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 latest iPad Pros now at 11- and 12.9-inch displays and powered by M2 chips, there has never been a better time for musicians to go paperless.
In my initial review of the apps in this category, published in 2019, I concluded that forScore was the best iPad score reader for most people. I’ve continued to test and use a number of the leading apps in the category in the intervening years. Fast-forward four years, and while I still believe forScore remains the top option for most musicians, other apps may be a perfect fit for specific users and circumstances.
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 remains largely the same, and my use of the iPad as a music and music-teaching tool has expanded to include classroom teaching as well.
Perhaps surprisingly, as I write this updated review in May 2023, I am still using the same hardware as when I began researching the original review: the 12.9-inch 2018 iPad Pro (third generation) with Apple Pencil (second generation). Both iPad and Pencil are still going strong as they approach five years old, and only in the last couple of months has the iPad battery capacity begin to feel like it is declining.
I cannot overstate the importance of the Apple Pencil to score readers. Yes, at a list price of $129, it is very costly, and even when it’s on sale for as low as $85 it’s still a sizable purchase. 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 come close to matching it for functionality, reliability, and simplicity.
It is worth noting 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 iPads old and new, and they all run very well on iPads going back at least as far as my five-year old hardware, and most can go quite a bit farther back than that.
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 to 256 GB of storage from the base-level of storage level of 128 GB as well, especially if you expect to ever use your iPad for anything in addition to reading scores and parts, since this is not upgradeable later.
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 if you are currently using one of these apps, you can learn more about what other options are available and maybe even something new about an app that you’re currently using. This is a very mature app category, and there are some fantastic and powerful options available.
The article is not going to discuss any of the apps that may be available on other platforms (notably Windows tablets), nor will it discuss any of the handful of hardware platforms 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 robust, and the operating system isn’t as reliable, in no small part because of all the other software that would be running alongside a score reader.
Readers may remember hardware score readers that were introduced a few years ago, most notably GVIDO, with a high-glitz marketing effort and equally high price tag. The market for these was and is so niche that it’s hard to see this category gaining any traction. In fact, the GVIDO hardware was discontinued in March 2022, and their cloud service will be discontinued in March 2024.
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; 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, and moving files around is at the core of any score reader.
- Organization: How are scores grouped, both for archival in a library and temporarily for individual performances?
- Stability: This is a deal-breaker in this category. Any unexpected app behavior can cause a performance to come to a crashing halt or cost thousands of dollars per minute in a recording session.
- 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 table stakes in 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 all priced similarly and very reasonably for the power and utility. For software that has such little tolerance for error, a price of $20-30 is completely reasonable. If anything, I’d be concerned about the quality and sustainability of less costly applications. If I’m only paying $5-10 one time, I’d question the business model of the software for the long term, which makes me hesitant to invest my time and energy building up a library of scores and annotations.
I have personally purchased each of the apps I recommend here, including the premium subscriptions where applicable.
The best score reader for most people: forScore
forScore is probably the most widely used score reader as of this writing. In addition to the anecdotal evidence of its popularity that I have from working with musicians, it is also regularly on App Store top charts. When it comes to musical collaboration, having a shared platform can be of value on its own. But that’s not to say that I recommend it only for its popularity. The more I dig into forScore’s features, the more impressed I am with its depth and power.
Why it’s great
Like several other readers I tested, there are many ways of getting scores into forScore. You can import from any “file provider” that offers its contents to the Files app, including iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, or even an external drive connected to the iPad’s USB-C port. You can also move PDFs into forScore using AirDrop from another nearby Mac, iPad, or iPhone, or by dragging and dropping the file from another app on the iPad.
forScore can also scan scores directly from paper using your iPad’s camera. This works very well in a pinch, but I would strongly recommend using a dedicated PDF scanning app — my favorite is Scanner Pro by Readdle — which will do a much better job of processing the image from your camera into something that looks more like a document (rather than a photograph of a document).
