Even before Apple announced the iPad, seeing the first Amazon Kindle had me excited for the day that I would be able to leave my giant stacks of music scores at home. Since that time, a number of hardware and software products have come and (mostly) gone to serve the enthusiastic but niche market of musicians wanting to read digital scores.
Ever since the introduction of that first iPad in 2010, musicians have been leveraging the uniquely responsive screen and reliable software in rehearsals and performance. With the introduction of high-resolution displays on iPads in 2012, larger-screened iPad Pros in 2015, and the revised 2018 iPad Pros now at 11- and 12.9-inch displays, there has never been a better time for musicians to go paperless.
I spent time with each of the leading iPad score reader apps — forScore, Newzik, nkoda, Blackbinder, and Piascore — to assess the current state of the category, and to help musicians decide which of the excellent options best suits their needs.
Who am I?
I am a composer and university music educator. In my work, I look at many scores in the classroom, in lessons, rehearsals, and performances. I have performed as a trumpet player and conductor using an iPad, and I have used an iPad as a primary (though not exclusive) teaching computer since 2015. The teaching workflow that I detailed in my first Scoring Notes article has remained largely the same, and my use of the iPad as a music and music-teaching tool has expanded to include classroom teaching as well.
I cannot overstate the importance of the Apple Pencil to my workflow. Yes, it is very expensive. However, the functionality of an active stylus allows for extremely low-latency input, pressure and tilt sensitivity, and most importantly, palm rejection (allowing you to rest your hand on the screen as you write, just like on paper). There are no third-party styluses that can even come close to matching it for its functionality.
Having said that, there is nothing about score reading that requires the highest-end or most-recent hardware available. I have used all of these apps on my previous 2015-model iPad Pro, and all work great on my 2014 iPad Air 2.
In selecting an iPad for music, the most important thing to me is screen size. I don’t need to remind Scoring Notes readers that music tends to be printed on inconveniently large paper sizes, so the bigger the screen, the better. I’d recommend bumping up at least one step from the base-level of storage as well, especially if you expect to ever use your iPad for anything in addition to reading scores and parts.
Who is this for?
This article is written for musicians who are currently using iPads for recreation or work, but have not yet committed to using an iPad to replace some or all of their work with paper materials for rehearsal or performance. It may also be useful to those who are considering an iPad purchase to use for score-reading, and are interested in some of the benefits of digital performance materials.
Lastly, I hope that those who are currently using one of the apps that I will discuss can learn more about what other options are available, and maybe even something new about an app you’re currently using. This is a very mature app category, and there are some fantastic and powerful options available.
This article is not going to discuss any of the apps that may be available for other platforms (notably Windows tablets), nor will it discuss any of the handful of hardware platforms (such as GVIDO) specifically built for this purpose.
In my experience working with musicians, it’s quite rare to find someone using a Windows tablet for score reading (though I’m sure I’m about to hear from both of you now). The larger screen sizes available are certainly appealing, but the score reading software options are not as mature, and the operating system isn’t as reliable, in no small part because of all the other software that would be running along side a score reader. The hardware score readers definitely look great, but they’re too expensive for an individual purchase, and unlike an iPad or Windows tablet, aren’t as useful for other tasks.
Criteria for evaluation
Each musician will have a different use case for a score-reading app. Some players may have enormous collections of lead sheets that they need to pull from on short notice, others may have a smaller collection of giant orchestral scores. Some musicians may update their libraries with new works or versions often, while others may return regularly to a smaller number of works.
I’ve tried to consider as many of these different use cases as possible, and to that end, I focused on a few broad feature categories:
- Ingestion: How do scores get into the app, and what formats are supported? One of the biggest challenges of working with iOS in general is moving and managing files. Moving around files is at the core of any score reader.
- Organization: How are scores grouped, both archivally in a library and temporarily for individual performances?
- Stability: This is a deal-breaker in this category.
