Going Digital for Musicians

A guide to working with sheet music paperlessly

Month: August, 2012

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!

Content, Part 3: An Overview of Internet Sheet Music Sources

On April 12, 2009, The New York Times reported on the closing of a small sheet music store a stone’s throw away from Carnegie Hall.  For over six decades, Patelson’s had been a musical mecca for classical musicians who would browse through its musty stacks of sheet music bins and work up the courage to ask an indignant employee about the best edition for Chopin Etudes or the availability of an obscure work by Szymanowski.  The passing of Patelsons highlighted the new realities of the digital age for retail sheet music.  And with the powerful advent of tablet computers like the iPad, we are on the brink of seeing another transformation from online shopping and physical delivery of paper sheet music (a la Amazon Books) to downloads of digital versions directly into tablets and computers (a la Amazon Kindle).

More and more, the question of “how do I get sheet music into my digital reader?” will be answered by downloadable options from the Internet.  Getting digital sheet music from the Internet is still a foray into the electronic “Wild Wild West” in many respects, and you’ll find viable commercial options as well as a staggering array of free ones from resources that range from legitimate to dubious.  Before we go into a listing of sites and apps over the next few articles, it might be helpful to get a bird’s eye view of some general aspects of the types of sheet music files you’ll find available for download.

Static vs. Dynamic

PDFs created from scans of paper music are basically “static” files – in other words, you can read the music as it appears on the page, but you can’t modify the notes other than to draw digital ink markings or to type text on the page.  For all intents and purposes, PDF files display music just like physical paper.  You can’t transpose the music into a different key or change the size of the printed notes, other than by changing the zoom options or using a larger monitor.

Dynamic files, on the other hand, display music in formats that can be modified.  Text files of lyrics can be edited to change the words, and the font properties can be altered to modify its size, style, and color.  In some cases, chord symbols can be identified and transposed to any key on the fly.  In the case of traditional music notation, not only can you transpose the music into any key, but (depending on the app) you can also hear the notes played back in a variety of tempi (speeds) and sometimes with different instrumentation for multi-part scores.

Portable vs. Proprietary

The universal nature of PDF and text files make them easy to migrate from computer to computer.  That makes them extremely portable – great news for reading musicians, perhaps, but a commercial quandary for composers and publishers trying to make a living from selling sheet music.  Proprietary formats are generally favored by commercial sheet music sources.  They either provide a limited number of times that you can physically print the music you purchase, or they can be read in custom apps that can be used by licensed users, preventing them from copying and distributing their music beyond their own tablets and computers.  Understandably, most free sites use portable file formats and most commercial sites use proprietary files and custom readers. We’ll take a look at resources for both types and discuss pro’s and con’s for each.


Content, Part 2: Apps for Reading Paper Sheet Music Sources

As we discussed in “The 5th C: The Art of Converting Paper to PDFs“, paper sheet music sources need to be converted to PDF files by using a scanner (or a scanning app from your smartphone) to take digital pictures of each page.  Once you have your PDF files assembled, the next step will be to decide which app or program you want to use to use to read and perhaps mark up your digitized music (in general, “app” is the term used for mobile devices like tablets and smartphones; “program” is the term used for more traditional computers running Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X operating systems).  Keep in mind that while your reader app/program options will be determined by the operating system running on your reading device du jour, your PDF files themselves are universal in nature, so it’s pretty easy to migrate them between devices.

Got Ink?  Beware

One caveat: if marking up your music with annotations is a high priority, you’ll want to be aware about the portability of those markings.  While the source PDF itself is a universal file, the added layer for digital ink annotations is not, and every app/program developer comes up with different ways to work with that ink layer.  The markings you make in one app/program generally aren’t viewable in any other app/program.  Fortunately, some apps/programs give you the option to “bake in” the ink layer, meaning that the ink markings you make would become a permanent part of the source PDF, kind of like having your sheet music with your markings all in permanent magic markers.  You won’t be able to change or erase those markings after baking them in, so keep that in mind if you need to juggle between “clean copies” and inked up ones.  I’m sure there’s a henna vs. tattoo parlor zinger allusion in here somewhere, but it’s too early in the morning for me to come up with one…

