July 2023

Reading Music From a Tablet

by Ellis Hillinger and Lyz Lidell

Tablets are becoming more and more commonplace in our ensembles and recorder orchestras. Are you considering this dive into alternative music-reading? Tablets can offer an easy way to keep your entire library at your fingertips and free you from lugging around books of music, fussing with binders and folders, or getting pages out of order. Since the technology can appear intimidating, we’ll walk through what you’ll need and how to get it set up.  

The Tablet

There are lots of tablets out there. You’ll need one with a screen big enough to read music from. Unfortunately, this means Kindles, smart phones, and the iPad mini are too small to be practical. The “luxury” model for music reading is likely a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. A 10-inch iPad, Amazon Fire, Samsung Galaxy, or other Android tablet will also work just fine. These are usually more affordable and available in a variety of sizes, You might also consider a dual screen device like the (expensive) PadMu Lumi. Or you can use a Windows Surface or a Chromebook—a laptop computer that “bends” to become tablet-like.

Since you’ll be carrying your tablet around with you, we strongly recommend a screen protector and/or case to protect your device. And make sure your portable music stand is strong enough to hold the tablet without collapsing. 

Sheet Music Apps

Most tablets have a built-in PDF reading application, though both Ellis and Lyz strongly recommend using an app built for sheet music for better results.

If you have an iPad, the best app out there is forScore. You can download the app for $19.99 via the App Store. If you’re on an Android or Windows device, the $12.99 Zubersoft MobileSheets/MobileSheetsPro is the best sheet music app for you. You can get it through Google Play or the Microsoft Windows app store. There are many other sheet music apps: alternatives to forScore include Paperless Music;  alternatives for MobileSheets include Orpheus. If you have a combination of Apple, Windows, and Android products and want to keep your music in sync across all these different devices, Music Reader offers a product that will accomplish this. Many apps offer free trials so you can try out the features of the app before committing to it and thus find one that works best for you! 

Adding a Page-Turning Device

Since your tablet probably displays only one page or two (if you turn it sideways), you’ll need to turn pages often—but this is easy to do via a page-turning device. Most of these devices are foot pedals that connect wirelessly to your tablet using Bluetooth technology. They have two pedals—one to go forward, and one to go back. Page turners cost between $40 and $140 depending on what features you’d like.

The PageFlip Butterfly is a popular mid-range model compatible with most devices and apps. A page-turner is optional, as you can also just tap or swipe your tablet to turn pages. You can also set these systems to automatically turn the page if you can guess when that should be. Note: Using a foot-pedal page turner is very easy when playing with woodwinds and a smaller viol, but a bass viol, a bass recorder that rests on your foot, or other setups that require your feet to stay put can make a foot pedal challenging. You might “test drive” the idea of a foot pedal using a doorstop, a small trivet, or a similar object to see if you can move your foot while playing before making the investment in a foot-pedal page turner. If that doesn’t work for you, there are also push-button or “clicker” style page-turners available. 

Making Notes on Your Music

We all need to mark up our music: bring this part out, don’t forget that accidental or note an alternate fingering. A high-quality stylus lets you write on your page, just like paper music. Some apps even turn your scribbles into typed text! The Apple Pencil is the obvious option for an iPad. Windows users can look for a Surface Pen, and Android users might want an S Pen. These styluses are very accurate and multifunctional, but they are not inexpensive, running between $70-$100. You can use less specialized (and cheaper) styluses, or even your finger, if you’re not terribly picky about your handwriting. You can also explore using your tablet’s keyboard to make notes. 

Getting Music on to Your Tablet

For some players, a dedicated tablet for music allows them to have their entire music library available. For others, music assigned to folders according to the ensembles they are part of or the concerts they are preparing for can keep things simple. Give some thought to how much music you want on your tablet and how you want to label it.

There are three main ways to set up music on your tablet. If it is already in PDF form and available on your tablet (such as the parts mailed out for chapter meetings), you can open that PDF using your tablet in your app of choice. This is the best way to open a single piece of music, but it can be tedious if you’re adding lots of pieces at once. If you have printed music you’d like to add to your tablet right away, many apps (including both forScore and MobileSheets) let you use the tablet’s camera to scan music directly into the app. If you have lots of pieces of music already in PDF form you can use a cloud-sharing service like Dropbox, Box.com, OneDrive, or iCloud to store your music and access it from within your tablet’s app.

