Going Digital for Musicians

A guide to working with sheet music paperlessly

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.

 

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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:

iPad

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.

forScore

  • 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.

iGigBook

  • 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.

OnSong

  • 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”!

Scorecerer

  • 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.

unrealBook

  • 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!

Mac/PC

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.

Android

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.

EbookDroid

  • 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

Paper

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

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


Working with digital sheet music is a bit like beans.  Beans are beneficial, but – let’s face it – they’re basically boring.  But if you came to realize that these beans were actually magical ones from a boy named Jack, then suddenly there would be a whole new world to discover beyond their bland taste and pasty texture.  With our third question, “What do you want to see?”, you can either settle for a computer that functions as a high-tech music binder, or you can discover that the right combination of applications and computer will open an incredible new world of viewing possibilities.  There are three particularly interesting capabilities that you may want to look for when making your software and hardware decision: Giants, Rainbows, and Crystal Balls.

Giants (Larger Views of Your Music)

Digital sheet music gives you the option to see enlarged views of your music, limited only by the size of your screen and the reader application.  Depending on whether you work with static sheet music files like PDFs, or dynamic ones like text files, you’ll have different options for resizing your music.  In the case of static files, several applications offer the option to view PDF files half a page at a time.  On a tablet, this is typically done by rotating the tablet to its side; on a desktop or laptop computer, this would be a selectable option within the program.  For both tablets and computers, this half page view takes advantage of the screen’s width ratio to effectively zoom the page – the larger the screen, the bigger the zoom.  In the case of an iPad, a half page view makes the music the same size as paper versions.  And with a desktop computer or a laptop connected to an external display, your zoom level is only limited by the size of your monitor screen.  Imagine connecting your computer to one of those new fangled, impossibly thin 80 inch LCD television sets and reading your music that way – no need for bifocals with that option!

A full page view of music on the iPad using forScore…

…Half page zoomed view of the same music on the iPad

With dynamic sheet music such as text files, you don’t have to worry about viewing by page increments.  You can adjust viewing factors such as font size and font type, and sometimes even line spacing depending on the application.  With this level of dynamic zoom control, it’s conceivable that you could read your text on much smaller devices like an iPhone or an iPod Touch and completely forego the bulk of a larger device.

Font options using OnSong on the iPad

Changing font type with OnSong on the iPad

Another font style

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Rainbow capabilities.

Selecting the Perfect Sheet Music Reading Computer: Mobile & Stationary Options

After considering what you want to be able to do and determining the best operating system and apps to perform those tasks, our next question in the quest for the perfect sheet music reading computer asks, “Where do you want to go?” This question has to do with your need for – or lack of – mobility as a musician.  Are you a gigging musician constantly traveling to a variety of venues?  Or are you a stationary musician performing or teaching from a single fixed location?  Perhaps you’re a mix of mobile and stationary and need a variety of digital sheet music options to accommodate each situation.  Whatever the case, let’s start by examining what to look for in mobile and stationary computers, as well as some interesting hybrid solutions.

Mobile Computers

While laptop computers have been in existence since the early 1980’s and Microsoft’s Tablet PCs have been around since 2001, it was Apple’s re-envisioning of the tablet computer as the iPad that revolutionized the idea of using computers to read digital sheet music.  Even though I said I didn’t want to mention specific brands or models, it’s impossible to overlook the major impact of the iPad as a mobile computer that is incredibly portable, turns on instantly, is easy to use, and features a full-day battery.  While the iPad does several things very well, there are other options, particularly if you need a larger screen for viewing your music while still being able to carry your computer around.  You can still find Tablet PCs in both convertible and slate versions that run full versions of the Windows OS, for example.  Android tablets have invaded the market from a wide variety of manufacturers, offering cheaper alternatives to the iPad and in some cases, slightly larger screens.  And there’s nothing wrong with simply using a laptop if you can work with vertical music on a horizontal screen – we’ll talk more about laptop/desktop software options in the “Content” section, as well as some interesting solutions for mounting your laptop as a music stand in the “Containers” section.  And with Ultrabooks offering a much slimmer and lighter version of the laptop form factor with battery life rivaling the best tablets, your options are wide indeed.

