A Short History of Digital Sheet Music Readers

by airturn

Finale 3.0 Box Cover, circa 1995

Generally speaking, reading sheet music on computer monitors and laptop screens in the past was like trying to fit size 12 feet into size 7 shoes: a bad fit and painfully uncomfortable to say the least.  I still remember an old box cover painting for an early version of the venerable music notation software Finale in which a pianist is supposedly in bliss, basked in the glow of reading his digital score off of a ginormous cathode tube computer monitor perched like a cyborg hippo on top of his grand piano.  Screens were expensive, small, and oriented in an “unmusical” way, displaying pages horizontally (“landscape” in computer-speak) rather than vertically (“portrait”, again in computer-speak) in the way that most sheet music is printed.  Reading sheet music on a typical computer screen meant either zooming out to an impractical level to fit a vertical page on a horizontal screen, or reading small segments of a page at a time, which became a problem if your music staff happened to fall right in the middle of the break point, cutting off notes either below or above.

The Toshiba Portégé M200, one of the first convertible Tablet PCs

The first computers to begin to solve this reading orientation problem were the Tablet PC’s, introduced by Microsoft back in 2001.  The early Tablet PC’s basically came in two designs:  a laptop design, where the screen could be flipped around and folded backwards over the keyboard, or the “slate” design in which the keyboard was done away with entirely and information put into the computer by drawing or tapping on the screen with a digital pen.  Both designs gave the user the option to rotate the view in both horizontal and vertical positions.  With this simple feature, reading a full page of music the right side up on a computer became practical for the first time (I was in digital nirvana).

The Tablet PC’s were terrific computers, but they were prohibitively expensive and never really caught on with the general public.  The premium price point alone probably killed the possibility of mass adoption, but I’m sure that the Windows operating system didn’t help (and this is painful for me to admit, since I’ve been a longtime Windows fan).  Despite the Tablet PC’s great digital pen inking and handwriting recognition features, the fact remained that the Windows was really intended for keyboard and mouse input and never designed to accommodate input directly by human hands.  Handwriting a sentence and watching it get recognized as text was pretty cool but impractically slow.  Tap pecking a sentence with a digital pen on the Tablet PC’s onscreen keyboard was laughably awful and akin to typing with a single finger in a splint.  Other eggs to throw at the Tablet PC designs could be aimed at their bulky sizes, lousy battery life, and dim screens due to the scratch resistant coatings to prevent screens from looking like overused Etch-A-Sketch toys.  Reading on these computers was definitely possible, just not very pleasant (except for geeks like me, I suppose, who are willing to fork over hefty credit card debt and put up with these shortcomings in order to enjoy the possibilities that these latest technologies tantalizingly hint at).

Freehand System’s MusicPad Pro

In December of 2001, a company called Freehand Systems produced a product called the MusicPad Pro that was years ahead of its time in concept, but woefully hobbled by the technologies of its time. The MusicPad Pro was a digital music reader that featured a 12.1 inch pressure touchscreen which gave users the ability to annotate scores and turn pages with the tap of a finger or with a wired pedal.  The MusicPad Pro was eerily prescient of the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad with regard to its ambitious attempt to create a complete ecosystem between a hardware reading device and a proprietary digital sheet music store that it connected with directly.  But once again, price was a serious killjoy: at $1000, users would be paying a premium laptop price for what basically amounted to a one-trick pony in a kludgy form factor with lousy battery life.  Early marketing efforts made a pretty big splash, with endorsements from famous bands like “Yes” and classical musicians like violinist Itzhak Perlman (who I’m sure never used the device more than once) and a media event by the Chicago Symphony using them in performance.  Sadly, the MusicPad Pro never evolved beyond its first version design and died a slow, drawn-out, William Shatner style death dramatization (it might be interesting to note that there was an additional product briefly introduced, the MusicPad Maestro, which was intended for conductors with its larger screen and conductor’s ego-sized price point).

The first Amazon Kindle

In 2007, Amazon introduced a device which started the eBook revolution in earnest: the Kindle.  With its small form factor, battery life that could be measured in weeks instead of hours, seamless ability to wirelessly purchase and download electronic books, and its ground-breaking use of E-Ink technology that made reading the screen much more similar to the experience of reading actual paper, the Kindle helped people realize the amazing benefits of digital reading.  However, for musicians, the screen was much too small, and the page “turns” had a strange delay due to the limitations of E-Ink technology, making it an impractical device for reading music, particularly in real-time performance.  Read, press page turn button, wait for blinking screen refresh…not a good idea in the middle of a high speed Tarantella or a Metallica thrash!  And since the Kindle was intended primarily as a read-only device, there was really no way to annotate pages in a pragmatic manner. Another one-trick pony, perhaps, but this time Amazon got it right – at least for its intended market of book readers – with its much friendlier price point and feature set.

And then there was Apple.

The Apple iPad

In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad, which was actually conceptualized before the iPhone.  In many ways, the iPad took the lessons learned from the above predecessor products and knocked it out of the park – the first iPad sold 300,000 units on its first day of sale; the iPad 2, a year later, sold 500,000 its first day; and in 2012, the new iPad with its deservedly hyped “retina display” sold a staggering 1,000,000 units on its first sale day.  As of this writing, iPads are on track to be in the hands of an estimated 66 million users in the USA alone – that accounts for almost 1 in 5 Americans owning one of these sleek tablet computers.  With an adoption of that magnitude, it’s not hard to figure out why an incredible ecosystem of “apps” (a shortened version of the word “applications” coined by Apple) and hardware peripherals for iPads exploded on the scene almost overnight.

