Going Digital for Musicians

A guide to working with sheet music paperlessly

Month: September, 2012

Content, Part 8: Text-Based Sheet Music Apps for iOS

Text files are like Cinderella stories in the digital world.  At first glance, their simplicity and utter lack of eye candy makes them look as worthless as a gumball ring in a Tiffany store.  Ah, but it’s precisely their lack of excess code that makes them able to magically transform into the widest array of digital bling.  Barebones text files make them universally readable and readily adorned with malleable properties to make even Audrey Hepburn blush.  Resize your words!  Slap on a vibrant coat of color!  Dress it up with an eye-catching font!  And with the right setup, even transpose your text chords into any key on the fly!

Whenever possible, you’ll want to try to make sure your lyrics and chords are saved as text files (typically identified as file names with .txt at the end).  That will ensure your previous words are given carte blanche to the widest availability of digital wardrobes.  But even if your text-based music was created in Word (.doc files), Pages (.pages files), or Rich Text Format (.rtf files), you’ll be able to find apps that can accommodate your digital flavor.

While you can work with word processing programs to read your text files right off of a standard Mac or PC computer, you’ll want to check out text reading apps that are specifically designed for today’s digital sheet music musicians.  Here is a sampling of apps that work with iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), with a look at the text file formats they can work with and a spotlight on one cool feature for each.


My Lyric Book – http://www.dctsystems.co.uk/Software/My_Lyric_Book/

File Formats: Pages 09 (.pages), Word (.doc), PDF (.pdf), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Text (.txt)

Cool Feature: If everyone in your band is using iPads running My Lyric Book, you can have everyone sync together so that the band leader can open everyone’s iPad to the same song.  No more errant band members blaring the intro riff to the wrong song!


OnSong – http://www.onsongapp.com/

File Formats: PDF (.pdf), Word (.doc), Pages (.pages), JPEG (.jpg), PNG (.png), TIFF (.tiff), ChordPro (.cho – we’ll talk about this format in the next article), Text (.txt)

Cool Feature:  OnSong is such a Swiss-Army knife app that it’s hard to pick just one cool feature, but a particularly handy one is OnSong’s ability to search and pull down text lyrics right from within the app.  It’s built-in compatibility with Rockin’ With The Cross (http://www.onsongapp.com/rwtc/), an online Christian Worship Song Resource, is a great example of synergy between app and content.


Set List Maker – http://www.arlomedia.com/apps/setlistmaker/main/home.html

File Formats: PDF, Word (.doc, .docx), PowerPoint (.ppt, .pptx), Pages (.pages), Keynote (.key), Rich Text Format (.rtf), Text (.txt), JPEG image (.jpg)

Cool Feature: Set List Maker is really all about its namesake: making and managing set lists.  You can attach text documents containing your chord charts and lyrics to audio files and set the order of your songs for your shows accordingly.  A musician’s database dream come true.


Setlists – http://www.setlistsapp.com/

File Format: Text (.txt)

Cool Feature: Setlists is designed to show your lyrics a phrase at a time.  You can sync your iPads together in a band and not only open everyone’s iPad to the same song, but also advance the lyrics a phrase at a time simultaneously.  I’ve used this pun so many times it’s wearing a groove in my keyboard, but here goes:  this is a great way to – literally – keep everyone on the same page!  (insert circus seal laugh here)


SongBook Chordpro – http://linkesoft.com/songbook/ios

File Formats: Chordpro (.pro, .chordpro, .chopro), Text (.txt), Tab (.tab, .crd)

Cool Feature:  A true “gumball ring at Tiffany’s” app.  SongBook Chordpro’s simple interface belies it’s ability to manipulate text files in multiple ways, from transposing keys on the fly, to changing font sizes and displaying fingering options for multiple instruments.


iReal b – http://www.irealb.com/

File Format: Just like the cool kats of Jazz, iReal b is an app that – while technically text based – really stands in a league by itself, due to its proprietary file format.  You can edit or create your own iReal b files either within the iReal b app, or by using the iReal b web editor at http://www.irealb.com/editor/

Cool Feature: iReal b for iPad can play audio accompaniments to your tunes in any key.  You can customize the output by adjusting the volume for (or muting) different instrument tracks, so that you can riff and shine like the star you are.