Here is a simple comparison grid of features for tablets, tablet pcs, laptops, and ultrabooks:

Tablets Tablet PCs Laptops Ultrabooks
Operating Systems iOS/Android Windows Windows/Mac OS X Windows/Mac OS X
Screen size Smaller than paper (8.5”x11”) Paper Size (8.5”x11”) and a bit larger Paper size and larger available Paper size available
Bulk/Weight Super Light to Light Medium to Heavy Medium to Heavy Light to Medium
Viewing options Vertical and Horizontal Vertical and Horizontal Horizontal Horizontal
Input options Finger, stylus Keyboard*, mouse, finger*, digital pen Keyboard, mouse, external digital pen Keyboard, mouse, external digital pen
Memory Small to medium Medium to large Large Medium to Large
Battery life Moderate to Long Short to Moderate Short to Moderate Moderate to Long
Price $ to $$ $$$ $ to $$$ $$ to $$$

*only available with certain models
Stationary Computers

If you are a stationary musician like an Organist, then you may want to look for a stationary computer solution.  Traditional desktop computers are made up of several components:

  • The computer itself (the box “brain”)
  • The monitor (what you use to look at the information coming from the computer)
  • Input devices (what you use to enter information in, most typically a keyboard and a mouse)

At the very least, you’ll need to deal with the cable to connect your monitor to your computer, and unless you get wireless versions, cables to connect your keyboard and mouse as well. If you don’t want to deal with the equipment and cable clutter typically associated with traditional desktop computers, then you might want to consider an all-in-one computer which integrates a touchscreen monitor and the computer itself into a single unit.  Instead of using a mouse, you can touch and move things with your finger directly on the screen.  This comes in very handy when you want to draw digital ink annotations on your music.  You can also call up a virtual keyboard and type text right on the screen.  Keep in mind that as of this writing, touchscreen all-in-one computers are only available for Windows operating systems.

Desktop computers give you the option to use very large monitors to super-size the view of your digital sheet music.  Touchscreen all-in-one computers are also available in screen sizes that can view two full-sized pages of paper music at a time.

Hybrid Options

But what if you want the best of both worlds?  What if you want the mobility of a smaller computer combined with the larger screen viewing options of a desktop computer?

One option is to forego the desktop computer itself (the box “brain”) and just get a monitor (or even a digital TV!) that can accommodate a direct cable connection to your mobile computer of choice.  You will need to carefully make sure that your monitor or TV has the necessary ports to accept your computer’s output, and that your computer or tablet itself has the capability to connect to an external monitor.  There are a dizzying array of options, ranging from the grandaddy VGA connector, to S-video and the more modern HDMI and now the new Thunderbolt I/O from Apple.  If there’s enough interest from folks who are reading this as a blog, I will work on showing some specific examples of various connections between computers/tablets and monitors (post a comment and let me know!)

Another option is to use both a desktop or all-in-one computer AND a mobile computer.      You can use software to project the screen of your mobile computer onto the monitor of the larger stationary computer.  You will need a WiFi (wireless Internet) connection to make this work in most cases, but it’s a great way to teach and work in an ensemble setting, for example.  Again, I will post some specific examples of software and hardware combinations to create hybrid mobile/stationary solutions for reading digital sheet music in my next posts.

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

Selecting the Perfect Sheet Music Computer: 3 Key Questions

Rather than get hung up on mumbo jumbo techno terms or micro-analyzing system specifications, I’d like to break the search for the perfect sheet music reading computer into three basic questions:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. Where do you want to go?
  3. What do you want to see?

The first question deals with the sheet music itself – what do you want to do?  Most computers and tablets will give you the basic ability to read PDF and text files, but what if you want to be able to mark up your music with annotations?  What if you want create set lists, or be able to transpose your music into any key?  What if you want to project your music onto a larger screen for a classroom or auditorium, or simply want to be able to turn pages hands free?

The search for the perfect sheet music reading computer begins with the applications, or “apps” for tablets.  Any given computer or tablet can have the fastest processor or the best whiz-bang display specs, but if it doesn’t have the ability to run an application to do what you want it to do, then it’s just a shiny (and very powerful) paperweight.  Conversely, if you begin your search by trying to find the cheapest computer without considering the applications that can run on it, then you’ll simply have a cheaper (and slower) paperweight.

Several months ago, a friend of mine was eager to show off an HP TouchPad that he managed to get for only $100 from eBay.  The problem was, he didn’t realize that this cool little tablet had been discontinued by Hewlett-Packard only 49 days after it had been launched, and that its webOS operating system had virtually no programs available for it outside of the ones bundled with the unit.  The HP TouchPad featured great design, slick performance, and a price that couldn’t be beat, but it was absolutely worthless as a digital sheet music reader (or much else, for that matter).  And remember that MusicPad Pro?  It was a computer device that was powered by a proprietary version of Linux running essentially one single program. The MusicPad Pro suffered from price, choked from closed systems, and died from design.