PDF Apps/Programs

Given that the PDF is a universal file format, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of apps and programs for reading these types of files.  To help narrow down the field, I’ll point out PDF readers that are either specifically designed with musicians in mind, or at least offer sheet music-friendly features that are worth considering.  I’ll list a number of basic factors:

  • the ability to add annotations,
  • the ability to export those annotations to other PDF readers,
  • the ability to create set lists (set lists give you the ability to select a number of songs, put them in any order, and have the app/program automatically open each song in succession as if they were put together into one big binder), and
  • one cool feature that’s worth considering.

By the way, all the apps/programs below are compatible with external page turning devices like the AirTurn – after all, what’s the point of reading music digitally if you can’t enjoy a bit of digital moxy and be able to turn pages hands free?

Here is a list of PDF sheet music reader apps and programs broken down by device and/or operating system:


Let’s face it: the iPad at the time of this writing is the undisputed champion of the tablet world.  With its commanding market share and relatively uniform design across 3 generations, the iPad has attracted the broadest pool of developers writing apps for reading PDF sheet music files.  Here’s an alphabetical listing of PDF reading apps for the iPad (all generations):

DeepDish GigBook

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: If you have a large PDF file containing dozens or hundreds of songs, you can create “super bookmarks” to extract the songs you want to use so that you don’t have to keep flipping pages to go from one song to the next.


  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: You can create multiple versions of a song.  This is great for collaborative pianists who have to accompany 14 versions of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and want to be able to have customized marked up copies for each rendition.


  • Annotations: Yes, sort of (more like typed post-it notes)
  • Annotations export: Yes, sort of (can be shared with other iGigBook users)
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: A fake book lover’s dream app, iGigBook has done the hard work of indexing over 60 popular Jazz fake and real books, making searches for any song (as well as searches by composer and key) within those collections a breeze.

Music Binder

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Got a big collection of songs? Need to pull up a song in a jiffy? Music Binder features the fastest – and I really mean, the fastest – system for instantly finding any song in your collection, thanks to an innovative on-screen keyboard system.  The developer claims you can find any song in one second.  Guess what?  He’s right!

MusicPodium for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: Your music is listed as picture snippets of the front page in addition to the title and composer, making it easy to see the first few measures of the piece at a glance.

MusicReader PDF for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: You can annotate your music pretty quickly while turning pages hands free with a page turning pedal like the AirTurn.    It’s nice not to have to tap extra buttons to open and close the annotating feature each and every time you need to draw some ink on the page.

NextPage for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Nice user interface, including a numbered navigation page bar that makes it easy to quickly jump to any part of the piece.


  • Annotations: No (you can add “sticky notes”, but not ink annotations)
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: OnSong is optimized for text files (we’ll revisit OnSong in a later chapter), but it works well as a PDF scroller – instead of viewing page turns one full page at a time, you can set OnSong to vertically scroll a customizable amount of the page at variable speeds.  Very handy when you need to look ahead beyond page breaks.

Planning Center Music Stand

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes – sort of (set lists aren’t created within the app itself; rather, they’re created and shared with team members via the http://www.planningcenteronline.com web service)
  • Cool Feature: This app is a companion for the Planning Center Online web service and is optimized for worship teams that need to share schedules, sheet music PDFs, and playlists.  No more excuses like “the dog ate my hymnal”!


  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: This app is designed to work in conjunction with the desktop version of Scorecerer which you can get from Deskew Technologies (http://www.deskew.com/).  The desktop program does a great job of automatically straightening lopsided scans, and gives you options to crop and custom cut your scores line by line.  You can then wirelessly sync those cleaned up files between your iPad and your computer.

Set List Maker

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes (duh – see the name of the app!)
  • Cool Feature: Primarily intended for audio file playlist control, you can link PDF files to songs as lyric sheets.  Best used for text reading.

TheGigEasy app for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Nice looking controls that can be moved anywhere on the page and tucked away for unobstructed views of your music.


  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Link multiple iPads to do everything from opening everyone’s songs to turning everyone’s pages from a master iPad.  Talk about keeping everyone on the same page!