In addition to working with PDF files, forScore has integrations with several external content providers: Musicnotes, Noteflight, Virtual Sheet Music, Carl Fischer, Presser, and BriLee. forScore allows you to log in to your various accounts at these services and download music you have purchased from them. Note: you cannot make purchases from within forScore; you’ll need to do that on the web first.
Some of forScore’s most powerful and practical features involve how you organize scores once they’re imported into the app. I think most musicians will agree that you’re unlikely to ever have fewer scores than you have right now! The more time and effort today that you put into organizing your scores, the easier life will be for your future self.
Gotta get organized: Metadata, bookmarks, set lists
forScore has long had the richest options for score metadata, and with its most recent release, the interface for editing it received a significant upgrade.
Open any score’s properties, and you’ll see that in addition to the basics of title and composer, works can be tagged in any number of ways which can be used later 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.
If you’re used to organizing by folders, you can use tags in the same way. The difference is that with folders, a file can only be in one place, but with tags, a file can be in several places at once. You might have a folder for “string quartet”, “wedding”, “church”, and “lyrical”, which could all be useful in different contexts.
In addition to this archival organization, forScore allows users to bookmark certain sections of large works. This is useful for scores that might include many movements, or 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 other apps like Newzik is that forScore’s bookmarks can define a range of pages, rather than just a starting point. When doing so, the individual bookmarked section becomes another item in your library.
This becomes even more powerful when creating set lists (or “setlists”). The apps I tested all have some form of creating a setlist that organizes scores in order for ease of 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 in a single volume, even though only a small handful may be performed at once.
Annotation and stamps
As previously mentioned, 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, you 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.
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 personally, as it’s quite a bit slower than drawing or writing by hand; after all, part of the reason I’d write something is so that it would stick out from the symbols already in the score. If you use these, you might consider using them in colors other than black so they stand out more. Colors are a huge benefit of digital markup: you aren’t limited to graphite pencil color if you want to erase later.
Layers and layers
In addition to colors, another fantastic feature that is unique to digital annotations is the idea of layers. forScore, Newzik, and nkoda all feature a version of this feature.
If you are familiar with image editors like the ones from Adobe or Affinity, you’ve likely encountered the concept of layers. Imagine that rather than writing on the score, you’re actually writing on a transparent plastic sheet on top of the score, and these transparent sheets can be added and removed at any time.
For music annotation, this allows you to have separate levels or contexts for your markings. This could allow a player to have their own reminder markings markings, like a reminder of a key signature, that are always shown, while there are other markings that might be attached just to a particular conductor or performance. A collaborative pianist who plays the same piece for several different soloists might need to remember some things for one singer but not others. Individual annotations layers can be named, saved, and toggled on or off at any time, and new annotations can be written into 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. Exported files can be “clean” (unannotated) PDFs, annotated PDFs, or forScores own 4sc format, which also maintains annotations layers and other app-specific features. For example, a concertmaster might send a part out with bowings written in a specific layer.
A limitation of sharing in this way is that there is no easy way to update a score once it has been shared. In the example above, if the concertmaster needs to make a change after the file has been distributed, the file needs to be replaced on the rest of the devices in the section. If this is a critical need for your ensemble, you may want to read on and consider another option.
For users with multiple Apple devices, forScore can sync an entire library over iCloud. Note that this uses your iCloud drive storage, so if you have a very large library and also take a lot of photos and videos, you may need to upgrade your iCloud storage subscription if you want to use this feature. forScore Sync will make sure that your library — scores, annotations, playlists, and other media — are the same on all of your devices. I find this to be particularly useful when it comes to importing files, since it’s much easier to move files around on a desktop or laptop than an iPad or iPhone. And since I don’t usually keep a keyboard connected to my iPad, it’s nice to type in my metadata on the Mac as well. After the initial upload/download when setting things up, updates get sync’d across all my devices within seconds.
Even if you only use forScore on a single device, Sync provides a nice bit of redundancy against your iPad getting lost, stolen, or damaged, since your library will be in iCloud. Just log in on a new device, and your library — including scores, metadata, and annotations — will be downloaded.
