Touch Notation by Kawai: A promising music handwriting app for iOS

News

touch-notationKawai has released a promising music handwriting app for iOS. It’s called Touch Notation, and it comes on the heels of the release of StaffPad and the announcement of NotateMe 3. Touch Notation has been available in Japan for several months, and the English version was released one week ago on April 16. It runs on both iPads and iPhones, and it’s being offered at an introductory price of $8 until the end of April, after which time the app will cost $12.

Kawai has made a six-minute video demonstrating the app’s features and methods of use:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0R8LKtOkAM]

Getting started

Now that there are several serious players in the music handwriting app space — an incredible development on its own — we can begin to compare them and their approaches to entering music on a touch-screen device using handwriting. On one end of the spectrum is NotateMe, which attempts to learn and adapt to your own style of handwriting. In the middle is StaffPad, which contextualizes one bar of handwritten music at a time, and, while having recommended writing styles, also allows its recognition engine to be tuned.

On the other end of the spectrum is Touch Notation, which probably should be more accurately termed a gesture-based music notation app. It is very specific in the ways that musical notes and symbols can be drawn, and in this way it is reminiscent of the Graffiti system used on Palm OS devices from nearly two decades ago. The gestures accurately resemble music notation, but there is no attempt to conform to the user’s style. As a result, the process is the least natural way of writing music of the three apps, because each gesture is immediately interpreted — you never see your own handwriting for very long at all.

Kawai understands this, and they have thankfully provided short videos for each and every type of gesture that Touch Notation recognizes. Users are well advised to review these videos before beginning to write music; each one is only several seconds long.

To that end, upon starting the app for the first time, a Quick Start guide is presented, which is also recommended reading to understand the basic operations of the app. More detailed in-app support documentation is also available, including the aforementioned gesture videos, organized by category.

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Once you’re ready to begin a score, you’re presented with a screen from which to choose the usual options of score title, tempo, key and time signatures, and either A4 or US Letter page size. You can choose from a number of pre-defined instrumentation templates. Interestingly, adding instruments is not controlled from this screen; however, you can add or delete instruments once you begin working in your score, and then save your score as a template.

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Working in the score

Once you start writing in notes, you’ll quickly want to know how to edit, move, or delete them. Touch Notation uses a few different options. NotateMe users will recognize the “lasso” method, where you can draw a circle around notes or objects to make a selection. You can also simply tap and hold an item to select it. Touch Notation turns selected items green, and then you can drag them up or down. Crosshairs appear at the origin of the selection, a blueish-grey box will indicate the destination bar, and the resulting notes will be indicated in blue.

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The familiar and self-explanatory Cut/Copy/Delete contextual menu also appears.

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Cleverly, to delete many items in the score you can simply draw an “X” on them, or, if you’re really passionate, you can scratch them out Beethoven-style.

Like StaffPad, you can overfill or underfill a bar and Touch Notation will let it be (however, Touch Notation won’t signal that’s it’s misfilled by coloring it for you like StaffPad will). This means that you can continue to edit your music by adding gestures. For instance, you can write in eight “quarter notes” in a bar of 4/4 and then beam them together so that they properly appear as eighth notes. Further, you can draw in secondary beams (Touch Notation will support up to 64th notes) and the app is quite good at recognizing these.

If you need to reverse a stem in order to prepare it to be beamed in a group, you can reverse its direction by simply drawing the stem outwards from the note in the direction you wish it to appear.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkUjWQN0_bo]

Impressively, this means you can create custom beam angles like this:

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Adding flags to stemmed quarter notes will turn them into unbeamed eighth notes, with successive flags for up to 64th notes. These must be drawn as Touch Notation requires: a curved flag will be easily recognized, but a straight flag will likely be misinterpreted as an additional note in the chord. If you have a series of unbeamed eighth notes, you can draw a beam across all of them to instantly turn the notes into a beamed group.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZkFowNaDvw]

As far as I could tell, the writing of accidentals has to be done after a note is entered; you can’t, for instance, write a flat first followed by the note to which it pertains. Touch Pad can recognize double-sharps and double-flats; the former is drawn by writing an “X” to the left of the notehead. A double-flat is written first by writing an ordinary flat, allowing the app to recognize and render it, and then writing another flat next to the rendered one.

Articulations like accents, staccatos, and tenutos are drawn in as you would expect. Augmentation dots are simple dot to the right of a note or rest.

Leger lines must be drawn quickly, or else they will disappear about half a second after you draw them. A more efficient method might be to forego writing leger lines entirely; you can just write the note in the area above or below the staff where you think it should appear, and Touch Notation will make its best guess as to what the note should be. If it’s incorrect, you can always tap and hold to drag it to its correct pitch.

Ties and slurs are recognized reasonably well, and Touch Notation does quite a good job of recognizing crescendo and diminuendo hairpins. Tapping and holding on any item with start and end points will select the item, turning it green in the ordinary way, along with handles which allow you to extend or retract the item.

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Rests were somewhat mixed. Quarter rests were fiendishly difficult for me to get the app to recognize, but eighth, half and whole rests were fairly easy.

Comments

  1. Gregory Winters

    What I find interesting about these ‘handwriting’ notation apps is that they are coded from the basis of the interface – they have to be. What this means is that the excuses we’ve been fed from the developers and pundits of the standard notation software as to the inconsistencies of the performance of their interfaces we’ve used is pure blarney. With the handwriting app approach, the logic begins with the user’s intent as communicated to the program in terms of the type and placement of a musical element. Next, the program translates that element into its digital counterpart. Lastly, the program ‘examines’ the element in terms of all of the rest of the elements already present on the screen.

