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

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Navigation and the Circle Controls

It should be mentioned that I tested Touch Notation on an iPad Air 2 with 128 GB of storage. I used an Adonit Jot Pro capacitive stylus to write on the screen. The experience was acceptable, but it’s nowhere near the smoothness, fluidity and flexibility offered by StaffPad on the Surface Pro 3 with the Surface Pen. For all of the iOS’s advantages, it was not designed for touch-and-pen operation. “Yecch…nobody wants a stylus,” Steve Jobs famously once said, but one could easily say, “yecch, nobody wants to write music with their finger.”

The Adonit Jot Pro Stylus
The Adonit Jot Pro Stylus

Kawai has admirably tried to design around this. Most notable in its efforts is the wrist guard, which is a grey overlay on the bottom right area of the screen that can be resized as needed. As you’d expect, it allows you to place your wrist comfortably on the screen without the app falsely detecting it as input. Of course, there is no need for this in the Surface Pro and some Android devices, which have palm rejection built into the hardware’s pen-and-touch technology. iOS don’t have that option available to them, so at least Touch Notation’s solution is much better than having to keep your hand perched unnaturally above the screen. The wrist guard is also available in a left-handed version via a toggle option in the app’s settings.

Circle controls, navigation view, wrist guard, and playback controls in the Touch Notation app
Circle controls, navigation view, wrist guard, and playback controls in the Touch Notation app

The wrist guard is one of several options in the green “Circle Control” icon; the others included the help screen, the score library and the app’s settings. Touch Notation groups loosely related functions into one circle control, to minimize the number of icons on the screen. Swiping in one direction or another will activate other related functions. It took a little getting used to, but it worked well.

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The red circle control brought up the navigation view, and works similarly to Sibelius’s Navigator. You swipe left or right on the circle control to change the page. Since the app fully supports pinch- and tap-to zoom and two finger scrolling, I’m not sure how useful navigation view is, but it’s there. You can also swipe left or right directly on the page to turn the page, if you’re zoomed out widely enough to see the entire page at once.

Speaking of which: there is no scroll or panorama style view in Touch Notation. Reminiscent of the early days of Sibelius, page view is the singular option. It’s interesting that StaffPad took the opposite approach (scroll view only, except when printing).

The blue icon switches between notation input mode and memo input mode. The memo input mode is for freehand notes, but they’re fixed to the position on the page, not to the music. So it’s of very limited use.

The three quarter notes in the brown icon represent note spacing. It’s worth noting that the app doesn’t automatically space your music. Given the limited screen space you might have when using the app, especially on a phone, this is a smart choice so that the music doesn’t jump around too much. But you must remember to manually space your music every so often. The brown icon also contains a good deal of score-specific settings and a transpose function.

The blue icon contains the familiar and handy Undo and Redo functions.

The orange icon is for playback-related controls (more on that in a moment).

Selecting and copying music; working with instruments

In addition to the lasso and tap-and-hold methods to select individual items described earlier, you can select a passage of music by double-tapping and holding a bar, and then dragging to extend the selection, after which you can cut, copy, paste or delete the music. Although the finer points differ among different notation apps, this works similarly to other familiar programs.

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Double-tapping and holding to the left of an instrument name will select the entire instrument. In addition to the usual contextual options, a Property option appears. Selecting this gives you the option to change the instrument’s displayed name, whether it’s on a single or grand staff, its starting clef, and its transposition. In a nice surprise, I was able to use this to make instruments with non-standard transpositions, like for horns in A.

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Adding or deleting instruments is reliant upon gestures. Drawing an “X” to the left of a staff deletes a part from the score; drawing a “+” will add a part in the position at which you draw the “+”. It worked well enough, and although it’s a clever way to add or delete one or two parts, doing so for many more than that would be tedious.

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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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