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

by airturn

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.