The first place to begin to understand your computer choices is to look at the major operating systems – OS for short – that bring your computers to life and give them the ability to perform any given task.  Despite the dizzying array of computers, laptops and tablets out in the market, there are currently only three major players in the computer OS arena powering devices large enough for reading sheet music:

  1. Microsoft
  2. Apple
  3. Google

Microsoft, Apple, and Google

Each of these players provide a number of operating systems for a variety of computer/tablet devices.  Here is a rough breakdown:

I. Microsoft
A. OS for computers

  • Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8 [coming soon])

B. OS for tablets

  • Windows 8 (coming soon)

II. Apple
A. OS for computers

  • OS X (Leopard, Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion, Lion)

B. OS for tablets

  • iOS (for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch devices)

III. Google
A. Android for tablets (Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean)

The basic thing to understand is that an application written for one OS will generally not work on any other OS platform (there are special exceptions with Apple emulators for running Windows programs and even some Windows emulators on iPads, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this book/blog).  You will sometimes find multiple versions of an application available for different operating systems, particularly between Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X computers (Adobe Acrobat Reader and MusicReader PDF 4 are examples of PDF reading programs that run on both operating systems), but cross-OS versions of sheet music reading apps for tablets are much harder to find.

So the takeaway lesson is this: ignore the bling and start with the app.  We will explore various app possibilities when we get to the “Content” section in future articles.  Tomorrow, we will look at where you want to go.

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

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

Janette McIntyre: Computerized Cruise Ship Cocktail Pianist

If you’ve ever had a chance to relax to the sounds of a live piano played by a human pianist while dining at a nice restaurant, you know what a magical experience it can be compared to the canned piped-in music that literally sounds like broken records (er, broken CDs? MP3 players?) over the speaker system. A good cocktail pianist is the epitome of cool, a musical sommelier that serves up aural hors d’oeuvres tickled on ivories. For all my 40 years of experience playing the piano, I find the role of cocktail pianist to be far more intimidating than stepping out on stage at Carnegie Hall due to one deceptively portentous word: “request”. You’ll find the better-armed cocktail pianists loaded down with stacks of fake books and overstuffed binders bulging from under the piano or splayed haphazardly over the music rack. How they know where to even begin to look for that obscure tune is a marvel of real-time information management.

Janette McIntyre provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of a cocktail pianist on a cruise ship, and how she managed to evolve her work into a true “dream job” thanks to her use of technology.

Janette McIntyre, Cocktail Pianist

My passion is playing the piano. After a career as an administration and executive I decided that playing the piano on a cruise ship would be just the permanent vacation from life I’d been looking for! Play the piano a few hours a day, cruise and lay in the sun in the balmy Caribbean the rest of the time. So I joined the ranks of the entertainers on a whim for Carnival Cruise Line.
The first five years I struggled with literally pounds of sheet music that I rolled up like scrolls so I didn’t have to turn pages. They were even taped together. As one might imagine, the system was not good. Even when a song was requested that I knew I had in my “bag” it wasn’t easy to find it. There really was no system.
After one contract in 2011 I had enough of the lack of organization. I knew that there was a better way and had actually talked about “inventing” something that could turn the page on the computer. One of the musicians told me about a device that would turn the page and we actually looked it up on line while on the ship. I was sold.
I changed my computer from a PC to the Mac world with a MacBook Pro and bought myself an iPad. All of my music was scanned – thousands of sheets of my own sheet music and books – and then transferred to the iPad using the NextPage app. The purchase of the AirTurn BT-105 page turning pedal completed the hardware setup and I was ready to go.
The first day back on the ship was a little tense. No paper sheet music and blind faith (again) that all would work as planned. It did! I’ve never looked back. The only hair-raising day was when I forgot to recharge the iPad and it came up with a “low battery” indication half way through a set. Yikes! I hurried through the set, went downstairs to give it a quick 15 or maybe 20 minute battery charge and finished the night.
On the ship many people enjoy the relaxing piano music and often they are watching your fingers. Standing behind me and seeing just the iPad and no sheet music has fascinated many. They ask how it’s done and how I turn the pages. Sometimes I’d joke and tell them that I blow on it! They actually believed me and I’d laugh and tell them the truth. I received so many inquiries that I printed business cards praising not only the iPad but the AirTurn and Next Page app as well. Also included was my email address so they could ask questions if they needed to once they were home.
As a musician who doesn’t want to use up much needed brain cells to memorize ANYTHING, I always had a hard time just sitting down and playing a piano when asked without music. No one carries their music everywhere they go. Now it’s rare that I leave home without the iPad and AirTurn that fit right into my small briefcase-like carrier. I can play anywhere and with the NextPage app can pull up any requested song instantly.
Janette can be contacted via email at jkmcintyre26@yahoo.com