MusicReader_2 Proprietary systems like FreeHand’s awkwardly-named MusicPad Pro Plus (Pro Plus, eh?) have offered digital manuscript paper for some time. But the idea there is you buy dedicated hardware; the MusicPad Pro Plus is US$899. With tablet PCs starting at about the same price, and the convenience of having your mobile computer also be your music notation, it seems like the convergence of the manuscript page and the computer isn’t far off.

Enter MusicReader for Windows XP and Vista. It runs just US$69-99; bring your own laptop. Better yet, bring your own tablet PC and you have a form factor that fits naturally on a music stand and can be marked up with digital ink. Turn pages with a tap or foot pedal.

Sheet Music 2.0 [, via the tablet lovers at]

With the ultra-thin machine on its way (witness new ultra-thin laptops from Apple and Lenovo, and upcoming low-power, tiny chips from Intel), the future looks even better. Here’s a video of the system in action, lest you think this would never appear in the real world (suggestion: you may want to mute the sound, as the background score is a bit …unnecessary):

Mac users, looks like you’re booting into Boot Camp for now. Too bad Apple still doesn’t think we want a tablet.


Reading notation is good fun, but what if you could write it, too? A little-noticed, open-source tool from researchers at Brown University does just that on Windows Tablet PCs, and even made a brief, official appearance as a Microsoft PowerToy. The recognition is surprisingly satisfying once you learn the shortcuts, which resemble Palm Graffiti strokes. Finally, in 2005 the developers added MIDI export, making this a potentially useful tool. If there’s someone out there with a newish Vista tablet, I’d be curious to know if this still works on modern machines.

To me, the ability to write as well as read makes things far more interesting. But for about a hundred bucks — well, plus whatever your tablet PC cost — you’ve got digital music paper right now.

Music Notepad for Tablet PC

Does any of this actually matter to you? Blogger Tom Whitwell asked that of his readers, and found the answer is, well, sorta:

Can Music Thing readers read music? [Music Thing]

  • I think Music Thing recently had a poll to see how many of their readers could read music… I'm curious to see if you have many interested commenters on this post. I also wonder if a lot of musicians have negative associations with sheet music… like, if it brings back bad memories of being coerced into learning an instrument they weren't interested in, for example.

    I downloaded Finale Notepad 2008 for the Mac, which is free, but apparently limited in some way that would make me want to upgrade if I used it more often. For most of what I do, I've become pretty good at "reading" MIDI piano rolls, so sheet music would be an unnecessary extra step.

  • MonksDream


    I, for one, read and write Western music notation. Reading written music notation is not a necessary precondition to making music, just as reading written English is not a necessary precondition to speaking English. However, being able to read and write makes learning and sharing ideas *much* easier in both cases.

    If you make music in isolation, or only with others that use the same tools you do, standard music notation may not be important. But, when you hire someone to play on your session, handing them a written part can be a session-saver.

    I think a lot of musicians use notation but don't call it that. The basic structure of a song and how long the chords last scribbled on the back of a pizza menu qualifies as notation too..

    The "negative connotations" toward written music that I've run into are usually from people that are making excuses for not doing the work, AKA the "reading makes me less creative" crowd. Those that don't read and don't feel they need to don't make those kind of excuses. And even those people often have their own ways of writing down tunes so they can remember or share them. A good example is Luciano Pavorotti. He didn't "read music" but had his own written notation system.

  • MonksDream: all good points. I think I'm a little less frustrated with people's aversion to sheet music (which I think has its strengths and weaknesses), and more frustrated with their aversion to basic theory, like intervals, the circle of fifths, etc. I often wonder if people could "see" those relationships better if notation was somehow chromatic, so that minor thirds actually appeared smaller than major thirds, and so on. Once we realize the tonality of music folds up into a neat 12-sided origami-like ball, it becomes more magical, creative, and powerful, not less.

  • Interesting points all around here …

    I guess I'm a bit more pragmatic about the whole thing. If I need to communicate with other musicians, I use notation. If traditional notation isn't the right tool, I'll use alternative notations. If the music lends itself to working rote, then I go there.

    I know from past mentions that there's a goodly number of people who do work with notation (and Music thing's poll shows they do, too…) But yes, there are plenty of cases — for solo artists in particular — in which notation may not be necessary.

    The ideas about visualizing harmonies origami fashion are interesting, indeed. There have been lots of attempts to show these relationships with color, but making them three-dimensional could be more interesting.

    This gets into the whole question of what musics become possible when you get past traditional score notation … but there are still people who want to use it as a way of modeling various ideas that do fit it.

    I suppose you could get a lot more interesting than what I've got above — perhaps a tablet PC as an interface for something like Xenakis' tablet-based UPIC system, for which notation, graphic model, and resulting music were all one.

