Squeak and Blat: The Future of iPads and Tablets for Electronic Scores and eMusic Readers

October 1, 2010

Dear Squeak and Blat,

I found your last column on ebooks and ebook readers to be very helpful. It is so exhilarating to see how far technology has taken us from the first printing presses.

With Fall semester about to start, I’m writing a proposal for a campus grant to help fund a tablet computer or iPad. It helps to have a unique “hook” in a grant proposal so my curiosity is with using these devices for displaying music scores, especially when viewing the larger screen size and clarity of the iPad! I could see using it for studying scores, presenting snippets of scores in class, and even for live music performance. Could you expand upon your previous ebook column with information on support for music scores from these devices? Apps just for scores, formats, video display, and any hardware for turning pages in live performance? Can I get scores from Finale, Sibelius, or other notation software to an ebook reader?

I’m sure my student ratings will also go up in terms of my “technology coolness” if I use a device like the iPad in class and for rehearsals.

Thanks for any guidance. – Ottaviano Petrucci, Jr., DMA, Venice, CA

See <http://delicious.com/squeakAndBlat/CMS_Sept_2010>; for our shared links and bookmarks related to this issue.



Dr. Petrucci, we are pleased you enjoyed last month’s piece on ebooks and ebook readers. Your questions about emusic readers is a great sequel but unfortunately a difficult topic to answer. Blat and I will do our best; features of tablet computers and their software apps is a moving target. I’ll lead off with software and hardware issues and Blat will deal with the musical and practical issues— just as important in addressing your needs. To begin, the technology you are looking for has been around for a few years in the form of the Freehand MusicPad Pro, a hardware notation tablet with stand, foot pedal, and a number of software features that optimizes emusic reading for performance. They cost around $900 each so a set of these for you and your students would challenge your grant skills. What the Freehand device does, however, is provide a benchmark for us to see how close we can emulate the MusicPad’s capabilites from an Apple iPad or a Windows or Android tablet computer.

Okay, Dr. Petrucci, what is out there for you to use? Blat and I were quite surprised at the number of options. We have grouped these into four categories as can be seen in the table that attempts to summarize our research and help you compare the options. Consider this a first draft and we welcome input from our readers with corrections and additions from your experience.

eMusic Readers for Score Libraries. There are commercial websites that provide extensive libraries of scores, music published in electronic form and available for downloading for a fee. Musicnotes, for most any computer as well as the iPad, and Muzibooks (iPad and iPhone), are two apps that provide access to published scores but with different packaging. Muzibooks creates a unique app for each score each for a fee; Musicnotes is a free app that gives you access to any score you purchase from their online library. Most of the scores are from the common classical and entertainment genre, with Musicnotes having the more extensive repertoire. The third app in this category is eScore; eScore maintains an expanding set of links to public domain, free scores on the Web. The apps in this category may be useful for score study in music activities that only require standard repertoire.

Desktop Pre-Processed Scores. MusicReader and Scorecerer both require software on your laptop or desktop computer to process scores before transferring them to your iPad, Kindle ebook reader, or tablet computer. Scorecerer has a built-in scanning module to facilitate scanning a printed score and processing for display on your tablet device. MusicReader, on the other hand, is one of the more developed of the emusic readers with a “reader” and a “converter” app for Mac and Windows. Scores are created in its proprietary MRS format from Freehand or PDF scores. One could use MusicReader scores on a wide variety of computers, laptops, and tablets.

PDF eMusic Readers.In this category are apps, all iPad apps, that display any score that has been saved as a PDF document. From our table you can see that there is a plethora of options. They distinguish themselves by the navigation features they offer, the speed and ease with which they turn the score pages, and various options for viewing the score page. The Apple iTunes store offers user reviews of all of these. After reading the reviews, Squeak purchased and tested Medley and forScore; unrealBook was a third that I was tempted to try.

Generic PDF Readers. Like emusic readers, there are many generic PDF reader apps available in the iPad app store. I looked at two: Apple’s iBook reader which is free and now reads PDF documents, and GoodReader, Squeak’s favorite PDF reader. Both read PDF music scores quite capably.

