How to select the perfect computer for reading digital sheet music: Introduction

by airturn

My old collection of Tablet PCs for reading sheet music

A number of years ago, when I still had a beautiful wood-paneled office at The Curtis Institute of Music, I received a phone call from a MusicPad Pro sales rep.  She wanted to stop by for an in-person demonstration of their digital music reading device and was willing to take the train all the way from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia to do so.  A few days later, she was in my office, waxing poetic about all the amazing things the MusicPad Pro could do for a professional musician like me, and proceeded to pull out a rather bulky slate from her roller bag.  It took forever for the unit to boot up after switching it on, giving plenty of opportunity for the sales rep to try to fill the awkward silence with techie filler talk.  The display was rather dim and she tried to demonstrate the touchscreen annotation features, but the pesky screen wasn’t being very cooperative.  It took several jabs of the plastic stylus to try to get a stubborn line of digital ink to appear.  After several minutes of her fumbling with the device and apologizing for its reticent performance, I pulled out my own system: a slender Fujitsu Stylistic 5032D slate Tablet PC.  For the same $1,000 MusicPad Pro price tag, I had a digital pen with the responsiveness of a smooth Mont Blanc pen, and the ability to not only read sheet music files, but also run music notation programs like Finale and Sibelius, as well as full versions of Microsoft Office and any other Windows XP program I wanted to load up.  What was even more embarrassing was the fact that the MusicPad Pro didn’t have any internal memory to speak of – you had to rely on memory cards to store your files, whereas my Tablet PC had a whopping 40 Gig hard drive, which was more than enough space for all my programs as well as my entire library of PDF sheet music files.  The sales rep sheepishly admitted she really didn’t have an ice cube’s chance in Miami when it came to comparing the two systems.  And while both the MusicPad Pro and my beloved Fujitsu Stylistic Tablet PC have since been discontinued for some time, I’ve been able to migrate all the PDF files I had stored on that old machine into my 3rd generation iPad, whereas the proprietary file formats that were strictly limited to the MusicPad Pro have died with that device, leaving a whole slew of customers in techno-limbo.

Over the 12 years that I’ve been a “paperless pianist”, I’ve worked with a wide range of computers for my digital sheet music reading needs.  I’ve seen computer technologies come and go, but the overall improvements have been staggering.  Despite the rapid pace of change, the good news is that if you know what to look for, you really don’t have to worry about keeping up with bleeding edge devices as much as you might think.  Your digital sheet music library – if it’s set up with longevity in mind – will far outlast any of the devices used to store and read them.  Case in point: I’m still using PDF files that I created 12 years ago.  Rather than recommending particular computer brand names or specific models, I’d like to share some general principles in the upcoming posts to help you make confident decisions on the best computer for your digital sheet music reading needs.

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