Sheet music apps for the iPad – my experience

Sheet-Music programs for the iPad

See yet another followup article

Update May 2013: See this followup article

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As mentioned in a previous post, my aging and no longer supported MusicPad Pro tablet that I had been using for the past 9 years to display and manage my sheet music is dying. So, I invested in an iPad. This article is a brief look at a few iPad apps I’ve looked at. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review.

Desired features

I would like to be able to clearly read the music from a keyboard with page turns and repeats being reliable and possible. A decent way to manage and find the songs is needed. I also need to be able to have a set list – where a whole concert is in one listing with the ability to move from song to song without having to do anything special. A program that reads PDF files without having to convert to another format would really help. While I hardly ever used annotations in the 9 years I had the MusicPad, it is still a nice feature to have.

Free offerings

I tried three free programs.


First, there is iBooks — A free app from Apple. This app is designed to view books in either the ePub format or PDF format. Once you transfer your music to iBooks, it shows up in the app and can be viewed. That’s pretty much it. There are no special features that would help the musician. I couldn’t get rid of un-needed white space. (Even reading books, there is too much white space that I can’t seem to remove).


The second free program is piaScore. For a free program, it works. However, the one negative that made it useless for me was that I cannot zoom in (at all) or eliminate white space from the sides of the imported PDF files. The quality of the PDF file will make a big difference, but not being able to zoom in can make even the best PDF file hard to read. There is a metronome and, for me, an odd feature, a link to YouTube that tries show videos with the same title as the sheet music. As with many free programs I examined, they have an online store that will sell you music to use with the app.


Another program worth mentioning is ScorecererLite, a free offering. (There is also a paid version that I did not look at). What looked good for me was a free desktop companion program that lets you import music from various formats, including the MusicPad freehand (.fh) format. It does do that, but, it does not import FH files you may have bought from Freehand as they were copy protected. As best I could figure out, no matter the source, you have to convert your music to the app’s format using the computer program and even then, you have to transfer the files via wireless. It does not sync via iTunes. It is useable, but barely.

Paid offerings

In the paid category, two programs stood out over others.


This seems geared toward ‘fake books’ and PDF collections. With quite a bit of work on the user’s end on their computer, one can create a csv file consisting of an index of a large collection. One could then use that to quickly find a song within the collection. Alternatively, you can add bookmarks manually. As I think is true with any large PDF file on the iPad, large files were sluggish when turning pages. The song management and set list options were acceptable but not ideal.

It has a number of features that allow you put a button in your score that can: 1) control the metronome, 2) start/stop the recorder or 3) the player, 4) play a pitch and 5) a popup note is displayed. The ability to type in lyrics, I assume to use to display via an exernal display, is also available. You can also use the ipad’s camera to take a photo of a piece of music or load an existing photo(s) that is then converted into a PDF file.

I didn’t cover all the features the program offers. I’m someone who doesn’t have to have a program instantly work for me and I don’t mind reading the manual and studying how a program works. However, with this program I read the manual more than once, played with the app for a while and just didn’t get it. The unrealBook may suit your needs perfectly and it may be more powerful, but if it is, I’m not sure the extra time required to learn it is worth it when you factor in the time you’ll spend transferring music into any of these apps.


The final paid product and the one I’ve been using on a weekly basis is forScore. It is entirely PDF based and reads any PDF file. (Again, large files can be problematic in this and any iPad app). In addition to transferring your own PDF files into the app, another iPad user can send you files via email or bluetooth and vice versa. The app also features the ability to use its own browser to save PDF files directly from the web. Turning pages is fast and easy. You can either tap the right edge of the screen or swipe, or both. I found that as I reached up with my left hand to go forward, I was unintentionally swiping from right to left resulting in going back a page. There is nothing on the screen besides your music, which is good. When you tap the screen, the menu items show up. You can use the standard iPad pinch gestures to zoom in while double-tap returns to default zoom. You can also touch on the title in the top menu bar where a dialog box showing metadata appears. It also shows a thumbnail of the page with a slider at the bottom that allows you to fine-tune the zoom level so you can eliminate just the right amount of white space.