The text-centric form factor of the laptop computer prevent it from mass adoption by musicians as a digital sheet music reader.  Tablet PCs made a valiant effort for over a decade, but they tend to be priced too high for most musicians’ wallets.  Nevertheless, here are some viable options for Mac and PC computers, particularly if you are looking for a viewing screen that doesn’t force you to squint or reconsider Lasik eye surgery.

PDF Annotator

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: PDF Annotator was never designed specifically for musicians, but it features the smoothest, most natural inking experience of any program on any device.  Ideal for heavy annotators.  Best experienced using a digital pen on a Tablet PC computer.

MusicReader PDF 4

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Multiple page view options, including customizable half page views to optimize the fit and zoom of a vertical page on a horizontal screen, and 2 page views for computer screens/monitors large enough to display 2 full pages of music at a time.


The sad paradox is that while there are tons of Android tablets on the market in all shapes and sizes, there is a paucity of PDF reading apps that are adequate for use by musicians.  Developers complain that there is little to no money to be made making Android apps, so that may be the main reason we don’t have many options yet.  Hopefully that will change in the near future.


  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: If you don’t like the glow of a tablet screen in a dark performance setting, you can reverse the colors of the sheet music, making the page black and the notes white.  Takes a little getting used to, but very effective for cutting down on making your face look like a glowing ghost.

ezPDF Reader

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Unknown
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: At this point, it’s one of the few Android apps that give you the ability to draw ink annotations onto the PDF file, as well as turn pages hands free with an external controller like the AirTurn BT-105.

MobileSheets for Android

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Well, besides the fact that as of this writing it is pretty much the ONLY PDF reader for musicians in the Android market? Keep your eye on this app, as lots of features are constantly being added and it’s only a matter of time before this app will be able to hold its own compared to other PDF readers regardless of device or operating system.

This overview only scratches the surface of the capabilities of most of these apps.  If you’d like to search for apps by features (what they can do), check out this interactive App Guide that works like an expanding outline tree.


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

Content, Part 1: An Overview of Digital Sheet Music Sources

The second “C” in the digital sheet music setup is Content, i.e. the files that will make up your sheet music library. There are three primary sources for sheet music content:

1. Paper
2. Internet
3. Composition


We already covered the steps involved in converting your paper sheet music library to digital PDF files in the article on “The 5th C: The Art of Converting Paper to PDFs“. However, I meet many musicians who balk at the time and energy it would take to scan their entire library. The enormity of the task is enough to stop them cold in their tracks, making the prospect of becoming a digital musician about as appealing as peeling a warehouse full of potatoes.

When I started the transition towards becoming a paperless pianist, I had two enormous wall shelves outside my office at Curtis stacked floor to ceiling with alphabetized filing boxes containing my paper music library. My library was so large, I needed a rolling step ladder to get to the boxes on the top shelves! But rather than getting discouraged at the size of my digital Everest, I just focused on scanning the 3 or 4 pieces I needed for the next few days. It’s amazing how quickly your digital library will grow with just 15 minutes of scanning a day. As the proverbial saying goes, the way to eat an elephant is one small bite at a time (my vegan friends are cringing at the thought, but you get the idea…)

Another helpful perspective is to consider how much time you spend organizing, searching for, and then re-filing your paper music collection (and for those of you who are as absent-minded as I am, add in the time you spend re-tracing your steps to find that piece of music you left in a practice studio or in a backstage dressing room). If you apply the time you would normally spend searching for your physical sheet music into scanning, you’ll find that – at least in the beginning – the time spent working with your music nets pretty evenly. As your library grows, you’ll find yourself scanning less and less frequently. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying the benefit of having everything that you need with you at all times and searchable instantaneously. No more messy stacks of books and binders. No more time wasted searching for that piece of music buried in your collection. No more headaches over re-filing your collection (or dealing with the aftereffects of procrastinating that task). And best of all, no more stress over forgetting to bring that part or losing your music altogether due to lost luggage at the airport.

