iPhone Music Notation Applications (Symphony vs. PocketScore)

With the release of the iPad, I realize that a full-blown music notation application for the iPhone is an unrealistic expectation.  The screen real estate itself is the limiting factor, more so than the OS or the touch screen format.  I still contend that SmartMusic would be wonderful on the iPad and the iPhone/iPod Touch, and I encourage MakeMusic! to strongly consider adapting the program for these devices.

That said, I was I was able to find two iPhone applications for music notation: Symphony and PocketScore.  Symphony is currently available for $4.99, and PocketScore sells for $1.99.  I contacted the developers for both applications, and each was willing to provide a promotional code to allow me to try their programs and to review them in this blog.  I want to note that Symphony is actively developing a Pro version for the iPad, which will differ from the iPhone version.

Before I proceed further, let me state that, at the moment, neither of these applications are a replacement for a traditional music notation package for a notebook or desktop computer.  As you look at music notation applications for the iPhone, keep in mind that you would be using these apps for other purposes than what you would use a notebook/desktop based notation program to accomplish.  More about that later.

Both applications (Symphony and PocketScore) open to an inital page, allowing you to create a new composition or to load an existing composition.    PocketScore gives you a list of options for your composition (clef, key signature, time signature, barlines, tempo, score information, and general setitings), as does Symphony (song info, key, and number of tracks).  Each program offers something the other does not: PocketScore gives you the ability to choose different clefs and time signatures; Symphony allows you to create more than one track.

Option Pages: Symphony and PocketScore

When you have created your blank file, both programs function in a similar fashion.  You enter notes by selecting the value of the note and then touching the screen (functioning much like Finale Notepad, albeit without a mouse).  In both programs, you work on one measure at a time, and once you have filled your allotted number of beats per measure, you can no longer enter additional notes and have to physically move to the next measure.  Both programs offer the ability to play back either the measure you are currently on, or the entire composition.

Main Editing Screen: Symphony & Pocket Score

Again, each program has its own strengths.  Symphony has better core “sounds” as you enter music and play it back, and you can also enter sharps and flats as necessary in your composition.  Symphony is a bit less accurate as you enter notes (even when using the zoom feature (pinching)), requiring the use of up and down arrow adjusters on the music entry screen on a regular basis.  PocketScore has a better looking interface, and is more accurate to use when entering notes.  However, there is a poor sounding synthesizer sound with playback, there is no way to create sharps or flats (a huge problem), you are limited to one staff, and zooming requires a button rather than Apple-like pinching.  Both programs struggle with some basic music notation rules (how many beats should be tied together), you can’t export to a image file or PDF, and the level of complexity you will achieve with a composition will be limited.

When you want to share your music, Symphony is based around the creation and opening of MIDI files; PocketScore is based on MusicXML files.  Both of these programs are still in development, and adding more features and flexibility with each update.  Therefore, Symphony is well served by the MIDI format, as advanced features (slurs, ties, text, etc.) are not yet available with the program.  However, MusicXML has greater potential for the future, as it will translate best to other programs (Finale, Sibelius, etc.).

So, in conclusion, both of these programs lack many items available on the most basic notebook/desktop music notation applications such as Finale Notepad.  Neither can replace that functionality.  So what good are these apps?

They are good for music education.

Yes, that’s right…they are good for music education.

The fourth of the National Standards of Music Education asks that all students be able to:

Compose and arrange music within specified guidelines.

I know from personal experience that most secondary music education programs are performance based, and that we spend little time working with skills such as sight-reading, dictation, and composition (You should hear my students complain about rhythmic and melodic dictation every Tuesday and Thursday!).  If your school has a lab of iPod Touches, or is purchasing a lab of iPads (at the moment, neither of these programs is released specifically for the iPad, but as previously mentioned, Symphony is working on it), these programs could be purchased to help your students compose simple melodies to specific guidelines…and to be able to see and hear their work as they complete their assignments (Yes, they can use staff paper just as easily, but there is no guarantee they will actually be able to play what they’ve written).  These programs could be successfully used in the elementary level as well.  In other words, PocketScore and Symphony could be used to fulfill the National Standards of Music Education.

As for myself, I can see myself using the programs–most likely PocketScore–on occasions my MacBook was not available to create rhythmic or melodic dictation exercises for my choir, which I would then export to Finale, and convert to a JPG image for a SMART Board presentation.

So which program wins?  Both.  If you need accidentals, multiple staves, and better playback sounds, purchase Symphony.  If you need different time signatures and a better looking interface with MusicXML functionality, purchase PocketScore.  I would call both of these programs a great start as the only options for true music notation in the AppStore.  Both of these apps will improve with time, and your purchase of these apps will hopefully give the developers the ability to continue to fund the development of their programs.  If Finale and Sibelius won’t step up to the plate for the iPhone OS platform, we’re going to need independent companies and developers to do so…and we need to support those efforts.

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