Use in performance and rehearsal
forScore also includes the very clever ability to use two iPads as the left and right pages of the score using the separately purchased forScore Cue app ($5 in the App Store). Cue allows the next page of the score to be shown on a “follower” device. This device can also take care of pages turns by tapping, just like in forScore. 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. As absurd as a costly dual-iPad setup certainly is, I find it to be functionally reliable and strangely delightful.
The benefit of Cue is that you get the paper-like experience in performance of being able to look ahead to the top of the next page. It’s really handy, but probably not worth cost of a second iPad for most users.
If like me, you tend to perform from a single iPad at a time, the “half page turn” feature of forScore (and other reader apps) can be very handy. Using this feature, the screen is split so that the bottom displays the last few lines of one page while the top displays the first few lines of the next page. The advantage is the ability to better look ahead, even where a page turn would make that impossible on paper, but at the cost of having to turn twice for each page, once for the top half and once for the bottom. In some instances, especially for performers using an external page turning pedal, this may be worth the compromise.
In other 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, multi-touch MIDI piano keyboard to plunk out short passages or chords. There’s also a basic record function to capture a lesson, rehearsal, practice session, or performance, right from the score.
Inactive scores become interactive
In addition to the many features and affordances forScore has to simulate working with paper scores, and the conveniences of simulating other devices like tuners and metronomes, some of the smartest (and nerdiest) features involve things that leverage the fact that the device that is now your score is also still a computer.
Some of my favorites are the ability to synchronize audio with a score, connecting MIDI controllers to forScore, and creating buttons within a score. Buttons are a thoroughly customizable feature, and they’re unique to forScore. They can be placed anywhere on any page, and can execute any number of actions when tapped. They can navigate to a different page in the current score, another score, start/stop a metronome, give a pitch, or even open any URL.
You could use this to automatically give the right pitch at the beginning of an a cappella choir piece, start playback of a play-along track, or jump back many pages to the beginning of a movement to follow a da capo.
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 in their work. I’ve had all these apps installed on my iPad for years, and in forScore as much as any other, 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 comprehensive user guide. So much of the basic functionality of displaying and annotating PDFs can be found in lots of apps, including those not built for music. It’s the breadth, depth, and customizability of forScore that set it apart from its competitors.
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 discuss a MusicXML option next, but it’s worth noting that as of this writing, forScore is limited to working with PDF files and scores purchased from one of its partners. While PDF happens to be my preferred score exchange format, it may not be yours.
A great option for institutions: Newzik
Newzik is a great app that has gained traction on the strength of its networked features. If you aren’t already deep into a forScore library, Newzik is worthy of your consideration. You can import music files, build set lists, edit PDFs, annotate in multiple layers, and get quick access to a metronome, tuner, and pitch pipe. While it lacks some of forScore’s in-depth organizational features and customization, there are some other features that set it apart and might make it an even better option for institutional environments in which an entire orchestra, band, choir, or opera company decides to go digital together.
Library and sync
The library is one of the biggest differentiators for Newzik. Unlike forScore, which is local-first and only optionally synced in the cloud, Newzik is cloud-forward. Not only does this mean that your library is automatically backed up, it also allows for some extremely compelling collaboration features. I’ll discuss these in the context of annotations below.
In terms of importing scores into Newzik, it shares many features of forScore. You can import PDFs from another application or cloud service or scan using your devices camera. Newzik also has its own set of publisher and distributor partners, some of which are also available in forScore — like Musicnotes, Carl Fischer, and Presser, — and some which are not — like Universal Edition. For institutional users, Newzik has a partnership with the Zinfonia rental and licensing portal, making it probably the quickest way to access rental materials, and earning it fans among orchestra librarians.
Another notable difference is in the way Newzik handles different parts from the same composition. It links them together, rather than treating them independently. For example, if you were to import the score and all four parts of a string quartet to forScore, you’d have five separate documents and five separate entries in your library database. However, in Newzik, all the parts are linked together, which can be a benefit for collaboration, since all players can easily access the score and one another’s parts.