    With the non-intuitive traditional notation software, however, everything is precisely backward. Although the user enters a musical element to start the process chain, instead of faithfully interpreting the entry, the programs instead force-fit the entry into a set of complex, pre-defined parameters all inter-relating with one another. The final rendering of the ‘digital counterpart,’ so to speak, is what the *program* wants it to be, not the user. Thus, the user is forced to do things the program’s way, and all one has to do is Google the major notation software players to observe the massive amount of dialog related to confusion and problems with using these programs.

    I’m rooting for the handwriting apps. I already own StaffPad and if it can get past the nuances of the stylus, then I plan on using it as my composition tool, then export to Sibelius for format and cleanup.

    The enthusiasm already generated for this technology speaks for itself.

    1. Jared

      I see this same problem happening in a lot of industries. Consider education now where we teach kids only what’s on the Common Core tests to appease the scan-tron reading robots. Same with a lot of online businesses that worry about courting favor with an algorithm instead of concerning themselves with their user’s experience. It’s an interesting philosophical problem where the key desired outcome is shifted out of the hands of who matter and into inflexible robot rules, whether that’s because of some reward, or as Gregory is talking about here, the parameters and constrictions of the system. Kawai didn’t fall for the trap, because who buys your software in the end? Not robots.

      1. Gregory Winters

        Jared:

        All well and good, but it takes time and strong will on the part of software manufacturers to not give in to the cacophonous clamor for features. You can see that even in this small blog there’s already the assumption that the application should perform advanced tasks right out of the gate, and this is the kind of thing that ends up driving architecture into the weeds.

        Yes, we’d all like to see these esoteric elements included in the application eventually, but I believe that it’s important to make sure that the basics are covered first: pitch, duration, articulation, meter & key, etc. I had to quit using an application that could work with retrograde staves, but couldn’t understand staccato.

    2. Alex

      Maybe it’s correct if person doesn’t have any idea and knowledge how to use traditional notation apps.

      Personally for me traditional Sibelius is still much more preferable. There is one important thing here: I hear a lot of feedbacks from users of various handwriting apps (including StaffPad or Toucn Notation etc.), that you have to be precise. Even with stylus. Otherwise you will get wrong notes etc. And I’ve read a lot of complaints about such applications (including StaffPad, Toucn Notation and so on), that users use many attempts to get right results. And here I see two drawbacks: 1) It is not fast, and it is irritating. Thus work is not effective. 2) Maybe even more important for me: Ergonomics. Working with stylus your eyes will strain much more, because you have to watch screen every moment, and you have to be precise with stylus. While working with traditional Sibelius or Finale, using keyboard, you don’t even need to watch monitor all the time, and you don’t need to be precise. And this fact gives more freedom and makes work more effective. So, I won’t change traditional notation software for any handwriting tools, which looks cool and effective only on promotional videos. I’ve also seen video from Philip Rothman, who was showing StaffPad. And I noticed how slower the process, than I can perform in traditional Sibelius.

  2. Fraser sims

    Im using a boxwave stylus (with a sort of soft rubber baloon tip) and it works quite nicely with this app, though only doing simple melody. I have downloaded the free version to try it and you get the full score ability with cut down save functionality, compared to notatemenow where you only get a single stave ( which is fine for simple melodies). Not sure which i prefer yet.

  3. Bob Zawalich

    I agree that there is much to be said for simplifying what needs to be input.

    It is fun to have so many sophisticated pen-input applications show up at about the same time. Maybe something to do with the alignment of the planets?

  4. Paolo

    Gesture writing seems fine, as far as it are intuitive (and in this case it is). It is also a form of shorthand, that can speed music entering. I would call “music handwriting 2.0”, or any number you like.

    Paolo

  5. Paolo

    Comment: The app is very nice and promising. They did a great work, and the first version is already impressive.

    There are a few things that I would really see implemented soon:

    – Linear/panorama/Stravinskian note entering (not in page, since page layout will be then refined in Sibelius/Finale or the like, and entering notes in a linear fashion is much more comfortable).

    – Appoggiatura/acciaccatura, single and beamed (very important in many styles of music, in particular avant-garde music).

    – Annotations/handwritten marks attached to the notes, and not to the position in page.

    I would hardly need anything else. I wrote Kawai these suggestions but they do not allow more than 140 characters in a comment, so I doube I could explain my view.

    Paolo

  6. Miquel

    Hi Philip,

    I don’t know if this is the right place for such a question, but you seem to know the app well.

    I cannot find the option to create a score template anywhere in the app. Where is it?

    Thank you very much in advance,

    Miquel

    1. Wayne

      Just started to look at this app now, am very impressed. I believe to save as a template you just export it as template instead of pdf etc.

  7. Alex

    So, how the situation now? This article was written when iPad Pro 12.9″ with Apple Pencil even haven’t been announced. iPad Pro 12.9″ is a big game-changer. What news? I don’t see this app develops intensively. I still don’t see any iOS app comparable to StaffPad. What’s wrong with this?

  8. Daniel

    Hi
    I have used Touch Notation for some weeks.
    But I could not figure out how to add or delete an entire measure (not thr notes in the measure but the measure itself). The user manual just says “use the add measure or delete measure function”.
    But where are these functions to be found ?
    Thanks for any help.

  9. Irini

    Hi
    I need help because I can’t add lyrics …
    Could you please help me with this?
    Thank you in advance

  10. R. Li

    i fear to upgrade my ipad ios version, could touchNotation run on the latest ipad ios version?

  11. Jonathan

    128th note

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