I study and perform scores from my iPad on a regular basis and have prepared scores to be read from screens. So Scoring Notes readers often ask me to provide recommendations for best practices when preparing a score with the expectation that it will be read from a screen, not paper. This is an excellent question — one whose answer today may likely change in the coming years.
What’s different between paper and screens
I want to start by identifying some of the key differences between paper and screens that might impact the way we would want to present a score. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the word “score” to include both scores and parts.) These observations will guide some of my basic layout principles.
Screens have bezels. The bezel is the part around the edge of the device that’s not screen. It’s the part that doesn’t light up when the screen is on. Different devices have different bezel sizes, and they’re particularly important for touchscreen tablets, because it’s the part we can hold without touching a touchscreen.
For the digital music engraver, the bezel can take on a large part of the visual work done by the margins of a document. I don’t think it’s reasonable to have notes going all the way to the edge of the document, since sometimes edges get cut off a bit, and sometimes we even need to extend some symbols into the margin a teensy bit, but margins for digital readers can be much smaller than printed work.
Page turns are easier. Turning a page in most screen readers is a quick tap or swipe. It can still be error-prone, especially for new users, but it’s a much faster action — and arguably more reliable — than turning a page of a paper document. This is all before we get to the common technology of hands-free page turning techniques, such as bluetooth pedals and camera gestures. I have a PageFlip Dragonfly, and I know lots of folks who swear by their AirTurns and iRigs for turning pages.
Some score reader apps allow users to turn pages with a face or hand gesture as well. Many readers also allow for “half” page turns, which allow a user to look ahead to the top of the next page while still reading the bottom of the current page.
In preparing a score, or especially a part, this can allow a bit more flexibility in selecting page turn locations. This is particularly handy for smaller screen sizes (more on screen sizes below) which will result in fewer measures per page, and therefore more turns. Having said that, it still may be challenging to reach up to the device while playing certain instruments like timpani or bass, and it’s hard to say if a player will be using a pedal or not. For some instruments, an added turning pedal may not be an option, since they’re already using their feet (drumset, organ, or harp).
“Printing” is “free”. Modern tablets have some truly beautiful screen technology. The resolution of an iPad in 2020 is roughly equivalent to the resolution of a very good laser printer. High DPI displays are standard in most computers and tablets sold today, so you can have very clear materials, which are transmitted as infinitely smooth vector graphics from most notation applications.
As an extra bonus, since color is now free, another parameter for communication becomes available without the added printing costs associated with color. This could be something as simple as using color to distinguish instrumental techniques or style, or as complex as an interpretive graphical score or a photograph of a special technique. If you’re using color for a critical meaning, be aware of the impact this will have on color-blind readers. You may wish to check your score in a color blindness design checker that simulates color blindness for everyone.
Perhaps it’s not fair to say that printing is free when the cost of a new iPad, even at the entry level, is $329, and can easily extend into the price of a substantial laptop on the high end. Though it may also be unfair to ascribe the entire price of a multifunction computer to just one task. While the fact that I use my iPad for scores pushes me toward the larger end, I think I would still have an iPad if I wasn’t using it for music.
Pitfalls of preparing scores for screens
The greatest challenge of preparing a score for a screen is figuring out what page size you should use. In scoring applications, we’re used to giving page sizes in standard measurements. This could mean inches, points, or something else. Device manufacturers rarely give screen dimensions in this way, so you’ll need to do a bit of arithmetic.
My 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018) has a resolution of 2732×2048 pixels. (I’m going to use landscape orientation here since that’s the common way manufacturers describe screens. But I’m assuming you’ll prepare your score in portrait orientation.) So I’ll just cross-multiply 2732. Wait. Where are you going?
Ok. I’m just kidding. I’ll use a screen size calculator on the web to figure this out. By entering the pixels as the aspect ratio numbers and 12.9 inches as the diagonal, I know that the display of my iPad Pro in portrait orientation is 7.7 inches across by 10.3 inches tall. In your scoring app, just set up the page size to be exactly the device size, and then you can make other decisions while thinking about sizes in roughly the same way you normally would.
The F word: Fragmentation
Everything I’ve discussed to this point has been describing setting up a score to be read from my personal iPad. Obviously, there are a lot of iPads in existence, and that’s not to mention all the non-iPad screens people may be reading from. And that, above all is why I don’t usually recommend creating special screen-specific formatting.