While in some of these ways, Newzik’s library is quite a bit more complex than forScore’s due to the interconnected parts, in other ways it is much simpler due to having less metadata. If you are a bit overwhelmed by the detail of forScore’s database of multiple libraries, tags, labels, genres, etc., you might find Newzik to be a little more comfortable.
MusicXML on the music stand
One of the other biggest differentiators between Newzik and forScore is its ability to interpret music and handle MusicXML.
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. Music can be resized and reflowed in an instant, which is cleverly implemented within Newzik. A pinch-zoom sets the staff size, and a split-second later, everything reflows so that no matter how big or small you make it, the system is always the full width of the screen, which can be particularly nice if you are reading on a smaller device, or if you prefer to use your iPad in landscape orientation, rather than the portrait orientation used by most scores. This semantic understanding of the contents of a score also allows Newzik to play back a rudimentary MIDI realization of a composition.
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 sometimes wanting to see the other violinists part alongside their own during rehearsal. Doing so is a simple toggle in Newzik.
I could also imagine this being very useful for sectional rehearsals in schools, where the conductor may want to focus only on 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.) And all of the flexibility gained by using MusicXML scores is lost the moment you add any annotations to the score. Annotations are in a fixed position on the score, so they are incompatible with reflowing, resizing etc. In many ways, your MusicXML score becomes functionally a PDF the moment you write on it.
Even aside from those more complex issues, I’m not wild about some of the design choices that Newzik uses in rendering scores: italics in time signatures, system dividers for any view of more than one part, misaligned dynamics, and dotted half-rests in 3/4, to say nothing of all the subtle spacing and layout tweaks you spent hours on. And of course, none of those clever Dorico/Sibelius/Finale workarounds you may have learned about in Scoring Notes are going to come through MusicXML translation.
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.
A score reader that reads scores
For most musicians in most contexts, MusicXML files aren’t available for the materials they are performing from, which is why Newzik introduced Maestria, their machine-learning based optical music recognition (OMR) feature in 2021.
By virtue of its ability to read scores and export/import MusicXML, Newzik can make for an interesting pairing with a iPad notation application like StaffPad or Dorico (Sibelius for iPad can import but not export MusicXML at this time.)
Newzik Maestria isn’t a perfect replacement for a dedicated OMR application, but it can help out in a pinch. And the most interesting thing to me is that it can be used in an additive way. Newzik calls the resulting document a LiveScore, which strikes me as apt. It has some of the semantic understanding of a MusicXML import, but it still holds the PDF as the primary graphical display, with all music preparer’s detail and care intact.
Like many other OMR applications, Maestria isn’t perfect, but there isn’t anything like this feature in any other score reader app that I have used. In fact, the only other iPad app that comes close is PlayScore, which is more-or-less a dedicated OMR tool.
Collaboration in Newzik
Aside from MusicXML, the most notable differentiator between Newzik and forScore is collaboration. 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, and Newzik has these as well, which can be shared by a simple link. However, doing so simply sends an independent copy of the setlist to another user. In addition to Setlists, Newzik provides a collaborative feature it calls Projects. Projects have all the same basic functionality of Setlists, plus a few more tools that are specifically for ensembles that adopt Newzik as a group. To me, this is the best reason for choosing Newzik.
A Project organizer creates a new Project, adds scores and parts to it, and invites collaborators. Adding collaborators is as simple as sending a link in whatever way is easiest, by email, text message, or AirDrop. Once in a Project, players will have access to all the scores and parts for that Project.
However, the real power of Projects is in shared annotation layers. For all scores in a shared Project, there are now three kinds of layers:
- private layers: visible only to the person who creates them
- public layers: visible to everyone in the group
- shared layers: visible and editable by everyone in the group
Private layers work just like you would expect, each player can make as many private layers as they want as though they were using Newzik on their own (and just like in forScore).
Public layers could be a great way of conveying bowings to players, cuts or vamps in a musical theatre work, or translation changes in lyrics without manually rewriting the changes through many copies of the same part. Since these annotations sync to the cloud, they can also be changed quickly. For example, if the guest conductor’s unexpected tempo dictates a different bowing, the concertmaster can make the change and sync it to the rest of the section.