Content, Part 7: Free Text-Based Sheet Music Sites

A little while back, I was working at a music trade show demonstrating how iPads could be used as digital sheet music readers. Thinking like a classical musician, I thought that setting up the iPads to display pages of – what else? – sheet music would make perfect sense. This is what appeared on the iPad screens:

For the next couple of hours, I watched a steady stream of folks walk right past our booth. Every now and then someone would take a glazed glance over at our iPad farm, but then would continue on their way without so much as a skip in their step. I was perplexed. The iPad had just been introduced to the world with incredible fanfare – why didn’t anyone share my geeky enthusiasm at how cool sheet music looked on the hottest piece of technology of the time? Then it hit me. Duh. I was thinking like a classical musician. I should’ve gotten a clue over the wail of electric guitars and thundering drumset riffs. I quickly changed the iPads to show this:

Almost immediately, a burly guy paused, pointed at one of the iPads, and remarked to his friend, “Hey, look! You can read music on this thing!” It just goes to show that one man’s music is another man’s hieroglyphics. To put this in perspective, this reads like hieroglyphics to me, but makes perfect sense to a jazz musician:

You say “to-may-to”, I say “to-mah-to”…hey, it all works, right? Whatever makes your digital sheet music screen rock! As I hope my convoluted illustration explains, when I refer to “text-based sheet music”, I’m referring to music primarily written using words and chord symbols, as opposed to calligraphic clefs, staff lines for “Every-Good-Boy-Doing-Fine”, and black dots with flags, beams and racing stripes. There are generally four types of text-based sheet music:

  1. Lyrics only
  2. Lyrics and chords
  3. Chords only
  4. Tabs

As you can imagine, there are almost limitless online resources for text-based sheet music, the vast majority of which are free. More often than not, you’ll start your Google search with the name of the song or the artist/band rather than worry about the file formats available, but it may still be helpful to see examples of sites that provide each of the four types of text-based sheet music so that you can narrow down what best suits your needs.

Lyrics only

Lyrics from “Proud To Be Here” by Trace Adkins

Lyrics.com – How can you go wrong with a site name like that? You’ll find lyrics to just about anything, especially popular songs of today, in languages spanning the globe. Many of the entries include embedded YouTube videos of the songs, so that you can hear how they go and see how they’re danced to.

CowboyLyrics.com – Yippie-ay-yay! Need I say more for the country song lovers out there?

Lyrics and Chords

Lyrics and Chords for “Amazing Grace”

Chordie.com – This is another great resource for lyrics. You’ll find some versions with chords included, but it can be hit or miss, so be prepared to click and wade.

WorshipArchive.com – This site has a nifty feature where you can transpose the chords (which appear in blue) to any key. Contemporary worship songs and traditional hymn lyrics and chord progressions can be found at this site.

Chords Only

Chords only example: “I got rhythm” by George Gershwin

JazzStudies.us – Over 1,200 Jazz Charts that can be transposed into any key on this site, then downloaded as image files (which can then be converted to PDF files and used in a PDF reader. See the section on PDF reader apps).

iReal b Forums – Based on the jazz chord formats found in “The Real Book”, this site is actually a discussion forum, where users post collections of thousands of songs in a wide range of styles and genres. You’ll only find chord progressions in these arrangements in the iReal b format – no lyrics, no melody lines written out, presumably in an attempt to prevent copyright issues. Keep in mind that you will need to purchase install one of the iReal b applications for Mac, iOS, or Android in order to be able to view and work with these files. We’ll talk more about this in the upcoming Text apps article. In the meantime, visit http://www.irealb.com/support/ for more information.