The file management system is the most detailed of any app I looked at but could still use improvement. It uses the PDF metadata to propagate the various find and search options available. You can search on title, composer, genre and keywords and more. You can organize your music into set lists. You can display the setlist in the order you entered it, sorted alphabetically, recently played or a shuffle/random order. Bookmarks can be added to any page of any music and are easily searchable. When looking at a list of titles, you can press on a title and hold your finger down. Doing so results in a decent sized thumbnail popping up. Click on the thumbnail and the music is loaded. The big drawback with the file management is that it relies either on the original PDF having all of its metadata present or the user entering it once it is on the iPad (or using an auto-scan option to import the metatdata, assuming the PDF has any). I found editing the files first on my computer to be the best way to do it.

You can attach/bind an audio file to a song. There is a metronome that can be used in the traditional way but also to attach a unique BPM value to each score. You can also program the pages to turn automatically based on the tempo and beats/measure per score. I have yet to try that feature. You can move, duplicate or delete pages from within your score. Generally speaking, this is not to be used for repeats as there is a ‘links’ option available to setup repeats. For DropBox users, it also integrates with that service to allow you add files straight from DropBox. You can also create PDF files from within the app by taking photos of the music or by importing photos already in your iPad picture folder. You have to get a really good photo (lots of light, flat pages and good angle) in order to get a decent PDF and then it can end up being a large file.

If all that wasn’t enough, there is a pitch source, an on screen piano keyboard and options for TV/external output. And of course you can make annotations. You can draw, type erase and clear. There are a number of drawing styles available. You can also make a snapshot of the current annotations and display different annotations at different times. You have hue, saturation, transparency, brightness and size options with the drawing styles. There are music stamps available to add markings to your music (mainly articulations) and you can create your own 48x48px stamps. You can also have different versions of the same score, up to 24 different versions. This appears to be variations in the metadata (and possibily the annotations). There are numerous options in the settings dealing with such things as swipe or no-swipe, page types, look/feel and the like.

Other apps

Here are some other apps worth mentioning. There is a “Baptist Hymnal” app. The free version includes a few titles from the 2008 Southern Baptist hymnal. You can purchase the entire hymnal with an in-app purchase. Not bad, but I couldn’t find a way to remove the top menu. That meant the music was too big (vertically) for the iPad.

Another is the Hymnal Lite. It has only 19 hymns with audio (organ) recordings of the hymns. More hymns can be purchased at the developer’s website (but not via in-app). The recordings do nothing to add value for me and could be left out as far as I was concerned.

Just announced as I started this article is the Adobe Reader for iPad. Adobe, the big name in PDF files has released a reader for the iPad. It obviously would not be geared toward music but it views PDF files and has some annotation features that would work for music. Did I mention it is also free?

PDF files and music

Since I’ve been composing, arranging and selling music in PDF format for over 10 years, I’m accustomed to music in PDF format. However, there isn’t as much music from legal sources out there available in PDF format. Not too many publishers, especially the big publishers are selling music in the PDF format. (I know some of the classical publishers have experimented with CD-ROM products – remember the CD-ROM? – that were password protected PDF files, but as to contemporary music, I just don’t see it out there for sale. Please let me know if it is). I don’t know if they are being pressured by the rights holders to have DRM on their products using propriety DRM methods or what? As more publishers move to selling music in digital form – usually for a user to print out at home – they do so using proprietary formats with DRM but don’t offer sheet music for download to a computer file in a standard format. So, finding music legally in PDF format is hard and until publishers start selling PDF files (without copy protection), people will be forced to turn to piracy to find what they need.

