to convert your clipped image files into PDF files.  One of my favorites is a free program called doPDF, which you can download from http://www.dopdf.com/

After you download and install doPDF, you’re ready to go.

Open up your sheet music PDF file with a PDF reader like Adobe Reader and set the view to maximize the width of the page you want to work with.

If you are using Gadwin PrintScreen’s default hotkey setup, press the PrtSc key and you should see a magnification reticle appear:

Click your left mouse button and drag a rectangle around the measures you want to clip.

Press “Enter”, and your selection will appear in a popup window.

Press “Enter” again and you will see a confirmation popup saying that the capture has been completed.  Hit “Enter” again to make the popup disappear.

Go back and repeat for all the successive measures you want to clip on the screen.  Once you’re done, navigate to your Documents folder, then look for the PrintScreen Files folder.  You will see all your screen clips automatically named as ScreenShot### where the ### will automatically increment the order that the clips were created.

Press the key combination Ctrl+A to select all the files within the PrintScreen Files folder, and then click on “Print” in the folder menu bar.

In the Print Pictures window, make sure you select “doPDF v7” as the printer in the top left menu bar.  If you notice that the image in the preview window is oriented the wrong way, then you will need to adjust the paper settings.  Click on “Options” in the lower right corner.

In the next popup window, click on the “Printer Properties” link.

In the next screen within the “Orientation” panel on the lower right, make sure that the “landscape” radio button is selected, then click “OK”.

Now the preview window will show the screen clip in the proper orientation, but the zoom may be incorrect.  Make sure that the “Fit picture to frame” box is unselected (click on it to remove the check mark).

Click on “Print”, and you will see a dialogue box pop up, giving you the option to name the PDF file within the “File name” box.  Just change the text after “C:\Users\Your Name\Documents\” and make sure you leave the “.pdf” after your file name.  In this example, I changed the file name to “Giant Note PC Example.pdf”.  Click on “OK” to create the PDF file.

You will find your new file within your Documents folder.  Use iTunes to connect to your iPad and transfer the file into the DeepDish Gigbook app file window (see the section on “Transferring Converted Music to an iPad using iTunes“).  Here’s how the final PDF giant note sheet music page looks with the iPad turned to its side:

Carrying Giants, Part 1: How to create big note versions of sheet music for the iPad using a Mac

The number one complaint about using an iPad to read digital sheet music is the diminutive size of its 9.7 inch screen.  For musicians with relatively normal eyesight, that’s already a slight compromise adjusting from paper pages that are at least 8.5″ x 11″ or larger.  One way to compensate for the visual contraction is to use an app that can display the music half a page at a time when you turn the iPad sideways (“landscape mode”, for you geeks out there).  That at least brings the size of the music on par with a regular sheet of paper, albeit half a page at a time.

Reading sheet music on an upright iPad (“portrait mode”)

Viewing music a half page at a time with the iPad rotated sideways (“landscape mode”) – note the larger view of the music notes compared to the upright view.

But what if you are a musician with aging eyes, or suffering from a low vision condition like macular degeneration, or something even worse like Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) where your field of vision is reduced to a small tunnel?  In the physical world, your best solution would be to run to a Kinko’s and get your music copied at a high enough zoom level to blow up your notes to a legible level onto the largest paper size available.  In the digital world, you could resort to using a ginormous display, but that isn’t practical if you happen to be a musician that needs to be anything more mobile than an organist.

Recently, during a long drive home from taking my oldest boy to college, the mother of a 14 year old music student called me to see if anything could be done to help her daughter suffering from RP.  She wanted to be able to participate in band camp, but was frustrated with having to carry around huge stacks of oversized paper music with zoomed copies of her music.  She loved the idea of putting her entire sheet music library into a svelte iPad and then turning digital pages hands free with a device like an AirTurn, but the half page view for most apps was still too small for her vision condition.  Was there any way to zoom her music even larger, say, to be able to just see one or two measures at a time?

The bad news was, barring the use of an external larger monitor, there was no way for any iPad app to natively display sheet music larger than the geometric boundaries of the page and still enable a practical page turning solution beyond manually pinching and zooming the page.  That would mean keeping two fingers constantly pincer-glued to the screen – not very practical for an instrumental musician who needs two hands to play their instrument.

