The Apple iPad is one of the most useful and wonderful resources for musicians developed in recent memory. A laptop doesn’t fit very well on a music stand or piano shelf, nor does it offer the ease of use of a single touch page turn. I knew immediately that being able to have an entire music library shrunk down into a barely there sheet of aluminum and glass would be a huge advancement for students and professional musicians.
The app that I spend more time with than any other is forScore.
forScore is an app designed for reading music scores on the iPad. Essentially it is a pdf reader that includes a number a features which appeal directly to the needs of musicians in the practice room or on the stage. I have been a forScore user for over a year now, so I know pretty well its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at how well it succeeds.
Firstly, the app icon is simple and tastefully done, written in a musically inspired calligraphic script.
The forScore interface is wonderfully elegant. Music appears with a subtle silvery gradient that is much more gentle on the eyes than the bright starkness of pure white. The gradient can also be changed to a gold toned sepia, for the look of older yellowed pages. Of course if you prefer the white, the gradient can be removed.
With a tap in the center of the screen appears an unobtrusive menu bar, containing icons for the library, bookmarks, search, metronome, fullscreen mode, and settings. Another tap hides the menu, revealing the entire page of music.
In addition to the menu, a single tap brings up a navigation bar at the bottom of the page, allowing for high speed scrubbing through an entire document. The implementation of a dynamic thumbnail view of the score as you scroll is smooth and seamless, enabling you to see at a glance where you are in the score. Releasing your finger brings you to the selected page, expanding the thumbnail to the entire screen.
One of the less perceptible, yet totally essential features, is the option to turn off sleep mode and screen dimming while forScore is open. Musical Instruments generally require two hands for performance, and touching the screen every 2 minutes to prevent the iPad from sleeping becomes burdensome. Luckily the developers had the foresight to eliminate such a problem.
The heart of forScore is its Library system. It does not use a folder based system, rather all pdf files are located within the app itself, and are organized through Metadata.
This can be tricky at first, because metadata is not as widely used with document files as with music (mp3) files. There are not a lot of desktop applications for the Mac that allow for the mass editing of pdf metadata that is required to be able to organize files effectively for use in forScore.
*The best free metadata editor I have found is PDFinfo. Mentally replace Author with Composer, and Subject with Genre, to translate into forScore metadata*
MGS provides a free forScore desktop app for the Mac, which is unfortunately terribly inadequate for this task. Its only function is to edit the metadata for a pdf file, which it does, but only for a single file! Attempting to open several files at once causes multiple instances of the app window to open, prompting you to edit each file one-by-one! Simultaneous editing of multiple files and folders is not possible, and this is a seriously overlooked functionality that would greatly benefit desktop library organization.
The editing of metadata within forScore for iOS is much more robust, it allows for multiple files to be selected and assigned a composer, genre, and keywords simultaneously. Unfortunately, this metadata does not alter the actual pdf file, so if you export the library that you’ve edited within forScore to your computer, you will lose all of the metadata!
While there are some shortcomings in the use of metadata, once you get your library organized within forScore it works beautifully. The entire library can be organized alphabetically by the Composer (first or last name), Keywords, Genre, as well as organized into Setlists. The library can also be searched, which makes keywords like “Theory,” “Etude,” “Virtuoso,” and the like very useful for narrowing down a large library.
The setlist is terrific for performers, and has unique options to organize a list alphabetically, manually in a specified order, by least recently opened, and even shuffled! I have a number of setlists for practice including a “Learning” list for narrowing down a large library to a handful of pieces to focus on and rotate in based on having played less frequently, as well as an “Exercise” list for randomly selecting an exercise that I’ve bookmarked in the Liszt, Busoni, Brahms, and Tausig exercises.
Bookmarks & Links
Speaking of bookmarks, forScore has an interesting system for handling them. Rather than simply link to a page within a score file, it creates a separate library entry which can then be added to setlists and searched as any other score file.
forScore users should know that you must specify an ending page to the bookmark- it is not a simple placeholder but a pointer to a particular section of a score with a start and end point.