Our comparison table gives you an overview of features which we felt were key in responding to your questions. Several of these were purchased and tested using some of my own composition scores saved from Sibelius and Finale as PDF files. Links to all of the products noted are available from our Delicious online set of references. You can study the chart for yourself, Ottaviano, but here are some observations:

Cost. Except for NotationPad at $9.99 most of the choices are in the $5 range in cost. Muzibooks are priced at about $3 per score. Free options are the MusicReader app (without the converter), MusicNotes app which requires purchasing scores from their library, and Scorecerer which is in free beta. I did discover that the MusicReader free app will read your own PDF scores without using their converter software. Then there is the 99-cent GoodReader (more on this in a moment).

Platform. MusicReader/Converter, MusicNotes, and Scorecerer offer more platform options and, except for Scorecerer which is beta, the other two are fairly well established commercially. All the others are iPad apps; the more successful will likely be ported to Android apps as those tablet devices come to market.

File Formats. PDF documents reign! MusicReader uses its own MRS format and NotationPad offers JPEG. One would like to see MusicXML files added to this list; surely someone is working on a MusicXML reader which would permit scores from Finale, Sibelius, Notate and other notation software to be displayed without resorting to PDF files. To answer your question about notation software like Sibelius or Finale, save the scores as PDFs.

Page Turn and Navigation. All of the emusic readers let you tap the screen to advance the pages, some let you swipe your finger like turning a page. MusicReader permits keyboard page advance (e.g., from a laptop) and has a foot pedal option like the Freehand MusicPad. Visit their website for more details on this; also, see the article in our online Delicious links for some wireless music foot pedal options in development. This is a key factor, as Blat will note below, in using these for performance. Perusing the Navigation column in our table will reveal a variety of navigation options from GoTo menus, to page numbers, to bookmarks, to various navigation bars or timelines.

Viewing Pages. All of the solutions offer a full-page portrait view of the score. Some offer landscape, 2 page views (MusicReader and GoodReader). Medley provides a unique mode that allows you to tap the next page in advance and the new page begins to fill in from the top. All of the apps that I tried provided an exceptionally clear print quality and the scores were very readable. Some offer brightness control and changes in the manuscript paper background. Annotations. Most of the emusic apps provide some facility for highlighting or marking the scores (and erasing the marks). NotationPad’s one uniqueness is the ability to place music symbols on the electronic score page and save and print those edits.

Storage. For iPad apps the default method for adding scores (PDF files) is through iTunes on your computer when you sync up your iPad. Viewing the Storage column shows that there are many other options: pre-published scores (Musicnotes and eScore) accessed from the Internet, several will let you open an email attachment in the emusic reader, several will load PDF scores from the web DropBox or MobileMe iDisk service, other apps have a built-in web browser for downloading scores, and Scorecerer and GoodReader offer WiFi sync.

Other Features. A virtual metronome is built into forScore, MusicReader, and NotationPad; MusicReader also has a tuner.

What isn’t there? Is there anything missing from all these many features. Well, yes, at least two big omissions. First, only one, Muzibooks, to our knowledge, has audio playback with the scores. Second, none of the iPad emusic apps can be displayed on a projector, a critical need for use of an iPad in class or for presentations. The only app we found that will display PDF music scores is the generic PDF reader, GoodReader! This is due to how Apple designed the iPad operating system leaving it to developers to implement external display through the iPad VGA video adaptor within individual apps. It remains to be seen how the Android operating system will handle this on new tablet/ slate computers. Hopefully, more iPad app developers will add this feature.

How close do we come to Freehand’s MusicPad? How well do these less expensive alternatives for creating an emusic reader come to emulating the top of the line, custom MusicPad device? Squeak’s answer: Close, but not there yet! From personally working with several of the apps and reading all of the reviews, my choice for the moment is the generic GoodReader app. Reasons? Good navigation, fast page turning response, handles my larger music scores well, displays the scores on a projector, and only costs 99 cents. I will be watching, however, MusicReader and forScore as they continue to develop to see if the music features they offer convince me to switch. For the emusic reader with the best cross-platform capability, MusicReader stands out and may be closest to emulating the Freehand standalone solution. Now let’s weigh this against Blat’s study of some of the practical and musical issues.

Best regards, Squeak.


Dear Ottaviano, first off, let me congratulate you for this question. It certainly does not take musicians such as yourself long to think about new technology! Squeak has given you the run down on basic solutions for hardware and software for tablet or “pad” devices for reading music on the screen, but is this really a practical way to represent traditional notation for musical performance or for other musical uses in real life? I feel the short answer is “absolutely!” We will assume that one clear limitation—cost of the tablet—has been overcome by some creative grant writing or by some other solution.

