What do I need to get started reading sheet music digitally?

by airturn

The transition from being a paper-based musician to going paperless digitally can seem like a daunting idea. Some common questions I hear all the time include:

– Which computer is right for me?
– How do I get music into my computer?
– What programs do I need?
– Besides a computer, what other equipment will I need?
– Given the rate at which technology changes, how can I be sure that the equipment I invest in won’t be obsolete within a few years?

I’d like to start addressing the last question on the above list first. As of this writing, I will have been a “paperless pianist” for almost 12 years. Even though the computers and equipment that I’ve used to store, read, and annotate my digital sheet music scores have changed many times over during that time period, it’s amazing to me that the very first digital music files that I scanned from my paper sources still look perfectly pristine, while the physical paper versions have already started to yellow and crumble. Once you understand a few general principles of working with digital sheet music, then you’ll be able to make the transition from paper to pixels with confidence.

To give you a helpful overview, I’d like to share four “C’s”, which describe four categories of things you’ll need to get started as a digital sheet music musician. They are as follows:

1. Computer
2. Content
3. Containers
4. Controllers

Your choice of computer will depend on a number of factors:

– Your need for mobility
– Your need for legibility based on screen size
– Your need for accessories to support your computer, such as the containers and controllers which we’ll discuss in a moment

As everyone knows, computer technology changes on almost a daily basis. The good news is, that this isn’t as important as you might think. If you know how to take care of a musical instrument, you can apply that same level of understanding to maintaining your computers used for reading sheet music for many years to come, as well as being better educated on the best computers to upgrade to when necessary. And with Internet cloud storage services like DropBox and iCloud, you really don’t have to worry about being completely dependent on a single computer device.

While tablet computers like the iPad might be great for many musicians due to its portability and ease of use, other musicians who don’t need to be mobile (like organists or teachers working in studios) might be better off with laptops, desktop computers connected to larger monitors, or even large touchscreen computers. We’ll discuss all those options as we drill down this topic.


By content, I mean both the type of music you work with and the sources where your music can be found. For instance, classical musicians work with content based on traditional music notation containing staff lines, key signatures, notes and rests. Musicians in more popular genres work with content based mainly on text, such as lyrics, chord symbols and tablatures. Your preferred content will determine both where you find your music sources and how you get that content into your digital sheet music computer, ranging from scans of physical books and binders, to direct downloads from online sheet music resources. This will also determine which programs will be best suited for your content needs, and what kind of interactivity you will need from your music – will you be using PDF files to draw ink annotations on your music? Or will you use a text reader so that you can change your font sizes and transpose chord symbols on the fly? Or will you use a proprietary reader for computerized music notation from programs like Finale or Sibelius?


Containers are hardware accessories used to hold or mount your computer, turning it for all intents and purposes into a digital music stand. This may or may not be relevant to your needs, depending on what instrument you play. For example, classical pianists can usually count on a music rack built in to their instruments to hold their iPads or support their laptops, while guitarists or orchestral musicians will almost always need a way to safely mount their computers. The container options will vary widely depending on the type of computer being used. We’ll explore some of the current options in upcoming posts.


Controllers are hardware accessories that enable you to work with your digital sheet music in a variety of ways, ranging from digital pens for drawing annotations, to page turning pedals and other switches enabling you to turn pages hands free. Some computer devices, like the iPad, don’t require digital pens to draw on the screen, whereas other computers like Tablet PCs already come bundled with such pens. Page turning pedals and switches, on the other hand, are a relatively new type of accessory that most musicians don’t think of until they’re confronted with the stark experience of viewing their music one digital page at a time and have to consider how to get to the next digital “page” in ways that don’t necessitate finger swiping or mouse clicking.

In future posts, we’ll look at some examples of various types of musicians and the 4-C configurations that best fit their needs.