Just within the last few years, Apple has sold tablets at the following sizes (by diagonal) and dimensions:
- 7.9 inches: 4.7×6.3
- 9.7 inches: 5.8×7.8
- 10.2 inches: 6.1×8.2
- 10.5 inches: 8.4×6.3
- 10.9 inches: 6.2×9.0
- 11 inches: 6.3×9.0
- 12.9 inches: 7.7×10.3
These all have a roughly 4:3 aspect ratio (1.333), notably the same aspect ratio as a 9×12-inch sheet of paper, handy for those who are accustomed to working on that size. The consistency of aspect ratio means that a page laid out of these screens will scale nicely to fill any of them, but the size differences from one to the next could be a dealbreaker. A 7 mm staff on a score set up for a 12.9-inch iPad becomes less than 6mm on the 11-inch, just next device down. And this is only accounting for Apple’s tablets.
If you need to include Android or (more likely) Windows devices in your distribution, you’ll also need to account for a much wider variety of screen sizes and aspect ratios. These tend to lean a little toward the 16:9 aspect ratio of HD televisions, but can also be found with larger (21:9) ratios. You won’t find a lot of screens with a smaller aspect ratio than the iPad’s 4:3. This means that your pages may not scale evenly to take full advantage of many of these displays.
The challenge of future-proofing
As much variety as there is in paper sizes that musicians are using to print scores and parts, there is even greater variety in the screen sizes that are available to us. The difference is that when I lay out a score for a 9×12 page, I am then printing on 9×12 paper, so I don’t have to worry about someone else rendering it on a different page size.
Furthermore, the iPad sizes I listed above are those of devices that are in circulation now. These layouts are not future-proof and could age badly and quickly!
I first created an iPad-specific layout of a piece I wrote in 2015, a piece of mine that was a commission from players who I knew read all their music from iPads and used page-turn pedals. At the time, iPads had been around for five years and had been 9.7-inch screens the entire time. There were some odd system breaks and page turns, but there’s only so much you can do on a tiny screen. The first 12.9-inch iPad Pro was announced just a few months later. I upgraded, so did many musicians, and my carefully laid out 9.7-inch score looked cartoonishly large on the new display.
Consider what displays may be coming in the future and what musicians might be reading from in performances. forScore, my pick for the best iPad score reader for most people is set to become the best Mac score reader for most people in the very near future. Conductors are reading scores from larger external displays. And if you’ll forgive a bit of science fiction in your music notation article, I like to imagine musicians reading from stylish augmented reality glasses, no screen at all! How would you lay out a score for an infinitely scrollable canvas?
Skepticism aside, there are recent developments that might make screen-specific layouts manageable, or even preferable, with a nod to some newer technologies. (Compared to paper, I guess almost everything we do here is a newer technology.)
First, I want to tip my anachronistic cap to the team at Dorico, who have done some incredible work in creating a greater separation of concerns between the content of a score an its layout. In it, it’s relatively easy to keep track of multiple layouts for the same music, which could make it much more sustainable in the long-run to maintain versions of a score for different screen sizes and aspect ratios.
Second, this entire article has been built on the mostly-but-not-entirely-solid assumption that scores will be prepared and distributed as PDF files. PDFs are a very useful technology for sending around digital representations of paper documents, and while Adobe has baked in some digital media features, the format clearly has its roots in paper.
MusicXML is a file format that encodes music in a more flexible way than a page layout. It focuses more on semantic meaning and less on graphical presentation and layout. This lets it become much more flexible in presentation. The support for the format has grown as it has standardized, through the work of the W3C’s Music Notation Community Group.
If you have used MusicXML to transfer projects between applications before, you’ll know both its utility and its limitations. Some more complex notations are not represented consistently across different applications, so some kinds of music are hard or impossible to encode. However, a lot of music (maybe even most or all of what you deal with) can be represented very faithfully represented in MusicXML.
Using MusicXML instead of PDF takes away some of the control that an engraver has over the final presentation of their work, but that might be a worthwhile trade in exchange for flexibility of layouts, staff size, playback sync, and future-proofing. For people like me and the people who read Scoring Notes (Hi there, reader!), it might be difficult to give up this control over every minute detail of the score, but I am willing to admit that I may be living in the past and not the future of performance materials. It would be a bit curmudgeonly (and possibly elitist?) of me to look at the work of the smart and talented people building StaffPad Reader or Newzik and not see the promise of a future of flexible, adaptable scores.
Having been burned by preparing a device specific manifestation of a score in the past, I am not planning to prepare another device-specific score layout. However, there are circumstances where you might do so.
If you know that every player in a recording session will be on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the score will not have a life beyond the session, go for it! It would seem silly to not take this into consideration and create the device-specific materials. Simply be aware of the limitations of those PDFs for future work.
For my own work, I plan to continue preparing my editions as though they will go to print (even if I know they won’t). Software developers have made it easy for musicians to adapt works prepared for print to their use on screens, and performers have become increasingly adept at using these tools, so I’ll surely be revisiting this plan regularly in the coming years as devices become more of a standard piece of equipment (like a music stand), and as flexible layouts with MusicXML-like technology becomes more reliable and robust.