For large quantities of printed music, we recommend you use a scanner and then import the PDFs thus generated. Remember you need to legally obtain music to display on your tablet. 

Organizing Your Music

First, you’ll do best if you start out with a good naming scheme for your music files. Both apps let you search your library, but this won’t work if your files are named “IMSLP154815-WIMA.1cfc0860.pdf”. Name your files carefully when you import them into your library—both Ellis and Lyz name files with composer name and title (e.g., “Caldini Christe Eleison.pdf”), and that usually lets us search for and find what we need easily.

Applications let you add tags and other information to make things easier to find, such as a field for Solo, Duet, Trio, or Quartet. Using this feature lets you find music for the combination of people who showed up for the current session. Both apps also let you create set lists, which work like a playlist in your favorite music app. We’ve created quite a few set lists for various instruments, performance groups, workshops, and so forth. You can add pieces to one or more set lists and organize them within that set list for easy access. 

Settings and options

These apps are powerful, and the best way to figure out what settings are right for you is to hop into the settings menu and play around. We’ve found the following features to be the most helpful: 

Portrait layout: Lyz uses a page-sized tablet oriented like a single page so that the notes are bigger, rather than a landscape orientation that shows either a half-page or two small pages at once. Ellis opted for a larger screen to make it easier to read two pages in landscape mode.

Half-page turns: With this setting activated in portrait layout, one tap or pedal-step turns the top half of the page to the following page so you can see where you are and where you’re going. A second tap/step turns the bottom half of the page so you can see the one whole page.

Disable Auto-Lock: This option means your tablet won’t turn itself off due to “inactivity” while you’re playing. Many apps come with this as the default setting, but if your tablet goes dark on you while playing, look for this option.

Playing from scores: Since turning pages is so easy, Lyz almost always plays consort music from scores rather than parts—this lets you see what else is going on and find your way back into the piece if you get lost. Ellis prefers individual parts because they are easier to read (and often have larger notes, accidentals, etc.). When performing from a score, we like to highlight the line we are playing. It’s easy to change the line highlighted if we switch to a different part. 

Backing up your music

As with any technology, you’ll want to back up the music stored on your tablet. Almost every app we’ve mentioned has its own backup options (and instructions for using them), but the topic of backing up your music is beyond the scope of what we can provide here. 

What If…?

The biggest fear we all have about using technology is “What if something goes wrong?” While we can’t promise nothing will go wrong, we hope we can ease your concerns a bit. After five years of playing from a tablet, three of those as a professional performer, Lyz has had exactly two crashes (one because the group was playing in the sun on a hot day and the iPad overheated) and now trusts the iPad implicitly. We’ve also seen dozens of professional musicians who confidently rely on tablets.

But like any new widget, you will want to take the time to get comfortable with your tablet before you put it into a high-pressure situation. Use the tablet in your practice room while you get comfortable using your foot pedal to turn pages forward—and backward! Mess with your settings until you have a setup you like. Take the time to organize your music into set lists, copy pages if needed for repeated sections, and maybe even make notes about when to turn the page.

Charge your tablet and your foot pedal (or carry extra batteries, if yours is battery-powered). You’ll also want to practice good “tech hygiene.” Keep your device and apps up to date. Restart your device from time to time—especially before a workshop or a performance—and turn off notifications and unused apps while you’re playing.

If you’re still worried, you can always carry printed copies as a backup—though you might be surprised when realizing you don’t use them!

Both forScore and MobileSheets have online resources that can help you establish your favorite settings, find accessories, and make the most of your tablet-enabled music! 

Ellis Hillinger and Lyz Lidell are experienced recorder players and members of the Seattle Recorder Society. Lyz (Apple iPad user) and Ellis (Windows, Android and Chromebook user) contributed this thorough overview about how to use a tablet for reading sheet music for their local chapter’s newsletter. Some of the technology may have advanced since then.

For another ARS NOVA article on using a tablet, see the issue from May 2017.

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