The Case for Digital Sheet Music
Do you have a nostalgic devotion to your stacks of coffee-stained, curled, yellowed and smudged sheet music? Are you convinced that the scent of mildew it exudes somehow contains magic that makes you a better musician? Let me posit something that will revolutionize your world, if you let it:
Becoming a paperless musician will lead to faster, more effective learning and performance of music. It is physically more convenient, and will actually give you and your students the tools to become vastly better musicians. To boot, it is a great way to be more environmentally friendly.
Ok, just in case I didn’t convince you why you need to join the digital sheet-music revolution, here’s more.
What the heck is a pixel?
For my musician friends who are still dragging their consciousness (and their sheet music) out of the last century (or even the 1800s), pixels are the smallest dots on a computer screen used to make images and words. With today’s amazing display technologies, such as the “retina display” for the new iPad and MacBook Pro, these pixels are so small they make the experience of reading sheet music on a computer screen incredibly vibrant and – many might argue – better than reading on physical paper. Of course, there’s no arguing how much easier it is to read a digital screen in low light than a piece of paper music under an anemic, underpowered stand light!
Those 10 Reasons to use Digital Sheet Music
Cutting-edge display technologies aside, here are 10 additional reasons why using computers to read music is better than paper:
1. Eliminate bulk
A single 1.2-pound, 16-gig iPad (the smallest and cheapest model available) can hold the equivalent of 60,000 pages of paper. That’s comes out to 600 pounds of physical paper! Next time you lug around your heavy binders and gig books, I promise that your aching muscles will remember that fact (I’ll give you the names of my massage therapist and chiropractor).
2. Never lose music
Classical composers wrote works that ranged in length from 1-2 page miniatures to massive symphonies filling hundreds of pages. If we average each work of a classical composer to be 20 pages each, a single 16-gigabyte iPad would contain all the compositions of Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, with room to spare. Imagine, all that genius in an approximately 9.5×7.5x.37-inch tablet! With that kind of storage, it becomes easy to simply carry your entire music library with you wherever you go, and never worry about misplacing your music or remembering to bring a part.
3. Find music instantly
I used to have these huge wall units to house my paper sheet-music collection, with all the works catalogued in boxes alphabetized by composer. Even then, it would take a considerable investment in time and effort to find all the pieces I needed for the day’s rehearsals, lessons and performances. By the end of the school year, I’d have to search through a ridiculous mountain of music stacked on top of my piano.
A friend of mine watched a phenomenal jazz set come to a screeching halt as the drummer scrambled for five minutes through a stack of sheet music the size of a New York City phone book looking for the next number. With digital music, you just type a few keystrokes and, voilà, instantly there’s any piece in your collection you need. We’ll talk more later about ways to organize your digital collection. You can pull up all your works by the name of a song, the composer name, or even the key signature, tempo, genre/style, and other descriptions practically before everyone else is done wetting their finger.
4. Make automatic set lists
Ever have your set list (that list of the songs or pieces to be performed in order at a gig or concert) blow away in a strong breeze? Or spill your drink on it, making it read like recently unearthed hieroglyphics? That’s so yesterday. Now, rather than having to shuffle books or physically re-order pages in a binder, you can easily search and select your set list songs on your digital device, change their order on the fly, and have the songs appear automatically in order during the show as if they were part of a single book. All you need is a digital music-reading app.
5. Transpose music instantly
One of my biggest fears as an accompanist was to have the singer I was working with come down with a cold and ask to transpose down a couple of keys right on the spot. With certain types of music (text-based lyrics and chord charts) and reading apps designed around dynamic music notation (Sibelius, Finale, etc.), changing keys on the fly is as simple as a few taps on the screen. You’ll come off a genius.
6. Mark up your music with rainbow colors
Brain scientists point out that the use of bright, contrasting colors contributes to faster learning and better memory retention. Digital music makes it easy to add brightly colored “ink” and transparent highlights to your music. And it can be easily erased. Ready to throw out your collection of color sharpies, White-Out, and lead pencils with worn-out erasers.
7. Eliminate blind spots
If you are reading music that requires at least one page turn, you have a “blind spot” – you can’t see what comes next until you turn the page. With certain apps, you can set up the page turns so that the screen shows the bottom half of the previous page and the top half of the next page, creating a continuous “look-ahead” view. How much better would that be for learning music, and keeping a smooth sense of flow and phrasing?
8. Enlarge your music
Have the wrinkles around your eyes become as deep as desert arroyos from squinting at your sheet music under a low-wattage light? When your music is in a digital format, your view of the music is only limited by the size of your screen and the application used to display it. Some programs even give you the option to see zoomed views of your music half a page at a time (this works particularly well for screens that are horizontal, such as laptops or desktop monitors). Other apps can work with music that has been digitally cropped to show even larger views of your music – as little as one or two measures at a time. Text-based music readers give you the option to change font size and properties. Sound like a godsend, Mr. Magoo?
9. Turn everyone else’s pages
With the iPad, there are several apps that enable a master iPad to control any number of slave iPads, so that the master can open the same song on every slave, and in some cases even turn pages for everyone. Talk about keeping everyone on the same page! Talk about power! Just think of how you could mess with their heads!
10. Turn pages hands free
Ever wish you had a third hand? If you use both hands to play an instrument, you have – for all intents and purposes – a disability when it comes to turning pages. With digital sheet music, not only do you have a wide variety of software options for viewing and working with your music, but you can get hardware for turning your pages hands free, either with wireless digital page-turning pedals, or even other controllers such as bite and tongue switches – rather like eating the score! Now you can keep your hands on your instrument and your focus on the music.
For a great tool to discover what you can do with digital sheet music apps, visit the Airturn App Guide.
For page turning controllers and containers for turning tablets and laptops into music stands, visit Airturn Store.
Guest Post: Hugh Sung has been an advocate for utilizing cutting-edge technologies to enhance the artistry of the classical musician. He developed a customized database to create a paperless office for his administrative work and in 2002, shortly after the first Tablet PC’s were introduced by Microsoft to the public, he adapted an early model for use as a digital music score reader with a foot pedal-activated page turning system.