There are fantastic possibilities to be able to create setlists of bookmarked pages within a score! For example with a pdf of Chopin’s Etudes op.10 you can create a bookmark for each Etude within the opus, making a shuffled setlist or changing their order without altering the original document file. Previously, this would clutter up the library with all of the bookmark entries as if they were new scores. Now there is the option to disable bookmarks from the library menu so that they only appear when the bookmark icon is selected in an open score, as well as in setlists as individual scores!
An additional feature unique to forScore is the Linking system. This allows you to create and edit touchable circles anywhere on a page that instantly take you to a linked point within a score. This is immensely useful for repeat signs, or da capo & del segno markings. The link allows these markings to become interactive!
Annotations and Versions
I have always hated writing on my music books. Past teachers have often chastised me for not showing evidence of my mental work on the page, but I really have too much respect for the notation of a Beethoven to want to permanently obscure his expression with my opinions.
With forScore this completely changes. Annotations can be freely drawn in with variety of pen stroke and color: fingerings, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, analysis, and nothing is altered in the original!
Versions allow for multiple layers of annotation to exist within a single score. If I decide to try a totally different interpretation, I don’t need to erase my old one- just start a new version! This is a terrific tool for students as well, as every student can have their own version of annotations tailored to their fingering and expression over the same score file.
Annotations would be even more effective with a digitizing stylus. This is completely Apple’s fault, however. Hopefully future iPads will allow for digitizer pen input. Fortunately, forScore provides a great collection of stamps containing commonly used musical symbols for the handwriting challenged.
*The Cregle iPen does offer digitized input with the iPad! Unfortunately there is no announced compatibility with forScore*
Page turns are accompanied by a subtle paging animation, which can be turned off if desired. A tap or swipe on the right edge of the iPad advances the page, the left edge pages back.
One of the most exciting uses for digital sheet music is hands-free page turning. Bluetooth functionality in forScore allows for the use of wireless pedals such as the Pageflip Cicada or the AirTurn BT-105. In fact, these pedals can connect to any app on a tablet or desktop that offers bluetooth keyboard support, as they essentially mimic the up and down arrows on the keyboard. Everyone who sees the hands free page turning with wireless foot pedals absolutely loves it!
Even with the facility of page turns with a pedal, forScore has noticeable performance flaws with delays in page turning, particularly with large libraries. Part of this problem has to do with Apple and iOS, which doesn’t allow for a separate document filesystem, creating an unnecessary bloat in the app data structure. I have an 8 gig score library, which is probably larger than most, and takes up half of my iPad. Because the entire library is forced into a single app, it must make it much more difficult to process all of the data. With libraries of less than 1 GB, forScore runs fairly quickly, but larger libraries certainly tax the system. Apple’s insistence on a locked filesystem only accessible through iTunes file sharing is clunky and terrible.
The other half of the problem is the way forScore renders each page completely before turning the page and displaying it. This allows for every page to be crisp and clear, but this is compromised by the delay in processing time. forScore has the potential to cause snags in a performance, if the artist is expecting an immediate page turn and there is a delay to render the entire next page before it is displayed!
In my opinion, the solution to this problem is in an optional viewing mode for continuous vertical scrolling. This has the additional benefit of being able to see the bottom of one page and the top of another in a seamless scroll, really the ideal way to read a continuously flowing musical sequence.
*Update* The latest version of forScore has a remarkably improved rendering engine! Page turns have virtually no delay, making my previous statements rather outdated. However, I still fell that vertical scrolling is the ideal presentation for digital sheet music, not an archaic page turning concept derived from physical books.
Read more in the below comparison to Adobe Reader iOS.
forScore offers remarkable flexibility in editing pdf documents within the iPad, allowing for non-destructive cropping to individual pages or an entire score at once, as well as rearranging and deleting pages. It is nearly a full-fledged pdf editor, except the page rearrange is very slow to load larger documents as it loads each page into a thumbnail gallery.