- Annotations: How quickly and easily can a performer make an annotation and save it? In rehearsal, seconds are precious, and apps must compete with the immediacy and convenience of paper-and-pencil on this front.
- Rehearsal features: The basics of a metronome and the ability to play back audio while reading the score are part of the table stakes of this category, however, some apps implement them better than others.
- Collaboration and sharing: How easy is it to work with other users and other devices? How can scores, parts, or annotations be communicated to other performers?
One thing I might have considered is price, but I found that the leading options were priced similarly and very reasonably for the power and utility. I would argue that for software that has such little tolerance for error, anything less than $20 is completely reasonable — and anything less than $10 is a steal.
The best score reader for most people: forScore
forScore is probably the most widely used score reader as of this writing. It is certainly the most widely used among the musicians that I know and work with. That’s not to say that I recommend it for that reason. In fact, I started this review searching for a competitor that I could recommend above it. However, the more I dug into its feature set, the more impressed I became with the depth and power of forScore.
Editor’s update: See this review of forScore 11, from May 2019.
Why it’s great
Like several of the other readers I tested, including Newzik and Piascore, there are many ways of getting scores into forScore, including built-in integrations with Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, and the relatively recent Files app built into iOS 11. Bringing in scores via the Share Sheet from another app or another device (even a Mac) over AirDrop also works great, as does drag-and-drop via another app in Split View.
There’s an additional feature called Darkroom, that allows you to use your device’s camera to snap pictures of pages of a score. This could be useful in a pinch, but I would strongly recommend using a dedicated PDF scanning app like Scanner Pro or Scanbot, both of which will do a much better job of processing a photograph into something that looks more like a document.
The file handling feature that I like most in forScore is the powerful metadata options it provides for organizing your scores. In addition to the basics of title and composer, works can be tagged in any number of ways which can later be used to organize a large number of files. The tagging system may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but all the fields are optional, and its this flexibility that sets forScore’s organization features above the competition.
In addition to the archival organization, forScore allows users to bookmark certain sections of large works. This is useful for scores that might include many movements, or score documents that are a collection of small works, like art songs or lead sheets. What is unique about the forScore bookmarks compared to those found in Newzik is that forScore’s bookmarks define a range of pages, rather than a starting point.
This becomes even more powerful when creating set lists. The apps I tested almost all have some form of creating a setlist (or playlist) that organizes scores into a particular order to quickly jump from one piece to the next in a performance. forScore not only allows for scores to be added to a setlist, but for bookmarked sections to be added. I can imagine this being particularly useful for arranging a “setlist” for a voice recital, where it is very common for a set of shorter works — sometimes dozens — to be collected into a single volume, even though only a small handful may be performed at once.
As I wrote above, annotation is a crucial feature for any score reader. Performers need to be able to mark up a part instantly in rehearsal without any more fiddling than picking up a pencil and marking a sheet of paper. Of the apps I tested, forScore gave the closest approximation of paper annotations. With the Apple Pencil, simply write like normal on the score. The app will instantly allow writing when the Pencil touches the screen and continue allowing you to navigate and zoom the document with your hand, just like paper.
forScore also has an extensive set of musical symbols that can be used as “stamps” in annotating a score. These are mostly common musical symbols like fingering numbers, hairpins, and accidentals. (Not that you, dear reader, have ever forgotten the D-sharp in the key signature. We’re talking about other people.) This isn’t a feature I’ve ever found to be particularly useful, as it’s quite a bit slower than drawing or writing by hand, and part of the reason I’m writing something is so that it sticks out from the markings already in the score. If you use these, you might consider using them in colors other than black so they stick out more.
The power of layers
A fantastic feature of digital annotations that forScore, Newzik, and nkoda all feature is layers. If you are familiar with image editors like Adobe or Affinity, you’ve likely encountered the concept of layers. For music annotation, this allows you to have separate levels or contexts for your markings. This could allow a player to have markings that are attached to a particular conductor or performance. An accompanist who plays the same piece for several different soloists might need to remember some things for one singer but not others. Individual annotation layers can be saved and toggled on or off at any time, and new annotations can be written in to any layer.