Using Apple’s iPad dimensions as an example, the 6 x 7.5 inch viewing area might seem a bit small for reading music practically. For some scores and applications this may be so. I am not sure I would want to ask my esteemed orchestra director colleague at Northwestern to use the iPad on the podium for the next concert if the page of notation contains a full orchestral score. However, the choral director might find it acceptable. Certainly the singers in the choir might find using the iPad to read music during performance to be just fine. The iPad or other ebook devices would be ideal for this. We understand that our good friend Henry Panion at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is using his iPad for this purpose right now! In fact, here is what he said in response to an email request from Squeak:

“Yep it’s simply wonderful. At the time I was using GoodReader on the iPad, but since then there are a number of others. The beauty of GoodReader is that it allows for connection to one’s various servers right in the application. So, I have three [locations]: MobileMe’s iDisk, a DropBox account, and my university server (and literally music all over the “cloud” already in PDF format). Just connect, open up, save within GoodReader [or other programs from Squeak’s list]. The other thing I do often for my Gospel Choir concerts with national guest artists is the following: we create a dedicated website with links to MP3s of the artist’s original songs for the choirs and band to listen to, PDFs of vocal scores and/or instrumental arrangements and lead sheets, and lyric sheets. All I have to do is load up the webpage on the iPad and once I click on the PDF link, I’m prompted to either open it in iBooks, Pages, GoodReader. I simply choose.”

For a pianist on stage, page turning can be managed by a free hand. In the set of links on the Delicious page for this column, we have include a testimonial of how this works by a person who downloaded a score for his iPad. Other instrumentalists on stage might not have a free hand so a foot pedal as noted in Squeak’s answer above would serve as a great solution. Again, see our Delicious links for examples. One might think that the screen would be hard to read, but most report that the newer tablets and pads really have bright enough screens with excellent resolution and this should not be a problem. Most devices can easily fit onto music stands and they are heavy enough so that playing a concert outside with a bit of wind will not be a problem (and no more clothes pins to anchor down the music). Battery life is over 10 hours so, unless one is doing a marathon concert of the complete chamber works of Beethoven, this is not a problem.

“Writing” on the score is supported by solutions like the MusicReader and other apps in our comparison table. Students making notations on scores can do so freely knowing that all marks can be eliminated so a fresh score can be there for the next performance. One can also imagine the display device such as the iPad supporting metronomes, tuners, digital audio recorders, fingering charts, and other aids to music performance.

The music teaching possibilities for tablets and the iPad are emerging now and some are exciting. For example, displaying music for teaching purposes is possible for devices that can link to a projector. As noted above, however, the kinds of applications that can be used on the Apple iPad with a projector is limited but we hope this situation will improve soon.

Using the tablet or iPad as a kind of SmartBoard is possible, but limited in its function. If you can come to the pre-conference on music technology at the CMS meeting in Minneapolis you will see many of these solutions in action! Preparing handouts as PDFs that can be read and stored on your students’ devices will become standard practice in years to come. Pretty much anything that can be done with a recording device such as a hand-held digital recorder can be done on a tablet. Some tablet computers (not the iPad—yet) have cameras for recording video during a class or a lesson or for doing video live chats remotely with others. All of this can be done in tandem to displaying music notation. I am guessing that our friends at MakeMusic are working on an iPad app right now for SmartMusic for example (see the Delicious link for a forum discussion of this very topic!).

What about composition? Can I compose Finale or Sibelius files on tablet or iPads? Yes, if the tablet computer can run the original software, and no, if you have an iPad or other ebook device since such extensive notation programs have not been written for the operating systems of iPads and other ebook readers. Noteflight, being a web-based notation solution, might be a possibility with the Android tablets, but the iPad doesn’t run the Flash plugin needed. I am not sure I would want to recommend this for serious composition work regardless. There really is nothing that I have seen that would interest a serious acoustic composer that uses traditional notation, but who knows what the future will bring.

So, in sum, you can be assured that the future is quite bright for music notation reading and real musical engagement for these new devices as they continue to evolve. Your name sake from the 16th century would be mightily impressed.

Sincerely, Blat

For a pdf of Squeak and Blat's Comparison of iPad and Tablet eMusic Devices, as of July 25, 2010, please download the attachment below.

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