Shared layers seems a bit dangerous to me, and I’m not sure most large organizations would want to commit to the Annotations Thunderdome that could ensue. However, I think changing a layer to be “shared” temporarily could be useful, or maybe in the context of a chamber ensemble, where all players might occasionally make shared notes in the score but mostly play from their own parts.
Collaborative Projects can be a bit tedious to manage, especially at the stage of uploading all the scores and parts for a whole concert, and for that, Newzik provides a web interface called Newzik Web. It doesn’t have all the features of the Newzik app, but it will run on any platform that has a web browser, and it makes setting up libraries and groups far easier than trying to do so on an iPad. I wouldn’t suggest trying to perform from Newzik Web, but it is very useful for administering groups and organizing lots of scores. And since Newzik keeps track of all the scores and parts for each piece, this can save a lot of time. When you drag a stack of PDF files into Newzik Web, you can quickly group and label them all at once.
Projects are available to all users, but organizations who purchase institutional cloud service subscriptions — called Newzik Ensemble and Newzik Education — have some special features that can make it easier to quickly add members from the organization to a project and manage permissions. The details of these features are beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth noting that Newzik is the only one of the apps I tested that has special features large, top-down adoptions.
Documentation and training
The last point where Newzik really shines is in their online support documents. It’s not as exciting as the app’s features or content partnerships, but I think it’s particularly important, especially if you want to deploy Newzik all at once across an organization, which is how Newzik really wants to be used.
To support this, the company provides a series of short “courses” called Newzik Academy. These courses are organized in such a way that users can focus only on what they need to know without being overwhelmed by all the details that don’t apply to them. For example, an orchestra librarian might need to know how to set up an a Project across an organization, but a violist just needs to handle navigation and annotation.
Newzik is a highly polished, feature-rich application that is absolutely worthy of consideration for anyone considering digital score readers. However, many of it’s best features, like collaboration, rely on having an Internet connection on a somewhat regular basis. Yes, absolutely can use Newzik offline, but doing so really misses the point of why you would choose it over forScore. And of course, anyone who has worked in a concert hall knows that they often don’t have the most advanced network setups, and if you’re taking your show on the road, connectivity becomes even less reliable. Furthermore, these features also need all (or nearly all) members of an ensemble to be using Newzik on an iPad. If you and your organization are making this digital transition in a piecemeal, bring-your-own-device kind of way, Newzik’s best features won’t matter as much to you.
Some other, more minor drawbacks: it’s just slightly more cumbersome to deal with annotations in Newzik compared to forScore. If you have an Apple Pencil, you can still just start writing and you’ll be in annotation mode, but exiting that mode is not automatic like in forScore. And erasing annotations is not as slick. 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 while Newzik has a metronome, tuner, and pitch pipe, it doesn’t have a multitouch piano keyboard, which I see my students frequently using in forScore, though this may not be essential for everyone.
Still, if you value the collaboration features, have reasonably consistent wifi in your most frequently used spaces, and you’re in an organization where almost everyone can make the digital transition together, Newzik is worth considering. In many circumstances, I think it could be the best option for ensembles and institutions.
Update (June 2023)
Newzik has launched a new one-time purchase option for Newzik. Using the trial version, users are limited to 3 scores in their library. The $20 Newzik Essentials purchase includes unlimited scores, all backed up and synced using Newzik’s cloud service, as well as limited access to their cloud-based OMR tool (50 pages). Essentials does not include any of Newzik’s excellent collaboration features, which require a Newzik Pro subscription for $4.49/mo., $30/yr., or $120/lifetime.
An impressive music library: nkoda
Both of the other apps that I have mentioned so far require each user to bring their own library of scores and parts into the software or connect to other digital publishing partners. That’s not the case with nkoda, which occupies a unique position in the category of iPad score readers. As part of a monthly or annual subscription, nkoda users can access a huge library of hundreds of thousands of pieces, most of which are under copyright and hard to find anywhere else (legally) in a digital format.