  • Rozling

    You mean like IanniX?
    (one day I will learn how to post bloody links here!) apparently this is UPIC's successor.

    The last I heard of UPIC it was mentioned in an Aphex Twin interview as a tool he uses – I actually thought UPIC was a joke and checked out this old Music Thing post about the interview to be sure:… if you scroll to the bottom of the comments (avoiding the spam) there's also reference to as a similar type of system, looks pretty sweet.

    – IanniX seems to have implementations for a fair amount of languages (including Processing) which might make it a good candidate for further interface exploration.

    I'm looking forward to trying the music notation software on my tablet – I find there's something oddly comforting about learning a piece off a page, but would definitely welcome and have long hoped for new ways of representing music visually. I find myself flitting back and forth between programs to get a better sense of what I'm doing visually…

  • jordan colburn

    I personally feel that reading sheet music does stifle creativity a bit. Granted my piano sight reding skills ar a little lacking, but whenever I learn a piece off music I'm much less likely to experiment, improv and change it up. I just end up playing the piece like it was written, and that makes me more of a typewritter than a musician. I can see the other side of the story too though, as I played sax in jazz and concert bands, written music is obviously neccesary for quickly learning and communicating the different parts.

    I also just installed the music notepad on my vista/xp tablet, seems to work well(although it crashed a couple times loading the demo). Writting music is really easy and once you learn the gesture system it comes really fluidly.

  • MonksDream

    Interesting, Jordan

    The issue may not be the act of reading but one's expectations of it. When an actor is reading a script they are, of course, looking for springboards to their creativity. However the whole point is to learn the text well enough to "lift it off the page" and make the reading unnecessary. The same is true of written music IMO. The reason reading may stifle creativity is because it's not meant to be a creative act, merely a learning tool or memory aid.

  • MonksDream

    Another thought just occurred to me: the other reason reading may suppress creativity is that it requires attention, which leaves less for being creative.

  • jordan colburn

    MonksDream, your point is the best argument I've heard for written music, nice to think about. For me though, if it's not all memory, I just fumble through it and don't really play, but it could be that I just don't spend enough time reading to begin with.

  • Written notation can only say so much, too. "Play this note for this many beats". Beyond a few dynamics markings, staccato/legato, and a few other things, there isn't really an adequate written language for the universe of expressive nuance.

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  • I am a big fan of Myriad's Harmony Assistant, which at $85 easily makes the budget. I mainly use it to do acapella arrangements and for this it can't be beat. It handles lyrics in the score with ease. Plus for only $25 you can buy the Virtual Singer plugin which will sing all of your lyrics for you. It even has a web plugin that plays the music notation and

    audio in real-time, so you can distribute your finished product to all and sundry.

    Most of the musicians I work with don't read music, though many of them like to have "the dots" anyway. Timing is pretty easy to convey without the score, but pitch is more difficult. If there are several parts in close harmony you need some sort of map to tell you where to go. Especially for mid parts, the obvious harmonies are not always the correct ones. Even without knowing the notes, the score visually tells you how far and in what direction your part is moving compared to the others.

    Of course, the score is not the whole story but it gives you something to work from. Once you know the basic parts there's usually plenty of room for creativity in the interpretation.

  • Ken Sealy

    I am a 42 year old man who struggled for years with piano lessons because I have a serious problem that manifests almost exclusively in reading music notation.

    For normal written communication at any given point I may transpose "d" and "b", or "p" and "q", but in context I spot my error right away and correct it easily. Because I learned to read everything twice and always am rechecking what I write and read, my dyslexia has never been apparent, with the exception of when I first was learning to write, as a child. Good grades the whole nine yards.

    Then I started taking music lessons and they were an ordeal. Not because of not practicing, but because in music there is primarily only one "letter" with different accesories, and it is the placement of the letter that determines "pronunciation". That letter is the note. Unfortunately, for me, the placement of the dots lands smack dab where my learning disability gives difficulty, which is positional. And there is no context to the dots to offer a guidance. As much as I loved music, it seemed that I had very limited ability, because I could never play anything I hadn't heard.

    Much later on, in college, I joined the university chorale, and started doing some musical theater, and was relieved to find that I did have some musical talent after all. It turns out that another difficulty that I had with the piano was in trying to read multiple lines while simultaneously having to determine the placement of each note. It was simply too much for my young mind to process at once.

    So what's the problem? Now I can arrange music and harmonize improptu, but I also can "hear" in my mind the multiple voices, and I am longing for a notation system/software that will allow the use of some other system where there are different symbols used other than the note. I think my life would have been quite different if there had been some other notation system, and I am sure its just a matter of time before something comes out that is accessible to me. In fact, it might already be here. That is what I was searching for when I came across this very cool, and nonjudgmental conversation. 🙂