Sheet Music Readers for the iPad – Thoughts in February 2011

There are two sheet music readers for the iPad that I recommend consistently beyond all others–UnrealBook and ForScore.  If you do a search of this blog, I’ve written about these programs many times over.  There have been a number of additional music readers created for the iPad, but as a music educator, I can’t recommend them.

The first two qualities of a music reader app that are non-negotiable for me are additional required purchases and annotation.  If a music educator uses a music reader on their iPad, and their students have iPads, it goes to figure that the students will eventually have that same music reader on their iPads.  If a program requires a purchased desktop/notebook version to interact with the music reader, that is a non-starter for me.  With a PDF-based music reader, a teacher often has the tools at hand to make their own scores without any additional purchase.

Second, if a teacher or student cannot add annotation to their music, they will continue to make errors.  Didn’t your music teachers require you to use a pencil?  Didn’t you use it?  And if you didn’t…you know you should have.  Having a music reader without annotation is–in my very biased opinion–a grave mistake for the student, teacher, amateur, or professional musician.

Undoubtedly, there are apps that do better jobs of arranging and storing PDF files within the app than UnrealBook and ForScore…but that is an issue that UnrealBook and ForScore will have to work out for themselves.  As a teacher, as long as I can make set lists of the music I’m currently working on in my five choirs, I can live with that.

In my opinion, I still recommend UnrealBook as my top choice for music education.  I don’t want to discuss all the features of either of these apps, but with Unrealbook I particularly appreciate:

  • Annotation.  I love that I can click once or twice and be editing a score.  I also enjoy writing on a score that isn’t washed out (ForScore does this), particularly when showing the app on a screen to a class, teaching them how to make markings in their music.  I love the ability to set my favorite three tools to quickly access when marking music.  Zooming also works incredibly well with UnrealBook.
  • Music Playback: I love that all the tracks loaded on my iPad are accessible through the app.  I can link a file if I want to, but I can play anything.
  • DropBox Support.  Downloading files with ForScore is painful.
  • Set Lists.  They are easier to get to and easier to manage and navigate than ForScore.
  • Pitch Pipe.  This was a request I made because I’m a choral music educator.  I’m glad it is there.
  • Playback Controls of Linked Audio File. When an audio file is linked, it is located in the menu bar, accessible but out of the way.
  • Bluetooth Capabilities.  I don’t have a second iPad, but if I did, I would use these items a lot.
  • Exporting Features. Many ways to share music when I need to share music.
  • Customer Service. Whenever I have an issue, the developer is quick to respond or even to patch a problem–more than any other app developer I’ve worked with, and I’ve probably been in communication with more than one hundred app developers over the past three years.  As any Apple owner would know, customer service is priceless.

At this point, you might ask, “Why in the world do you recommend people purchase both UnrealBook and ForScore, if UnrealBook is so great?”  First, the apps are both so good that they deserve to be purchased at their modest cost ($4.99 each).  Second, each program approaches music reading differently.  Here’s what I like about ForScore:

  • Graphic Design: ForScore is simply a beautiful app.  Graphically, UnrealBook is more like my Ford Explorer.  It really works, it is reliable, and it gets me from Point A to Point B.  In the same analogy, ForScore is like a Lexus SUV.  It’s just more aesthetically pleasing.  I love my Explorer and will drive it until it dies, and would never buy a Lexus.  But if someone sold me one for $4.99, it would be in my driveway, too.
  • Annotation: I really dislike how you select annotation with ForScore (tap and hold) as well as the faded-out background while you notate, particularly if you are teaching (On a LCD projector, the notes disappear).  When I’m teaching, I want to get to annotating as quickly as possible, which is faster or at least more controlled by tapping rather than tapping and holding.  Although the time difference probably isn’t huge, it feels like forever. You can also access notation from the drop-down menu, but as a music educator, you want to notate and run–tap and search and tap, and tap and hold take too long.  I do like that you can change from page to page while in annotation mode (the document saves changes as you go from page to page), and there are some nice musical “stamps” (you can even create your own) to make changes appear professional (flats, sharps, bowings, etc).
  • Metadata: Although working with the song menus is frustrating (the buttons seem to be small, which is crazy, because they are probably the same size as any other iOS button), it is nice to be able to enter sortable metadata for PDF files, either within ForScore or by using ForScore’s desktop metadata program.
  • Music Playback: The large playback box, which disappears, can be frustrating, as you have to clear it before being able to turn a page…but it looks terrific (part of that Audi analogy).  However…you can only link to one track per song…if you want to play any other music, you’re out of luck.
  • Bad PDF Functionality: There are some PDFs which are huge, or just “difficult.”  ForScore seems to be able to handle those large (particularly those of large original dpi) or “difficult” files [PDFs that just don’t cooperate] better than UnrealBook.  With UnrealBook, I usually have to go back and resave the “difficult” file with Mac’s standard Preview.  ForScore can handle difficult PDFs better for some unknown reason–you would expect that both programs share the same APIs from Apple regarding PDFs.
  • Navigation Within a Score.  ForScore has a drag-able bar across the bottom of the screen which advances you through a score with thumbnails.  This feature is very effective.
  • Hotspot Creation.  With ForScore, you graphically place hotspots on pages, with distinct starting and ending points.  UnrealBook had hotspots first, and they work…but for placing hotspots, it is so much nicer to be able to see where you’re putting them.  When you jump back, the jump “flashes” to let you know where you landed…however, by the time it flashes, in my experience, we’re already far beyond where we jumped to.  So it is much nicer to place hotspots in ForScore, but in actual performance it doesn’t quite work like it should.
  • A Second Option.  UnrealBook is clearly my first choice, as it fits my needs in music education better.  However, there are times when you need a backup.  For example, if you come across a “difficult” PDF in UnreaBook, you can use ForScore with that file until you can fix the “difficult” file.  As another example, when iOS 4.2 was released, UnrealBook had some early flaws with the new version of the OS that were quickly dealt with.  I was able to use ForScore in the short time while UnrealBook was being fixed.  It’s always nice to have a backup plan.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I can see the future with music readers.  I’m not sure we’ll be seeing iPad XL models, although I would love that.  The iPad is almost big enough to be a paper replacement.  On the other hand, a tablet shines when it is allowed to be a tablet, and not a replacement for anything else.  If music can freely re-flow as required on a screen (for eyesight or other purposes) with the use of a bluetooth foot pedal (thank you, AirTurn), there is no debate about the usability of any tablet (even a 7″ tablet) for music performance.  So, the future is for iPad programs that read a separate file that free-flows music as requested on their screen, rather than using a static PDF image replacement.  But that’s the future.  This is now, while we all still think in terms of paper.

The good news?  UnrealBook and ForScore continue to be updated.  New features will be added, new iPads will only make the programs faster, and there may even be new competition in the field which add the same functionality as these programs.  I’m just happy that I have both of them as options to use in my daily life.  Again: I recommend that any music teacher buy both…there’s nothing to lose in doing so and a lot to gain.  It’s $10 well spent.


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