The good news was, we were working with digital sheet music (the band director had been thoughtful enough to provide PDF versions of the sheet music), which meant that with enough creativity and imagination, we could find a way to refashion the page to suit her needs.  I asked the mother what type of computer they owned, and she told me that they had a Mac.  I asked her to open one of the PDF files on her Mac and set the view to maximize the width of the page:

Using a PDF reader to view the music at the maximum page width

I then asked her to press a three key combination on her Mac keyboard:

Command () + Shift + 4

This brought up a small reticule, enabling her to use her mouse to click and hold the mouse button while dragging a rectangle around two measures of music at a time.

Releasing the button would create an image file on her desktop containing the screen snippet she had just selected.

This screenshot file would be titled “Screen Shot” with the full date (year, month, day) and time (hour, minute, second) that the screen was created.

Going a few measures at a time and creating this collection of screen shots, she would then gather them into another fantastic free program called iCombiner, which works to combine multiple image and document files into a single PDF file.  Since all the files were time stamped, she needed to make sure that she used the “date modified” header within her file navigation window set all the files in the correct order, with the oldest on top and newest on the bottom, before clicking the top file, then shift-clicking the bottom file (to select all the files in a group), then dragging the whole set into the iCombiner file window.

Once she was sure that the files were set in the correct order, she could give the PDF file a name and then press the “Combine” button – and voila!  She now had a PDF eBook with each page showing ginormous views of her music a few measures at a time (she could even select just one measure at a time if necessary).

The next step was to transfer her PDF file into an app that would provide an optimal view of these custom cut pages.  It turns out that DeepDish Gigbook does the best job of displaying these pages, with a nice centered alignment in the middle of the screen and a dark background to help isolate the view.  Here’s what the music looks like within DeepDish Gigbook on an iPad:

So, with the sun setting on a beautiful Pennsylvania countryside and the wind whistling through my SUV window, this digital cowboy closed his cell phone and drove home contented that his pixel-rustling skills were up to the challenge to help another musician in distress.  In our next post, we’ll detail how to make a giant-note version of sheet music with a Windows PC.

Content, Part 5: Proprietary Sheet Music Sites and Apps

Proprietary sheet music sites represent a strange techno-schizophrenia when it comes to the future of music publishing.  On the one hand, you have cutting-edge technology to sell and deliver commercial sheet music instantly over the Internet, eliminating the need to wait for physical shipping times or inventory availability at a brick & mortar store, while putting digital protections in place to prevent users from re-distributing copyrighted works en masse.  Want the latest hit from Coldplay? Log in, pony up, download. That’s good.  On the other hand, these same digital tools keep sheet music shackled to Gutenberg-era handcuffs by forcing you physically print the music you buy.  Make sure you have paper in that printer, ink in that cartridge, and pray that nothing jams.  That’s silly.  (Gutenberg, by the way, refers to Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th century inventor of the printing press).

Fortunately, with the powerful rise of tablet computers, we’re starting to see the emergence of a better option: proprietary sheet music reader apps.  While still in developmental infancy, the marriage between Internet sheet music content and proprietary reader apps is showing some promising signs of powerful digital progeny.  Not only can you search, buy, and download copyrighted content instantly, but with some apps you can work more dynamically with your music than would ever be possible with printed paper versions.  Here’s a sampling of what some of these reader apps enable you to do:

  • Transpose instantly into any key
  • Listen to audio playback of the notes at any tempo
  • Add ink annotations to the music in multiple colors and easily erase them
  • Use one master (“conductor”) device to open the same song on multiple (“slave”) devices, and in some cases turn everyone’s pages and share ink annotation markings with everyone

Unfortunately, we have yet to see a universal reader app for all commercially available digital sheet music, so your purchasing decision may have just as much to do with what you want to be able to do with your music as with which piece you actually buy.  Here is a sampling of proprietary sheet music sites and the apps (if any) that can be used to read them.

Site: Musicnotes

As of this writing, Musicnotes.com is currently the largest Internet site for commercial digital sheet music with almost 250,000 works available for digital download.  You can find arrangements of the latest hits and popular tunes from yesterday for a wide variety of instruments.