A built-in Metronome is a useful addition. It has settings for different meters and obviously tempi, as well as an option for visual pulse that flashes a border around the screen edge. I personally dislike this, but it’s a cool feature that others may prefer. Interestingly, the metronome can be used to sync to the number of bars on a page to automatically turn pages. This assumes that each page in a pdf has the same number of bars- in practice it isn’t always very effective.
A wonderful addition is the ability to sync a score or a bookmark with audio in the iTunes library on the iPad. So you can follow the score of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony while listening to it from iTunes. It would be awesome if this worked over Airplay for desktop iTunes libraries as well!
Finally, the library can be integrated with Dropbox for cloud based storage. It would be good if uploads to Box.net and Google Drive were supported as well, but it is possible to open documents from those apps into forScore.
Apple iBooks has a pdf functionality, but lacks every important feature offered by forScore, in addition to a clumsy library system wholly inadequate for organizing a large sheet music library. Its one redeeming asset is the ability to sync documents through iTunes via the Books tab, even wirelessly. I could see this being useful with very large libraries. Simply adding a new document creates a sync with the library instead of trying figure out what is or is not on the iPad and manually uploading, eliminating duplicates and old versions. Perhaps someday Apple will facilitate this type of library syncing with an app like forScore.
Perform by Paragoni offers continuous vertical scrolling, as well as a timed autoscroll and an interesting video recording feature to record live performance through the front facing iPad camera. Unfortunately the app interface is unpolished and the library system is atrocious- featuring large generic score icons poorly influenced by iBooks’ bookshelf view.
*Update* Adobe Reader has incorporated a folder library organization system in its latest update! It works very well, though it doesn’t make use of metadata (odd since Adobe basically invented its use), nor does it include support for bluetooth page turning. It’s still not a perfect score reading solution, but its pretty amazing for free!
Adobe Reader iOS is a barebones pdf viewer, yet its rapid rendering times and continuous scrolling capability illustrate the performance flaws in forScore. It has no bookmarking, no prevention of sleep mode/display dimming, and no support for bluetooth keyboards (and by extension bluetooth page turners). For myself, this makes the app almost useless as a viable music reader, but the incredible performance of Adobe Reader makes me wish for an implementation of this style of rendering in forScore!
The Adobe Reader creates seamless vertical scrolling documents that are rendered on the fly. Slow scrolling causes no perceptible distortion in the image, rapid finger swiping causes the image to appear blurry before the renderer has time to catch up, but it clears up immediately. There is no lag in the time it takes to make a page actually appear, the delay is only in rendering images outside of the immediate page range. Additionally, Adobe Reader also includes horizontal navigation scrubbing with dynamic thumbnails, like forScore.
I submit Adobe Reader as the ideal candidate for what continuous vertical scrolling should be like in a magnificent update to forScore.
- Elegant design
- Interface customization
- Powerful library organization/search functions
- Bookmarking and setlists offer skillful practice/performance tools
- Bluetooth hands-free page turning
- Built in metronome
- Integrated iTunes music library
- No continuous scrolling
- Metadata editing is challenging for large libraries
forScore is a remarkably well designed and full featured app. Nearly every possible feature useful to a musician is built in. It is not just a pdf reader, but a legitimate tool for enriching music study. Having the complete works of the greatest composers in the palm of your hands is powerful. forScore provides you with the tools to make these resources manageable and customized to your work and practice.
The app developers are approachable and open to comments and suggestions. I would recommend making a polite request via their support page to add continuous scrolling as an important feature in a future update.
I am a fan of forScore and commend the developers for the imagination and skill it takes to create apps that satisfy an important, if uncommon, need. I want the app to be the best it can be.
If somehow the rendering engine and continuous scrolling of Adobe Reader iOS were combined with forScore’s library and other wonderful features, we would have the ideal sheet music reader for the iPad!
There are a number of pdf readers for iOS, and several dedicated to sheet music in particular, yet few of them possess the same level of polish, attention to detail, and complete feature set necessary to not only facilitate the practice and performance of sheet music, but to entirely enhance the experience!
forScore on iOS
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