Guitar Tab example: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift

Tabs – short for “tablature”, not “tabby cats” – are an innovative number/letter/hyphen system primarily for guitar players showing which frets to place your fingers on to strum chords (you can also find tabs for other instruments, by the way – see below). Basic tab sheets (on freebie sites) will only show the chords in succession within sections of a song; “pro” tab sheets (which you generally have to purchase) will include time signatures, measures, and rhythmic indications in the form of “note-less” stems and rhythmic flags/beams. In free sites, most of the non-pro tabs are arrangements of popular songs written by fans. Site visitors can vote for their favorite renditions, with the hope that the better versions climb to the top of the rankings.

Ultimate-Guitar.com – The Tabs section of this mega-site does a great job of showing the type of arrangement along with the song title. You can find chords and “pro” tabs, along with the basic tab versions. The chord and tab versions are free, and you can sample some of the pro tab songs before making your purchase.

911Tabs.com – This site boasts access to over 3 million tab arrangements of almost any song imaginable (within popular reason – no 12-tone Schoenberg arrangements here!) You’ll find tabs for piano, bass, and drums, as well as guitar. Transposable chord versions are also available for versions that include piano tabs.

In the next article, I’ll take a look at applications that take advantage of the unique properties of text-based sheet music to be able to dynamically change things like the key of the song, the size of the words, and other features.

Content, Part 6: Free Sheet Music Sites – Classical Resources

Free?  Did someone say, “free”? Yes siree, thar’s gold up in them cyber clouds!  Free for the taking – if you don’t mind wading through buckets of shale to find yer treasure, that is.  Old gold’s the best, Sonny boy – stuff that’s been waylaid in musty warehouses and library catacombs suddenly find themselves pristinely preserved and free for the takin’, thanks to the wonders of public domain and a faithful army of anonymously scurvy scanners scattered as far as the virtual eye can see.  Then, there’s the digital underbelly, “full of scum and villany” as ol’ Obi-Wan Kenobi might say – “we must be cautious,” particularly when it comes to dubious copyright issues.  But that doesn’t seem to stop the explosion of sites that shower the virtual silicon streets with lyrics, chord charts, and guitar tabs for the latest and greatest popular hits to make even the most moribund emo-lescent riff shredder smirk with glee.

Generally speaking, free sheet music sites offer their wares in one of two file flavors:  PDFs, the universal picture-book darling format, and Text files, for musicians who like their music served up with consonants and vowels rather than black dots and beams with racing stripes.  To give you a comprehensive overview of the free sites available would be another Moby Dick tome in itself – I’ll let Google be your guide down the branching rabbit holes.  At the very least, here’s a broad sampling of some of the best known sites to satiate the most ravenous tablet/computer hard drives:

Classical/Public Domain

IMSLP.org – the International Music Score Library Project

File format: PDF

Five sweet letters of the alphabet that sing to the classical musician’s WiFi antenna like few others.  IMSLP is the motherlode of all digital sheet music sites, the portal to an incredible repository of (at the time of this writing) nearly 60,000 works and 215,000 scores, representing almost 8,000 composers.  And to think, this incredible cyber-monument to the world’s greatest musical compositions was starting by a bored 19 year old conservatory student one winter month in 2006 (see The New York Times article “Free Trove of Music Scores on Web Hits Sensitive Copyright Note” by Daniel J. Wakin, Feb. 22, 2011).  If you’re looking for a piece of classical music in the public domain, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll find a version of it on IMSLP.  Availability will vary depending on the copyright laws of each country (the site tries to flag works restricted by copyright accordingly – some works will be available in the U.S.A. but not the E.U., and vice versa).  Gorge yourself accordingly.

CPDL.orgChoral Public Domain Library

File formats: PDF, Finale, Sibelius, among others

In an age where smartphones are obsolete minutes after they become available, having a site that’s been around since 1998 is akin to being prehistoric.  The brainchild of Rafael Ornes, CPDL is the largest online resource of choral music in the public domain, making (at the time of this writing) over 14,600 scores by over 2,060 composers available for free in a variety of file formats.  If you like to sing with friends, this site is sure to make you get along even more harmoniously.