App: Musicnotes Sheet Music Viewer for iPad/Android

The companion app for the Musicnotes web store is a great example of what’s possible when publishers grow beyond Gutenberg.  If you’ve ever bought anything from the Musicnotes.com website in the past, once you log in with your username and password within the app, your entire archive of songs you’ve bought (and printed and lost) will auto-magically be available for download.  The Musicnotes app enables users to draw ink and highlight markings on the music just like ink to paper.  And its best feature? In the iPad version, you can set a “conductor” iPad to connect wirelessly to multiple “slave” iPads to open everyone’s reader to the same song, turn everyone’s pages, and even send text comments and ink markings to everyone (sorry, Android users are out of the loop with this megalomaniacal level of musical control over ensemble minions…)

Link to Musicnotes Sheet Music Viewer for iPad

Link to Musicnotes Sheet Music Viewer for Android

Site: Sheet Music Direct

Don’t let the numbers game fool you: even if SheetMusicDirect.com “only” announced 100,000 scores at the time of its reader app’s launch, the muscle behind the site and the app is none other than Hal Leonard, the world’s largest sheet music publisher.  You’ll find a tremendous depth of titles from the latest hits and nostalgic goodies, to a rich resource for Jazz and Classical compositions.  It’s encouraging when you see a publisher of this size and influence jump aboard the digital bandwagon – hopefully this will spur other publishers to follow suit sooner rather than later.

App: Sheet Music Direct for iPad

Sheet Music Direct for iPad is a more dynamic app in many ways.  You can dynamically transpose the music into any key and listen to digital playback in any tempo.  If there are multiple instruments in the score, you can alter or mute the playback volume individually for each track.  You can even set up a click track and tap out your own tempo with the built-in metronome feature.  One drawback is the lack of annotation features – the type of dynamic file the Sheet Music Direct’s app uses (Sibelius Scorch) does not lend itself to adding an inking layer as is possible with static PDF readers.  Speaking of PDF files, Sheet Music Direct for iPad has the ability to import PDFs, so you could conceivably create a set list mixed with the latest top 10 hits and your hand-written opus scanned from that napkin.

Link to Sheet Music Direct for iPad

From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution

Content, Part 4: Commercial PDF Sheet Music Resources

Commercial PDF sheet music sites are available for several genres of music.  You can shop online, make your purchase, and then download the PDF files for use with your favorite PDF reader app or program (see “Apps for Reading Paper Sheet Music Sources“).  Here is a sampling of what’s available:

Classical Music

Brassworks 4 – This is an example of a niche classical site that’s surprisingly comprehensive, offering PDF files for solo and ensemble brass configurations.  Some of the offerings are only available as paper deliveries, but many are also available as PDF downloads.  Founded by a retired brass ensemble of “3 guys and a gal”, this virtual sheet music store came into existence out of fun and necessity as the group found that they had to write their own arrangements due to the dearth of available music for their configuration.

Every Note – this has been one of my favorite sites for commercial classical sheet music PDF files.  You’ll find a collection of over 20,000 popular and hard-to-find scores representing over 1,000 composers.  The site was started by Soviet-born pianist Mark Zeltser, who made it his stated goal to offer “every classical note ever written”.  Dr. Zeltser maintains the site with the help of his programmer (who also happens to be his wife) Violetta.

Virtual Sheet Music – this is a popular site for classical music scores in PDF formats.  They also offer Jazz and popular tunes, but those files are in a proprietary Scorch format that limits you to printing paper versions rather than downloading portable PDF files. Virtual Sheet Music also provides a free iPad reader app for classical selections, and most offerings also include an MP3 audio file to help you hear how the music goes.  Great for students and teachers.


Mel Bay – Mel Bay provides an extensive library of educational PDF method eBooks and sheet music collections.  A fantastic resource for teachers and students of all instruments.


PraiseCharts – PraiseCharts offers downloadable chord chart and lead sheet PDFs of popular Christian worship music with transpositions in any key, as well as orchestrated audio accompaniment tracks.

SongSelect by CCLI – CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International, and is one of the major resources for purchasing licenses for the use of popular Christian music in worship settings.  CCLI offers a paid membership service called SongSelect, which gives you access to a vast library of worship music in a variety of downloadable formats, ranging from lead sheets, chord sheets, hymn sheets, and sound samples.

Feel free to share links to your favorite commercial sheet music site that provides PDF downloads and I’ll be happy to add them to this post!