Sharing and sync
When working with other players, it might be useful to share scores either with or without annotations. forScore allows users to export, using the same cloud services or sharing locations as importing. And exported files can be “clean” (unannotated) PDFs, annotated PDFs, or forScore’s own 4sc format, which will also maintain annotation layers and other app-specific features.
In a related feature, forScore also allows players to network with other users of the same app to synchronize page turns, as do Newzik and Piascore. In the case of forScore, page turns are sent from a designated “leader” user to “follower” users. The followers must have the score on their devices already, and in fact, the feature works even if the users have two different scores up. (This sounds weird and not terribly useful to me, but it’s nice to have the option.)
Use in performance and rehearsal
forScore also includes the very clever (though admittedly absurd) ability to use two iPads as the left and right pages of a score using the separately purchased forScore Cue app ($2 in the App Store). This allows the next page of the score to be shown on the “follower” device, which can also take care of page turns by tapping on the screen. The only caveat here is that the Apple Pencil can only be paired to one iPad at a time, so you might have to switch pairing back and forth between devices to work this way, assuming both of your devices support the same Pencil, which they may not. As impractical and silly as the dual-iPad setup certainly is, I find it to be functionally reliable and strangely delightful.
In performance and rehearsal tools, forScore offers easy access to the most useful aids: metronome, pitch pipe, and tuner. The metronome can be visual, audible, or both. These features can all be accessed quickly from the score, and the metronome can continue running in the background, making for an excellent rehearsal tool. Users can also get quick access to an on-screen MIDI piano keyboard or even make a recording of a lesson, rehearsal, practice session, or performance, right from the score.
There are more tools available for rehearsal and markup aids that go beyond the scope of this particular article, but are worth exploring for those using forScore already in their work. I’ve had all of these apps installed on my iPad for months, and forScore is the only one in which I continue to discover new features that I could use. Current users might be pleasantly surprised to make their own discoveries by spending some time poking around the menus and perusing the user guide.
Some minor drawbacks
I mentioned earlier that the feature set of forScore is vast. The app does a pretty good job of hiding the complexity and allowing new users to get started quickly. However, the flip side of that is that some of these more powerful features can be a bit hard to discover. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make, but others may not be.
Also, if you like to share music as MusicXML, then forScore may not be for you. I’ll talk about some MusicXML options later in this article, but it’s worth noting that as of this writing, forScore is limited to working with PDF files. That happens to me my preference for exchange, but again, it may not be yours.
A close runner-up: Newzik
Newzik is a great app that has gained traction mainly in Europe, but is seeking to expand in the United States and elsewhere. If you aren’t already deep into a forScore library, you should really give Newzik some serious consideration. You can import music files, build set lists, edit PDFs, and annotate in multiple layers. It’s not quite as feature-rich as forScore in some ways, but Newzik has some really handy features that set it apart.
Library and score sync
First of all, the Newzik library is simpler. If you are bit overwhelmed by the complexity of forScore’s database of multiple libraries, tags, labels, genres, etc., you might find Newzik to be a better fit.
While other score readers have access to external sources of scores (either for sale or free), I really like Newzik’s interface for searching IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project. Scores can be downloaded for free and added to a Newzik library instantly.
Another differentiator for Newzik is that all scores in the library are saved to Newzik’s cloud sync and backup service. (This is one of the main reasons that Newzik requires you to either create an account or link to your Facebook account; I chose the former.) That means if you use Newzik on multiple devices, you can have your library and annotations in sync. Furthermore, dropping your iPad in a swimming pool won’t cause you to lose your score data. Just log in to Newzik on any iPad, and your library will be right where you left it. This isn’t the case with forScore, which does have a backup feature, but it’s a little bit more fiddly. In Newzik, this is taken care of without any interaction from the user.