If you already have a large collection of paper music, you’ll need to get it into your computer. The easiest way is to scan it in. Of course, that assumes you have or have access to a scanner. Use grayscale and 150 or 300dpi. That seems to work the best, but experiment. Another option is to take a photo of it and touch up before converting it. You then need to take those images (scanned or photo) and convert to PDF. There are some free ways to do that, but most likely you’ll end up having to buy a program to do it. If you have a program like Finale or Sibelius and have time, you can use its score reading features (like PhotoScore in Sibelius) to read in your scans and convert to notation. You could also enter the music by hand. Either way is time consuming but the resulting PDF file that will be created will be small and better looking than almost any scan. Once you have the PDF file created, importing into any of the apps mentioned (that support PDF) is no problem.

I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions for other iPad music apps to look at.


About jamesgilbertmusic

JamesGilbertMusic is a web based publisher of sheet music and mp3 files. The founder, James Gilbert, is a pianist, organist composer/arranger and piano teacher. He offers piano lessons in Micanopy.
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31 Responses to Sheet music apps for the iPad – my experience

  1. Pingback: Index sheetmusic | Self-Absorbed

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks for downloading the Baptist Hymnal app! We’re looking for ways to update and enhance it at

    • It’s a nice app and if one is involved in Baptist music, it’s a must. It just occurred to me that Lifeway (under the name Broadman Press) published some of my music back in 1991. I’d forgotten about that.

  3. Dave says:

    I am new to the Ipad and am looking for a solution. It became readily evident that the best approach is to have single sheets saved as the Music title and an app to sort and manage the files. I noticed that Ipad Screen Capture creates png files so I am experimenting with the png image approach and using a photoManagement tool to organize my music.
    The music can be put into folders and within the folders sorted by name. Each song has a thumb nail and the title for quick retrieval.
    Not perfect, but it works better than paging through a huge PDF file.

    • I wouldn’t do it that way. With each page of music being a different png file it is real easy to get them confused and a huge amount of work to set the titles appropriately. Forscore or Unreal book apps have ways to set bookmarks of individual titles within a huge PDF file. So if you have a huge fakebook, it’s easy to use the bookmarks to find the individual titles within a large PDF file. Personally, I only have one title per PDF file (multiple pages) and use set lists if I need to play more than one in a row. The search functions, annotation and meta-data capabilities and the lightning speed of the new forScore release far outdo relying on single images. Plus, you’ll probably run out of storage space as images are bigger than PDF files (unless the PDF files are nothing but scanned images).

      Of course, if you can’t afford or don’t want to spend money on an app, then you have little choice but do it your way.

      • Dave says:

        Thanks for the tip. I tried a few ways and a few apps because I am wired that way.:-)
        Forscore is great.

  4. Jason says:

    As far as new music in PDF Format, has a huge library of hymns and contemporary worship songs available for purchase in PDF format (the entire Baptist Hymnal plus many more added since publication). They are also adding choral octavos and instrumental pieces. With their distribution arrangements with PraiseGathering and Lillenas, I would expect the availability to increase substantially.

    • By now, the article is becoming a bit dated. As an update, I find I’m using forScore almost exclusively for viewing sheet music. It’s nice to see that larger publishers are starting to sell in PDF format rather than proprietary digital formats. The only version of the Baptist Hymnal I’ve seen was an an app format for the iPad and not in PDF. Nice to see that is out. Now if only the Episcopal Church would put its service hymnal & pew hymnal in PDF format (and I hope none of these PDF files are scanned images). Personally, with over 14,000 titles in my personal library and over 400 that I’ve written myself, and writing music daily, I have little need for new material. Plus, my church performing requirements do not involve any contemporary worship style music whatsoever so PraiseGathering & Lillenas won’t be of much benefit to me. I wish Hal Leonard and Alfred would sell titles in PDF format, particularly Alfred piano methods books. Thanks for the update.

