iPad App Showdown: Music Reader vs. ForScore

The iPad has only been out a few weeks, but there are already a handful of music reader apps available for the device. Most of the music readers offer a warning, mentioning that the iPad’s screen is smaller than a normal sheet of music; for those of us in the choral world, the iPad’s screen is nearly exactly the same size as an octavo.

Two of the available sheet music readers are Music Reader, which is a free app, but the program to create files for the free app is available starting at $60. Another app is ForScore, which is available for $2.99. Both of the readers can be used in portrait or landscape mode, both offer the ability to add notation and markings to the score, and overall, they function in similar ways.

Music Reader (the core program is available at musicreader.net) has been around for some time for PC and Mac, and was a competitor to Freehand System’s Music Pad Pro. My take on the company was that you could buy your own tablet PC, or separate monitor, and use their program to have digital sheet music, without buying Freehand’s proprietary hardware (which had one purpose, as a digital music reader). Compared to the price of Freehand’s $900 Music Pad Pro, Music Reader was a tremendous bargain if you already owned a Tablet PC or could use a free standing LCD Computer Monitor.

There are several features that Music Reader has going for it. First of all, it is a free app, so if you’ve made the purchase of the software already (there is a free trial period), there is no additional cost for the user. It also features a tool bar with a few more options than ForScore, including a highlighter, the ability to write directly on the Music Reader score (instead of on an overlay), multiple colors for annotation, and the ability to create playlists (something that gigging musicians want and need. Using the Music Reader software, you can preprogram page turns (D.C., D.S., and Coda Markings), and page turns are very fast. Scores are imported through a IP connection between the desktop computer and the Music Reader app (while both are running).  I like how you can see each page number (in context of the overall score) no matter what page you are on.

There are things to be aware of with Music Reader. The icons and interface doesn’t have the graphic polish that Apple aficionados are accustomed to. The image of scores seems to be of slightly lower quality than equivalent scores seen on ForScore. And of course, there is the issue of price, $60 for the basic desktop version of the software (required) versus the $3 cost of the ForScore app. I had one technical glitch–the last page of the sample file I used to compare the two programs was stretched out on the screen.  I also don’t know what the colored bar at the bottom of the screen indicates.

ForScore requires no external application to create files, as all files are PDF files. Ultimately, the quality of the image is due to the quality of the PDF that is used, and if PDF files are restricted, ForScore may not be able to use those files. The creators of ForScore are trying to keep the interface as simple as possible. At the current time, all personal files appear in a drop down menu labeled “My Files.” Pages are turned by swiping left or right, normal page turns are pre-loaded to allow for faster turning. You can also turn pages by tapping at the bottom corners of the screen, a very small target. A single tap anywhere on the page brings up the main menu options for the program (ability to jump ahead or behind in the score, pull up another song, turn on the metronome, or turn off animations). A tap and hold pulls up the editing menu, where you can write notes or comments. Files are added to ForScore by dragging them to iTunes when the iPad is connected to the computer. As far as I can tell, there is no way to bring an annotated ForScore PDF out of the program with annotations still intact. And the image quality of the scores are excellent, provided that the original PDF is excellent.

The big knock against ForScore is that it’s a PDF reader with a metronome and the ability to write on the PDF. I don’t feel that way, but some do, and it should be acknowledged. ForScore is still missing the ability to make playlists, multiple colors for annotation, and a highlighter feature. Page turns are slower, particularly if you choose to go past the next page, or to a page previously visited in your score (for a D.C. or D.S. marking, for instance). I’ve found the bottom corners of the page to be too small of a target when trying to turn pages. I accidentally bring up the standard ForScore menu (single tap anywhere on the page except the bottom corners).  I would like to be able to see the relative position of the page I’m on in the context of the whole score at all times, as well as to have the page selection menu on the bottom of each scree (or to have the ability to toggle these features on and off) It would be nice to be able to import a file through a program like Bump or Mover+, and it would be nice to be able to export it to others, with added notations intact (or even as an option). And I’d like to be able to archive my files with annotation for future use. It might be nice to have a way to blow up a section to make better notations (hand written notes), or to be able to type into a score as well. Page turning (speed of page turns) will only improve in time. With PDFs, I’ve noticed that the smaller the PDF (e.g. a Finale-created PDF), the faster the pages turn. With a larger PDF (scanned choral octavo with 16 pages), the slower the page turns.

For me, and I speak for myself, ForScore is the clear winner. The company has already pushed out two update since the program was released, adding functionality and stability each time. The makers of ForScore have been open to feedback and suggestions, and my only fear is that they are charging too little for the app. If I had previously been a Music Reader owner, I would be very happy that Music Reader is offering a free iPad app for its program. But as an educator, I want to avoid having to go through extra steps to make technology work. With ForScore, I do have to create PDFs…easy to do on our Ricoh copiers at school (and computers can create PDFs very easily from programs like Finale or Sibelius). With Music Reader, I am forced to use an external program (beyond iTunes) as an intermediary between the score and the Music Reader application for the iPad. And I also know that a PDF that I create can be shared with any other reader, should the need arise (such as Music Reader or the Music Pad Pro), and it isn’t a proprietary format. In very little time, ForScore will have all the features of Music Reader, and it will continue to use PDFs and the cost will still be lower than Music Reader for the desktop.

As always, it is up to you, the reader, to decide how to proceed. You can try the Music Reader approach for free (free trial). ForScore will (at the time of writing) cost you $2.99.

Some screen shots follow from the two programs. The song used for the sample is an arrangement of a tune written by an English teacher at our school, which I’ve arranged for the Spring Concert of our choir this year. I could have used a scanned piece of music, but I chose a Finale-generated PDF.

Extra Tip:
To scan a choral score for ForScore: enlarge by 105% on a copier.
Scan each page at 600 dpi, black and white line art
You can use lower resolution, resulting in smaller files, but should you turn the iPad to landscape format, you will really see the lower quality of the images.


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