The MusicXML factor
Perhaps the biggest differentiator between Newzik and forScore is the ability to read MusicXML files in addition to PDFs. There are some fantastic things that are possible with MusicXML that are not with PDF. For example, the metronome can follow a score with meter and tempo changes. The music can be resized and reflowed in an instant, which is implemented very cleverly in Newzik. You can pinch-zoom the screen to set the staff size, and then a split-second later, everything reflows so that no matter how big or small you make things, the system is always the full width of the screen, which is particularly nice if you are using Newzik on a smaller screen, or if you prefer to use your iPad in landscape orientation, rather than the portrait orientation used by most scores.
Another excellent MusicXML feature is that a player can decide at any time which of the other parts they would like to see, even if only temporarily. Part of my own testing involved a download of Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 2 from MuseScore’s OpenScore project. I could imagine a violinist in that ensemble wanting to sometimes see the other violinist’s part in rehearsal. Doing so is a simple toggle in Newzik.
I could also imagine this being very useful for sectional rehearsals in school, where the conductor may want to focus on only the strings, for example. Because MusicXML allows Newzik to be aware of where system breaks occur rather than only page breaks, there is an option to set a Bluetooth page turning pedal to scroll one system down, rather than a whole page at a time, which could allow a performer to always be able to preview what is coming in the next measure, regardless of where it might fall on the printed page. The flexibility of MusicXML also allows a score to be transposed on the fly, which may not be as useful for orchestral scores, but could be a huge benefit for vocal music.
Unfortunately, MusicXML is not a perfect vessel for all kinds of information, and certain scores may look better than others. If you’ve ever used MusicXML to exchange files between Finale and Sibelius or another application, you will be acutely aware of these limitations. In my testing, I also used a score of mine exported from Sibelius and ended up with some less-than-ideal results. As hard as the Newzik team works, they’ll never have the level of expertise in music layout algorithms as the teams building Dorico, Finale, or Sibelius. (If you want to see some truly impressive algorithmic layouts, import a MusicXML file into Dorico.)
Even aside from those more complex issues, I’m not wild about some of the design choices that Newzik used in rendering my score: italics in time signatures, system dividers for any view of more than one part, misaligned dynamics, and forget about any subtle spacing tweaks. And of course, none of the clever workarounds for open meter or dangling ties that you may have learned here on Scoring Notes is going to come through MusicXML to Newzik.
Having said all that, if the score you’re working with comes willingly into Newzik as MusicXML, you’ll have a lot more options for working with it than you would in PDF. That may be worth a few aesthetic quibbles to many, many users. And it’s worth restating again that Newzik still does handle PDFs, just like the other readers here.
Aside from MusicXML, the most notable differentiator between Newzik and forScore is the collaboration aspect. This is made possible by the cloud sync that is already built in for every score in your library. Setlists exist in all of the apps I tested, but Newzik also allows these setlists to be synced among different users. Setting these up is as easy as sending a link to another user, and once established, any user can edit the list. With a solid Internet connection, these changes will be synced instantly.
Not only are changes to the setlist synced, but changes to the annotations in the scores included in that setlist will also sync as well. This is relatively fast, but it does require users to exit the score and reopen it to view new annotations from collaborators. In practice, this could be pretty cumbersome in rehearsal, and I would like to see the Newzik team find a way to update the currently open score without this extra step to make it feel even closer to real-time.
It’s also worth noting that when a new score is added to a collaborative playlist, a copy is made that must be uploaded to the Newzik cloud and download on all collaborators devices, so any changes made will not be reflected in the main library version of the score. You probably don’t want your collaborators changing the files in your library just because you added them to a playlist.
