Music notation on non-PC devices

For the record, I count all “traditional” computing platforms, such as those based on Windows and Mac, as PCs, or “personal computers.”  Last week, I was fortunate to be able to review Symphony Pro, a music notation app for the iPad.  It is the first such application for the iPad, and it is a great start.

One of the blogs I enjoy reading is ViolaJack’s “Technology, Music, Life” Blog.  ViolaJack is a strong advocate for Tablet PCs, particularly those of the Windows variety.  She wrote a fantastic blog post about using Finale 2010 with a Windows Tablet PC, and I would direct you to that article.  If I summarize her post, it would say that Finale doesn’t work the greatest with an active digitizer, and that she had greater success by writing by hand in Windows Journal.

I’m going to freely admit that I’ve been a Finale user for many years (perhaps 20–I can’t remember the first version of Finale that I purchased, but I do know I was in college at the time).  I haven’t used Sibelius.  A few years ago, Sibelius offered a competitive upgrade to educators for $99, and I should have taken advantage of that offer, just to learn both platforms.  But overall, Finale has become more powerful over the years, while becoming easier to work with.  So I’ve never “needed” to look anywhere else for my music notation needs–until the iPad came along.

Still, Finale can be tricky to learn.  This year was the first time I’ve used the full version of Finale in my music theory class–and the end result was not favorable.  We switched from a block 4×4 schedule to a 6×3 schedule, losing nearly 30 minutes of class time each day.  In the past, I had used Finale Notepad in my theory class, which is easier to learn because there are far fewer options.  I was even able to create template files for more challenging assignments to help get students started.  The full version of Finale offers so many options that I was spending my time teaching students how to use Finale instead of how to understand music theory, so I abandoned the lab and went back to paper.  I’ve got a grant proposal submitted that would allow us to purchase fifteen iPads with software, and Symphony Pro will be on those iPads…it is far more intuitive that Finale, and thankfully more limited as well.

ViolaJack’s blog post focused on the use of Finale with an active digitizer and a resistive screen.  I’ve tried to use Finale on our SMART Board.  Just as with ViolaJack’s experience on a Tablet PC, working on a SMART Board with Finale was slow and frustrating.  Simple Note Entry in Finale needs a precise entry method (such as a mouse) along with the ability to cover the real estate of the screen quickly.  The SMART Board is accurate enough for note entry, but switching between tools on the large real estate of the board is not efficient.

We used the SMART Board a lot in music theory (all the time), but we drew notes by hand and used SMART’s embedded staff paper.

In other words, use of SMART Boards and Tablet PCs with Finale, and very likely, Sibelius, indicates that these programs are not optimized for such devices, and that notation by hand is the best way to go.  The software designers of Finale and Sibelius are likely aware of this situation (I would not call it a “shortcoming,” I would call it a “different focus.”).  As a result, a tablet-friendly, or even an interactive white board-friendly, notation program would require a complete a complete re-tooling of the traditional user interface used by these programs…and until tablets begin to replace the PC (this may happen), there is no immediate need for these companies to invest the capital needed to make a tablet-friendly version of those applications.

Looking at the future, though, if I were the CEO, I’d make the applications tablet-friendly.  And I’d do it for all the tablet platforms…including iOS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry, and Web OS (probably in that order).  It’s a great time to diversify.

And yet again, as a musician and a music educator, I’m very happy that we have Symphony Pro for the iPad.

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Posted on January 23, 2011, in Other Technology, SMART Boards. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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