  5. Gabriel says:

    Have you tried SongSheet for the iPad? (Disclaimer: I am a developer of the app). It is for lyrics & chords display, not general sheet music, but we are trying to make it as easy to use as possible. Would love people out there in the community that use apps such as these to give us feedback about the type of stuff that would make their lives easier as musicians wanting apps that support them in what they do.

    • I have no personal or professional need for anything other than traditional sheet music viewing apps, but I certainly could see where your product would be useful to those that use lyrics & chords. The iTunes info looks good. I certainly could see someone in a contemporary worship setting using something like that. For those reading the blog who have such a need, check it out.

  6. Uncle Meade says:

    I am an amateur trumpet player and am interested in scanning books and using them either on a large screen fold-out laptop or a notepad computer, however, I’d like to be able to scroll the pages rather than turning the pages. Is there anything out there that would allow that feature?
    Thanks for your evaluations

    • I’m not familiar with anything specific to music to do that. Acrobat reader comes close, scrolling the pages vertically is an option. Perhaps some of the other readers of the blog can help?

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  8. Juz says:

    Hi I am interested in knowing if you are aware of any score scanning apps that allow for simple editing. More specifically, transposing key, adding in bow directions for string instruments, editing dynamics. Do you know if these apps are compatible with the VoiceOver feature on the iPad?

    • I have not tried any notation software for the iPad. The only app for the iPad I’ve even heard of that does notation is ‘Notion’ but I know nothing about it. I prefer to do notation work on a computer. The iPad is a terrible device for inputing any data easily. The on-screen keyboard is very slow and tap & drag for music would be painfully slow (compared to a computer with a music keyboard hooked up). You might look at Scorch for ipad for transposing if you already have Sibelius files available. Finale has a similar program.

      • Juz says:

        Cheers thanks. Really I’m looking for an app that uses the full VoiceOver accessability capabilities of the iPad with basic easy to use editing functions. I might contact some app developers and see what they say.

  9. Steve says:

    Is anybody familiar with a way to save annotations in a score. My school issue iPad will be updated this weekend, and I’m nervous I’ll lose all of my rehearsal markings. I use Piascore. Any other app allow the saving of annotations?

    • I use forScore. The times I’ve updated the OS or the program itself I’ve never had any issues with annotations. So long as they aren’t wiping out everything (including content you’ve put on the iPad), I wouldn’t think it would be a problem with Piascore but I’d rather someone who uses it say for sure. Make a backup of the iPad before letting them update it.

  10. Amalie says:

    I am buying an ipad for work this christmas and have been looking at the forscore app reviews and info online. I play the piano for ballet classes and will be needing to imput around 1000 pieces of music and sorting them by category..gavotte, tarentella, jig, waltz to name a few. I am wondering if it is easy and quick to move between folders of music on forscore and how quick they load. I usually have less than a minute to change pieces before I need to play for the next combination. I appreciate your article as these are the apps I have been looking at and I have never used any tablet and have no idea where to begin.

    • You can create “playlists” in forscore. If you know ahead of time what songs you will be playing, put them in the playlist in order. When you get to the end of one piece, doing a normal page turn goes to the next piece in the playlist. There is also a global search feature that would allow you to find music relatively quickly, although I’d prefer the playlist route over that. In playlist mode, you can also bring up a list of the songs in that playlist that allows you to switch quickly between titles in the playlist.

  11. Susan Kolb says:

    Were you ever able to transfer your musicpad pro freehand scores to the Forscore program? I have the music pad pro and have hundreds of songs and dread having to scan all those songs in again….any ideas?

    • I could not find a direct conversion, but I did find a way. For those musicpad pro/freehand scores that were not copy-protected, simply print the music to a PDF file. For those that were purchased from freehand and thus copy-protected, look in the folder/directory where the musicpad pro desktop program is. There is a dos command-line program that allows you to print even copy-protected/encrypted files. I don’t have the software any more & can’t remember the exact steps other than I did have to enter my username/password for each file I wanted to print. You may need to set the default print driver in the musicpad desktop software to a pdf driver. Hope that helps.