While several of the apps I tested can bring in audio files to play back with scores, Newzik also has the option of playing a YouTube video on part of the screen. This may seem less useful than some other options, but it could be quite interesting for educational settings, where instructional content could be paired with a corresponding musical score. This limited screen space would be an excellent example of a time that the adaptive layout of a MusicXML score pays off.
A few drawbacks
Some of the bigger drawbacks that made Newzik a runner-up for me was that it was just slightly slower to get in and out of annotation mode with Apple Pencil: you tap first to enter annotation and then you start writing. And erasing annotations is not as slick as in forScore. If you touch any piece of a line with the eraser tool, the whole line goes away. So you can’t use the eraser to go back and shorten a line that was drawn too long — something I find myself doing regularly in forScore. And although the metronome in Newzik is nearly identical to forScore’s, it lacks the handy tuner, pitch pipe, and piano keyboard tools.
Syncing page turns with other players in Newzik works well. In Newzik, the whole score is streamed, so the follower does not need to have the score already loaded, in contrast to forScore and Piascore. The downside of this is that many features, including annotation, are not available when streaming like this in Newzik, which makes it less useful.
Still, if you value the automatic cloud sync, collaborative playlists and annotations, the flexibility of MusicXML, and networked display features, and you’re willing to give up a little bit of the library organization features of and extra performance tools of forScore, Newzik could be the best score reader for you.
Competing options: Piascore, nkoda, and Blackbinder
The other options I looked into all had interesting ideas, but were not as richly featured and polished for score reading as forScore or Newzik.
Piascore has been around for several years and flown under the radar. It is very fast and reliable, and includes many of the best features of both forScore and Newzik. It has a metronome, tuner, piano keyboard, recorder, audio player, and YouTube player in the score view. Piascore can import music from the camera and all the same cloud services as forScore and Newzik as well.
Piascore does a couple of things as well or better than some of its larger competitors. Its interface for downloading from IMSLP is the most polished of all the apps I tested. Piascore might have been my runner-up if the whole app were as well implemented as the IMSLP integration.
It also has a rather novel feature for turning pages via gestures using the True Depth sensors in the iPhone X/XS and 2018 iPad Pros. This allows a performer to turn pages by shaking left or right with their head, or by winking their left or right eye. I found this to work fairly consistently, but not enough that I would be comfortable relying on it in performance without a reasonable amount of practice.
Piascore supports annotations, but, even with the Apple Pencil connected, it requires users to tap twice to enter annotation mode — once to bring up the tool bar and once to select the annotation tool — making it too cumbersome for quick changes and notes in rehearsals or recording sessions. Piascore CEO Hiroyuki Koike has indicated that this may change in a future update.
The on-screen performance tools, such as the metronome, are skeuomorphic 3D renderings of their real-world counterparts, which I find both harder to use and more distracting than the simpler designs in the other apps I tested.
Piascore, like the previous two apps, allow players to network with other users of the same app to synchronize page turns. Page turns are sent from a designated “leader” user to “follower” users. The followers must have the score on their devices already. Interestingly, in a Piascore sync session, the files are stored locally on leader and follower devices, but if the follower device doesn’t have the score in question, it can be sent wirelessly, a very handy feature that I found to work flawlessly even for large scores.
nkoda, which I wrote about at length when it launched in spring 2018, has a serviceable score reader, but that’s very much secondary to the outstanding library that it comes with — more than 100,000 pieces and growing, according to nkoda, most of which are under copyright and unavailable anywhere else (legally) in a digital format.
nkoda’s score reader processes all the files you upload in a way that makes them frustratingly pixelated. The annotation tools are decent, but they are the weakest of all the score readers I tested, and they’re very slow to get in and out of. nkoda is also the only app I tested that is not yet optimized to take advantage of the latest iPad screen sizes, as of this writing. nkoda’s Ludvig Alm told Scoring Notes that nkoda is constantly upgrading the app, and that the upcoming builds may address some of these concerns.