What To Look For In The Perfect Digital Sheet Music Reader: Crystal Balls

Crystal Balls (See the Future)

If you read music that takes up enough pages to require a page turn, then you’ve experienced what I call the “blind zone”.  When you get to the last note of the last measure of the last page, you cannot see what’s coming up next – you are in the “blind zone” and have a split second to turn the page to see what’s next if you’re in a performance situation.  Classical pianists actually hire people to sit next to them to take care of the pesky page turning task, but I’m sure every one of them could recount some horror story over the blind spot dilemma, where the page was turned too soon or too late, ruining the flow of the performance (remember my tale of page turning tragedy from the introduction?)

Several applications have a nifty feature where you can eliminate the blind zone entirely and always see what’s coming next in the music.  If you’re viewing your music on a monitor large enough to display two pages at a time, you could set the page turns up so that you only change one page at a time.  Here’s how it works:

  • You start by seeing Page 1 on the left and Page 2 on the right.
  • When you “turn” the page, you would now see Page 3 on the left and Page 2 on the right.
  • “Turn” the page again, and now you would see Page 3 on the left and Page 4 on the right.

Viewing 2 pages of digital sheet music with MusicReader PDF 4

With a half page turn, you see page 2 on the right and the next page 3 on the left for a continuous view

The next page turn completes the view from page 3 to page 4

It sounds a bit confusing at first, but trust me – if you can get your head around the idea that you don’t need to turn two full pages at a time and can actually have a continuous unobstructed view of your music, you’ll realize what a revolutionary idea this is.  No more blind zones, and you can always see what’s coming up next!

If you’re working off of a single page view, there are applications that can apply a similar “look ahead” capability.  Here’s how it works:

  • You see a full page of music (Page 1).
  • When you “turn” the page, the page splits, showing you the present page on the bottom half (Page 1) and the next page on the top half (Page 2).
  • “Turn” the page again, and now the split disappears, showing the next full page of music (Page 2).

A full page view of music using forScore on an iPad

Turning half of the page in forScore

Note the previous page can be seen on the bottom half…

…and the next page can be seen on the top half

Of course, the ability to continuously look ahead will necessitate turning the digital page more frequently.  That may sound like a big drawback, but we’ll explore how even page turns can be effortless when we get to the section on “Controllers”.

The above examples primarily apply for static PDF sheet music files.  For dynamic text files, you can find applications for scrolling the view in a manner similar to a teleprompter, the device that presidents and newscasters use to be able to read speeches and scripts in a continuous manner.

When I started my paperless journey 12 years ago, there were only one or two applications that gave me the ability to view and mark up my music with digital ink.  It’s been amazing to watch the explosion of music reading applications in recent years, giving me options I couldn’t even dream of needing but now realize that I can’t live without.  Throughout it all, my core library has continued to grow and port itself from machine to machine.  With each new device, it’s been astonishing to experience the incredible rate at which technology improves.  As you narrow your search down for the perfect digital sheet music reading computer, keep in mind that in some ways it will be a never-ending search, but the reward is in the journey as you discover the amazing possibilities that make it impossible to go back to paper.

To summarize:

1. Start with the application before deciding on a device
2. Determine if your needs are mobile, stationary, or a hybrid
3. Realize that you may discover a completely new way to look at your music

A great resource for finding sheet music applications on various tablets and computers can be found at this interactive App Guide.

What To Look For In The Perfect Digital Sheet Music Reader: Rainbows

Rainbows (Mark Up Your Music with Color)

There are several applications that give you the ability to annotate and mark up static PDF files with digital ink and highlights.  You can scribble on your digital sheet music in a wild display of colors, and just as easily erase the markings without damaging the music.  Try doing that with color pens and yellow highlighters on your paper sheet music!

Annotated PDF sheet music on an iPad running forScore app

Applications that work with dynamic files typically don’t have the capability to add digital ink annotations, but you can still apply colors in creative ways.  In this example using an iPad app called OnSong, you can highlight the chord symbols in one color, then change the chord font color so that it’s different from the lyric font color, giving you a clearer distinction between what is played and what is sung.

Using color in OnSong to highlight chord symbols in text files