Digital Sheet Music: My First Steps

When I went to Europe this summer, I brought a fair amount of sheet music. While there, I was always worried that I didn’t bring the right book or that I didn’t bring enough books or – especially on the way back – that I’d brought too many books. In fact, I did bring back too many books since I accidentally snuck away my hosts’ Lohengrin score (sorry!).

As I look at my ever expanding library of sheet music, I realize that I do not want an enormous paper library. I’ve moved too many times, and I know what it is to pack everything up and lug it around. And even if I do own something, if it isn’t there with me when I need it, then it’s mostly useless.

In short, I would like to use digital sheet music.

So what to do?

Current Imperfections with Digital Sheet Music

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer. Currently, sheet music producers have made few inroads to digital sheet music production. Published digital sheet music is often reductions of pop songs, some musical theater and modern church music. There’s a smattering of classical music, but it’s hardly comprehensive. Some Chopin here, some Mozart there. The classical vocal music available is the most popular stuff but no full scores or song collections that I’ve found. 1

More troublesome, there’s no standard file for digital sheet music transmission. One application can open its own files but no other application can. It’s similar to the e-reader market in which each commercial file type is proprietary.

The most compatible file type is PDF, but PDF can’t change the way it flows from page to page. The reader program also can’t interpret the notes as notes since it’s often just a photo.

Another challenge is that sheet music is meant to be written on. Like an actor’s script, the sheet music serves as a palette to write performance cues and tips for the future. It’s often messy, but each performer has their own various needs. For a singer, it’s not uncommon to write large swaths of IPA. Flexible annotation is an absolute must.

My Technique: forScore on iPad

So here’s what I’ve done:

My preferred digital sheet music applicationI’ve installed forScore on my iPad. The company behind it does have a small digital sheet music store, but currently it’s too small for my purposes. Instead what I love about the application are the powerful PDF annotation abilities. It’s basically a tool for PDF annotation, but it has some other bells and whistles that make it ideal for digital sheet music reading in a way that GoodReader – another awesome PDF annotation tool – isn’t.

PDF files can be created yourself by scanning or by using Sibelius or Finale (please do not distribute them to others unless your have the rights), or they can be downloaded from public domain sites like IMSLP or university public collections.

I acknowledge that PDF is not perfect. The iPad has a large enough screen that I can make it work. However, I currently have excellent vision, and I can imagine a day in the future when I will want more flexible options for display. If you’re considering using an iPad for reading sheet music PDFs, then I suggest that you go to an Apple store and download sheet music from IMSLP onto one to see if it’s adequate for you.

Some Awesome forScore Things

These are a few of my favorite things in forScore.

One important capability is the ability to jump from one page to another without having to swipe pages over and over.

An example of a screen in forScore showing both the digital sheet music and a keyboard and a blue dot for a jump

Another is the variety and flexibility of annotation tools with the ability to create your own (the blue highlighter shown is my invention).

Digital sheet music in forScore with an array of writing tools to highlight and markup the score

And finally, there’s the built in metronome and keyboard.

Digital sheet music in forScore with the built in metronome over it

Most reassuringly, all of it can be backed up over the internet with very little fuss. That includes my annotations. When I once thought I’d lost an aria book, I lamented not the book itself but the annotations. I have no angst over this with ForScore.2

So? How’d it go?

For this gig I’m doing in Tucson, I used digital sheet music 95% of the time. They were emailed to me as PDFs, and I did some organization in the app. At first during rehearsals, I was nervous that it’d be clumsy and waste people’s time, but I got the hang of it. I bought a stylus, and I rarely thought that paper would be better. In fact, every time I highlighted too much in yellow, I was thankful that I wasn’t using paper because I could easily erase the mistake.

iPad Issues

There are a few problems with forScore, but the bigger issues are with the iPad itself. Upfront: the iPad is svelte, and the screen is gorgeous. iOS is fluid and all that. Battery life was never an issue.3

But Apple is determined to dictate how we should use their machines. It’s occasionally maddening. They really want to dissuade users from using handwriting, and handwriting on an iPad – even with a good stylus – looks worse than childish. Ever seen a Chick-fil-A ad where the cows write “eat mor chiken“? That’s what it looks like. But it’s not as nice.

Who wants a stylus? I do.4

For performers, handwriting is essential. Most aren’t going to stand there and type notes to ourselves in the margins. Since the iPad is regularly pitched as a creative tool, this seems like a logical capability to have.

And iPad’s document system is extraordinarily inflexible. Please just give us a central file manager.

A brave new world?

I’m hoping that over time, publishers will find a way to fulfill the need for greater electronic access to sheet music, and technology companies will create devices that offer the flexibility performers need. Organizations like NATS will also have to adapt since they can be strict about sheet music requirements at their auditions.

My wishes:

  • That I can buy a variety high quality digital sheet music including full opera scores (I am not for stealing sheet music).
  • That it can be easily annotated.
  • That it has reflow capabilities based on screen size and user preference. Transposition capabilities for song rep would also be divine.
  • That it’s in a file type that can be opened by different programs.
  • And I hope that the programs are cross platform compatible. I’m using this iPad now, but the inking capabilities in Windows 8 look pretty sweet (not to mention its useable filesystem). Plus I’m more willing to buy into a proprietary environment if I know that I can access the content on whatever I use (similar to Kindle).

That may be too much to wish for, but I’ll still wish it.1

I’d love to hear your wishes or techniques for using digital sheet music if you have them.


  1. The company closest to getting there that I’ve found is They have cross platform apps for reading, those apps accept other files formats, and their sheet music viewer for their library supports different versions of annotation. Their library just isn’t quite what I need (again: song collections and full opera scores), and the annotation flexibility isn’t even close to what forScore does. But I’m keeping an eye on their progress, and them being totally digital, I expect that they’ll be aggressive in this space.
  2. Of course, using an iPad in an active theatrical rehearsal environment has its own angst. The thing is expensive, after all, with a glass front. It works best in music rehearsals, but I made it work while staging. Just be careful to not have a big passionate moment and throw the thing on the ground. And if I lost it  I would lament more than the annotations.
  3. I did bring my cord to rehearsals, however. Just in case.
  4. I do realize that what Mr. Jobs was saying was that these machines should be usable even without a stylus. But handwriting still exists, and it will continue to exist, and that will require some extra tool. Handwriting with a finger tip is no fun, and the disdain apparent in that video doesn’t give me faith that they’ll ever reconsider their position on digital handwriting for iOS devices.


  1. says

    Hello Ian!
    A note on good quality digital sheet music:

    The prince of vocal sheet music, Glendower Jones of Classical Vocal Reprints, now has a digital sheet music branch of his store. It is:

    You can buy paper scores from him at:

    He knows everything. So if you’re looking for a rare score or a new score, chances are, he has it. Also, if you can’t find something on the site, give him a call and he might be able to help.


    • Ian Sidden says

      Good tip. Didn’t realize he had made PDFs available. But CVR music is good stuff, so I’ll check his site for future electronic purchases.