As I wrote of nkoda when it launched, the library of scores from major publishers is astonishingly large. Because of this, I have been a satisfied subscriber continuously since day 1. nkoda is not my score reader of choice, but thanks to its unmatched content it earns it a spot on my device.
Blackbinder is a newer entry into the score reader category and has experienced a recent marketing push. I’ve heard about it from Blackbinder directly, Scoring Notes, and even my university’s Apple Education reps.
It has a novel pitch: import your scores in MusicXML format, and then you never have to turn a page again. Blackbinder uses (buzzword alert!) machine learning to listen via the microphone and scroll the score automatically. (An example can be seen at this video, provided by Blackbinder, at the 10:45 mark.)
I found this to work well, but not quite reliably enough that I would want to perform from it, and of course, it only works with scores in MusicXML format, not PDF. More troubling is that the MusicXML rendering is problematic: missing barlines, beams floating apart from any stems, incorrectly or poorly rendered fonts. In their FAQs, Blackbinder recommends not using a score with more than “250 or 300 measures… it could be a file too heavy to manipulate”. Further, the user interface includes several graphics that are not retina-resolution, so they look unrefined alongside the other crisp images.
In recent days, Blackbinder has updated their marketing copy to reflect their current focus away from ensemble use and towards trumpet solo and pedagogical repertoire. For now, the developer is focused on supporting the very narrow market of trumpet players — indeed, all of the library files included with Blackbinder are trumpet concertos and études. For a student trumpeter encountering études by Arban or Charlier for the first time, this collection of scores might be useful enough to make Blackbinder a good second or third score reader.
Blackbinder CEO Sergio Peñalver says that they plan to expand to other instruments in the future, but in the near-term I imagine that the best uses for this technology will continue to be with pedagogical études, solo performance, and small ensembles, since the auto-scrolling score could be more risky in an ensemble setting.
Of all the options I tested, Blackbinder was the only one that froze or crashed, requiring me to force quit several times. On top of all this, Blackbinder was the most expensive app I tried. It’s free to download and use while connected to the Internet, but it requires a subscription of $10/month or $97/year. This is priced similarly to nkoda, but without the huge library, and with a considerably weaker score reading experience than any other app I tested. We’ll be eager to see how Blackbinder evolves, but for now, the app can’t quite match its own hype.
Depending on your use, there may be some even more specialized solutions that appeal to your needs. You might find a notation and scoring app like Symphony Pro 5 meets your digital score reading needs. If you’re always working with Sibelius files from a Mac or Windows PC, you might find Avid Scorch to be a good option, as it requires no special export but still allows some of the flexibility of Newzik’s and Blackbinder’s MusicXML approach. I didn’t include these above because they are limited to such a narrow set of content that they could never serve as the only score reader for most musicians. Still, they’re worth considering as part of a larger set of software tools for musicians already carrying an iPad.
Earlier, I mentioned that I was looking for some new and surprisingly useful app, but I think it’s worth considering the “network effect” on an app’s utility and usability. If you are considering adopting paperless scores, it’s worth seeing what other people in your professional and social circles are using. Using the same thing as your peers will make it easier for you to learn the features of the tools you use, solve problems, and exchange scores and annotations. Some features, like the networked page turning features and synced annotations in Newzik even require that everyone use the same apps. And more popular apps with a larger user base are more likely to be continually developed to support new devices and operating systems.
With the technology still in relative infancy, it’s important to consider the longevity of a digital score library. Luckily, the best of the apps I tested are all cheap enough that it is completely reasonable to own several of them, and all support some form of export that would allow for moving scores between reader apps.
If nothing else, I hope that this comparison demonstrates that despite the relatively small (but growing) number of musicians using digital performance materials, the category of score readers is broad and vibrant. There are new apps and services, and existing app publishers are continuing to push one another with innovative new features. I look forward to continuing to explore this space and keeping Scoring Notes readers apprised of new developments.