Free-Scores.com – the name says it all

File Formats: PDF, MP3, MIDI

Free-Scores.com is originally a French-language site, but you can select an English option from a drop down menu or by going directly to http://www.free-scores.com/index_uk.php3.  As of this writing, there are approximately 40,000 pieces of music offered for a wildly wide variety of instruments, including recorder, saxophone, banjo, accordion, lute, flugelhorn, vielle a roue, bouzouki, as well as instruments more commonly represented in symphonic orchestras.

Sheet Music Consortium – http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/sheetmusic/index.html

File format: PDF

This is like the music inter-library loan system on steroids.  Sheet Music Consortium is an incredible collaboration between several major universities (Johns Hopkins U., Duke U., Indiana U., and the National Library of Australia, to name a few) and the Library of Congress to make their digital sheet music collections available for online viewing and study, and in many cases, even as PDF downloads.  Of particular note are the vast collections of early American Songs, giving a vivid look into the evolution of popular music as a cultural phenomenon.

Scholarly Editions

Yes, it’s true – the best things in life really are free!  Here are some examples of online scholarly editions that no serious classical musician should overlook:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Neue Mozart-Ausgabe – http://dme.mozarteum.at/DME/nma/start.php?l=

File format: Image (JPEG)

The Neue Mozart-Ausgabe is by far the best online resource for all of Mozart’s works in a scholarly edition. The site states that usage is restricted to “personal study, educational and classroom use”.  The entire collection can be searched by category of work, a variety of KV. catalogue numbers (KV, KV6, KV6 Anh. A B or C…who in the world knew that so many librarians had so much time on their hands?), and even by key signature and preferred editor.  Pages can be viewed a portion at a time by scrolling down the sidebar, or by clicking the page number hyperlinks along the top. Beautiful typography makes viewing easy on the eyes and friendly for study. Kudos to the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum and The Packard Humanities Institute for making this treasure of musical art freely available to the world!

The only drawback to this site is that the music is only available one page at a time.  You can right-click and save each page individually (add a .jpg to the file name to have your computer recognize the image file in JPEG format), and then use a PDF converter to combine the images into a multi-page PDF file (I like iCombiner for Mac and doPDF for Windows).

Felix Mendelssohn: Digital Library Department of the Bavarian State Library – http://www.digital-collections.de/index.html?c=autoren_index&l=en&ab=Rietz,%20Julius

File format: PDF

The Digital Library Department of the Bavarian State Library has an incredibly generous online offering for the classical music community: the complete works of Felix Mendelssohn as digital scores, scanned in high quality for clear viewing. Scores are available as PDF downloads, but you need to navigate a bit of Bavarian German to assent to their download policies (I presume – my German-reading skills are pathetic). This is an invaluable resource for serious musicians who can use these scores, readily available online, for the study and research of one of classical music’s greatest musical masters.

For more wondrously free classical sheet music links, visit http://airturn.com/sheet-music-sites/sheet-music-sites/free-sheet-music/classical-music

Video Tutorial: How to Create Big Note iPad Sheet Music Using a Windows PC

iPads are great for reading sheet music, but many musicians complain that the screen is too small. If you have a low vision condition, this is particularly problematic. This tutorial shows how to create big note versions of sheet music with a Windows PC computer that can be easily viewed on an iPad. You will need to download and install three programs on your Windows PC:
1. Gadwin PrintScreen (http://www.gadwin.com/printscreen/)
2. doPDF (http://dopdf.en.softonic.com/)
3. iTunes for Windows (http://www.apple.com/itunes/)

On your iPad, you will need to install DeepDish GigBook from the Apple App Store (http://airturn.com/ipad-apps/apps/ipad-apps/pdf-readers/deepdish-gigbook)

You will also find the AirTurn BT-105 helpful for turning iPad pages hands free, since you will be creating pages that show only 1 or 2 measures at a time with this example (http://airturn.com/bt-105-for-tablets/bt-105-for-tablets-and-computers)

[youtube http://youtu.be/doDf4oBJVac]