  12. I just thought I would mention that you can find a number of iPad music resources looking up a related topic…iPads and music education. My blog (techinmusiced) focuses on this, as of many others.

    I opened a new high school in 2009, and had a MusicPad Pro for the choir program. By April of 2010, it was clear that the iPad was the way to go, and I was able to sell the MPP under school policies for about $400 (paid $900). Anyone that complains abou the cost of an iPad or any other tablet just doesn’t understand recent history.

    To answer a couple of questions from the thread, you have named the 2 most complete apps for music reading: forScore and unrealBook. Both have many features, and some different features. At $6.99 for forScore and $5.99 for unrealBook, I suggest owning both.

    There are a couple more apps to keep in mind. DeepDishDesigns GigBook has some unique features that allow users to move one page out of a larger PDF into a separate binder (think of what church musicians need to do on a Sunday morning). And there is another app, NextPage, which is a bare bones PDF music reader that only gives you the key features you need (annotation, playlists, hotspots/linking for repeats) if forScore or unrealBook are too much for you. I now teach middle school, and forScore would have too many options for them.

    Additionally, PiaScore just added a bunch of features. For the mature user, they are great..for middle school, they are additional distractions.

    Finally, a lot of these apps allows for the use of a Bluetooth page turner, like the AirTurn. Someone posted about scrolling…the use of foot pedal page turner can make the use of an iPsd as a sheet music reader a major improvement for many musicians.

  13. WayneD says:

    Hi, I noticed that you mentioned forscore. My guitar instructor highly recommended it. He has it on his original Ipad. I bought an original ipad used only to find that forscore has updated its program to one requiring IOS7. Unfortunately my ipad only goes to IOS5.1 and cannot be upgraded to IOS7. Is there any way to obtain an older version of forscore?

    • That’s a very good question. One best answered by the makers of forscore since I don’t have an answer. Hopefully you can.

    • Gabriel says:

      Hi Wayne, I’m not related to forscore at all, but I am an iOS developer. Apple has set things up now so that if there is an older version of an app that runs on your device, then when you buy the app it will download the compatible version, not the newest one. Of course, that means unless you get a new device that supports iOS 7 you’ll never get any updates for that app.

      • banjobill says:

        I have an HP All In One that for some reason doesn’t save to documents like it used to. I suspect someone (me) messed it up. I used to scan a page of sheet music and save to documents. It used to give me the option of scanning a second page so I could just tap the iPad and go to the 2nd page. That option doesn’t show up anymore. Then after saving to Documents I would add it to the Unreal book App On iTunes. Then I would sync to Unreal Book on my iPad. If I was to get a new All In One, does anyone have a suggestion as to which one would be the best to purchase. My Computer is also a Mac.

  14. Daniele says:

    Read your thoughts on IPads and u are far more sophisticated than I in what u do with your music. I have handwritten lyric with chords on top of lyrics in my key I sing in big folder I take to work. Yes the old 3 hole binder leather folder like high school. about 600 songs ever since 80’s. Can IPad Itake photo of each page separately , it makes PDF, I add title for index of songs so I can just go right to it. Too much to scan!! Then from now on I can scan what I have typed out and add in song list PDF . That is all I need. iPad take photo of pages so I don’t have to scan past material. Is that possible? Thankyou for your reply-much appreciated!! Daniele

    • I primarily use the program “forScore” for viewing and playing music on the iPad. It allows you to take a photo and import it directly into the program. It also has lots of library features. But, for lyrics and chords (no notation), I’d look into an app specifically for that purpose. SongSheet might do the trick but you’d have to take a photo, then convert it to either text or a PDF file then load into the program. It will take time to get everything in digital format. Lyric/chord sheets and music in pdf format are available for purchase from various sources.

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