Very likely, you either already own an iPad or know someone who does, so in some ways I may be preaching to the crowd.  But since this is a blog intended to help musicians find digital solutions for reading sheet music, I’d like to point out why the iPad in particular works so well as a musician’s reading tool:

1. Form Factor

Where the Tablet PC and MusicPad Pro were relatively bulky and heavy, the iPad is thin and light, weighing in at approximately 1.2 pounds (this varies depending on the model, with the first iPad being the heaviest). The iPad also boasts a battery life of 10 hours, which far outperforms the older machines’ output of 2-3 hours.  That gives you the ability to leave the power cord at home during long days of rehearsals or gigs, further reducing bulk in your gig bag.

While larger than a typical Kindle, the iPad’s 9 inch screen is noticeably smaller than the Tablet PC or MusicPad Pro, both of which sported 12.1 inch screens that more closely resembled the size of a typical 8.5 x 11″ sheet of music paper (if you happen to be a musician with low vision difficulties, we’ll address a number of cool app solutions and hardware alternatives later on).  On the other hand, the screen quality of the iPad is bright, clear, and vibrant  (superfabulously with the new iPad) – so much so, that some folks argue that reading music on an iPad is much easier on the eyes than physical paper (that’s certainly the case when comparing the experience of reading in a dark club or orchestra pit with finicky stand lights vs. an evenly backlit iPad).

2. Use

The Tablet PC required a digital pen to operate the screen.  My biggest fear in my early paperless days using my Table PCs was that I would misplace or lose that pen, leaving me dead in the water right before an important performance with no way to navigate or open my sheet music files.  My solution was to tie my pens with dental floss as a leash to my Tablet PCs.  Yes, dental floss – at least I could always be ready to perform with a smile, eh?  The other major problem with the Tablet PC was the simple act of turning it on.  As a full computer, you had to endure a painful 5 minute boot up process after pressing the power button before you could actually do anything.

The MusicPad Pro came with a touchscreen that could be used with either a plastic stylus or a firm finger press.  A slightly better solution than a pen only computer, perhaps, but you still needed to keep a close eye (or a piece of dental floss) on that stylus – trying to use your finger on the screen was as responsive as trying to scratch an itch through a leather jacket.  And you had to be careful not to let your wrist touch the screen while using your stylus, since it could only accept a single pressure point at a time.

With the iPad came a cool tactile experience thanks to capacitive touchscreen technology that allows the user to use multiple fingers at the same time.  And unlike the MusicPad Pro’s pressure-based input screen technology, the iPad can be operated with the lightest of touches with zippy response.  The feeling is quite “magical”, as Steve Jobs and his cohorts loved to exude.  No need for pens or dental floss leashes!  And thankfully unlike Tablet PCs (and even the MusicPad Pro), turning on the iPad does NOT require a trip to the water cooler while waiting for the machine to boot up. Press the home or power button on the iPad and it’s ON.  Instantly.  Amazing how such a simple concept could be so revolutionary for a computer!

3. App Store

In 2003, Apple introduced the iTunes store, an online resource for buying music as MP3 files, and with it came a seamless way for people to easily, affordably – and most important, legally – purchase music that could be instantly downloaded to computers and its iconic portable music player device, the iPod. This laid the foundation for the App Store, which was opened as an iTunes update on July 10, 2008.  Now users could not only get content – aka, music, audio books, movies, and the like – but also a whole world of programs to do nifty things with iPhones, iPods, and of course, the titular iPad.

With the explosive popularity of i-Products from Apple came the enticing opportunity for programmers to write programs that could make some serious money.  Ditto for hardware manufacturers making i-Accessories.  This results in an interesting oxymoron:  incredible diversity in software and hardware options for a family of products that is quite monolithic in design (actually a great thing in general for programmers and hardware manufacturers: uniformity in design means you don’t have to design dozens of variations of the same product).  In layman’s terms, that means that i-Users have access to the widest variety of ways to work with their i-Devices, far more than other tablets and mobile reading devices that have since entered the marketplace.

4. Price

As mentioned before, the one-trick pony MusicPad Pro was introduced in 2001 for a whopping $1000.  Chump change for Janet Jackson or the Backstreet Boys back then, perhaps, but way out of the budget of the typical mortal musician.  Tablet PC’s were priced as a premium laptop when they came out, with many models starting out around $1500, a price point to make even Warren Buffet squirm (well, maybe not Mr. Buffet, since he and Bill Gates are chummy buddies…).  The iPad, on the other hand, begins at $499 for the 16 Gig model.  When compared with the portable digital reading options for musicians in the past, this is a much more appealing price point.  Some musicians argue that this is still too expensive, but I think this is a matter of perspective and priorities.  If you don’t hesitate to plunk down thousands of dollars for an instrument or hundreds of dollars for an amp or other tool to enhance your sound, then your reading tools should be framed in a similar manner: it’s an investment that will reap enormous benefits in the long run towards enhancing your musicianship.  We’ll be looking at that “return on your investment” in future posts.

The iPad isn’t perfect by any means as a digital reader for all musicians, but it does many things very nicely in a form factor that is easy to use, making it a great starting point for many users.  We’ll spend a good bit of time in this blog with the iPad as a launching point for digital sheet music reading, and then expand the discussion to alternative digital devices, particularly for low vision musicians and other unique situations.