As a score reader, I don’t think nkoda would warrant a mention in an article about the best in the category. The user interface is slow, difficult to understand, and clunky to use. I have been writing about the nkoda experience since the app launched in 2018, and each time, I have been told that the nkoda team is aware of the limitations of the reader and that they are constantly working on improving it. Five years later, I can say that the reading experience has undergone many significant changes since it launched, but I can’t say that it’s anywhere near acceptable for rehearsal and performance. It often takes a minute or more to launch, and many touch interactions are slow enough to respond that I wonder if my touch has registered with the device, only to touch a second time and then have both interactions. Even the score rendering is poor.
In spite of my criticism of the nkoda app, I can honestly say that it is an excellent service, and one that I happily pay for regularly. Yes, you can upload your own PDFs into the app, but to do so is really to miss the point of what makes nkoda great (and it is) great. It’s the unmatched content library that earns the app a place on my device.
I would recommend nkoda for a few different kinds of users. One group would be users like me who want to study (or teach) from scores of compositions of the last few decades that can be hard to find quickly, even among research libraries. For example, I just used nkoda recently while teaching a composition lesson to instantly bring up the score to Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields. I’ve spoken with orchestra librarians who use nkoda to begin preparing for a performance before rental materials arrive from a publisher. But I can’t say I would recommend it for performance in place of either of the other picks mentioned above.
There are plenty of other score reading options in the App Store. I would identify most of these in the category of “specialty apps” that are mostly designed for specific use cases or to handle specific score formats.
StaffPad Reader provides quick ways to read (not edit) native StaffPad music notation files. It has some interesting features around collaboration and synchronization that are beyond the scope of this article.
Like StaffPad Reader, MuseScore for iPad is designed for reading files created in its file format. Neither StaffPad Reader nore MuseScore for iPad these apps can handle PDF files, and so they probably can’t serve as a replacement for any of my main recommendations.
FlipFolder from J.W. Pepper is an option that has a very particular set of skills targeted specifically to the needs of marching bands. It connects directly to J.W. Pepper’s publications library, and it is designed to display individual parts to performers on phone-sized devices mounted to their instruments (like a traditional flip folder, hence the name). It includes some other neat network communications features for marching bands, but again, a bit too narrow in scope to compete with Newzik or forScore.
UnReal Book is very popular among jazz musicians, but I can’t recommend it based on how cumbersome it is to add files and the clunky interface for setting up metadata, playlists, etc. In general, it less fully featured than forScore and Newzik, and it is much less polished. Additionally, although it’s received regular maintenance updates, its core design and features seem to not have been updated in a very long time, so I’m not sure I would trust that this app is going to be around for the long term.
Another app that is targeted specifically to jazz and commercial musicians, iReal Pro is a great way to keep track of chord sheets (note: not lead sheets). Notably, it doesn’t handle music notation, so it isn’t really a competitor to the top picks here, but it is an excellent app in an adjacent category. Not only does it allow you to create and organize chord sheets, you can transpose them and even practice with a MIDI rhythm section, much like a simplified version of Band-in-a-Box (which I am delighted to learn is still going strong!).
It’s also worth mentioning two lower-cost alternatives that are more general in nature: PiaScore (free download with $5 unlock) and digitalScore (free download with various subscription unlock options) are both lower cost than forScore and Newzik, and are similarly broadly targeted. They both handle PDF files, page turns and annotations. However, neither of them has the powerful organization and automation features of their premium counterparts, and they lack annotation layers, which is one of my favorite features of digital scores. One place it’s worth mentioning that PiaScore shines is in its slick IMSLP integration, which can be a huge benefit to those working with public domain editions.
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.
In particular, I’ll be paying attention to dimusco, which emphasizes some of the networked collaboration features of Newzik alongside cross-platform client applications for Windows and Android as well as iPad, and Enote, which focuses on semantic score documents like MusicXML but which is currently limited only to their score library.
Additionally, I’ll be continuing to follow the developments of the recommendations I made above. Even though the category of iPad score reader apps is quite mature already, I expect that these top picks will continue to grow, add new features, and adapt to new hardware and platforms. I look forward to continuing to explore this space and keeping Scoring Notes readers apprised of new developments.