tabletsformusicians.com

Why use a tablet / an iPad to read sheet music?

This may surprise you, but this website is not here to convince you to use a tablet to make music. In particular, using a tablet to read sheet music offers as many advantages as disadvantages. It’s up to everyone to weigh things up and make their own decision, but perhaps my experience can be of some help.

I had the chance to use all kinds of tablets, almost daily and for several years as part of my work as a professional musician (symphony orchestra and chamber music). Here is a summary of 10 pros and 12 cons of using tablets / iPads to read sheet music:

Sheet music on tablets / iPads: pros

  • Infinite storage capacity: say goodbye to piles of sheet music and loose sheets.
  • No more printing and photocopying!
  • Saves space and weight.
  • Pages can be turned using a foot pedal (or a wink!).
  • Search and share scores quickly and easily.
  • Large choice of music apps of all kinds.
  • Advanced functions, such as playing scores / parts.
  • Perfect for windy open-air concerts.
  • Takes up little space on stage (with a dedicated tablet stand), the audience can see the musicians better.
  • Reduced carbon footprint under certain conditions.

Cons

  • High to very high initial purchase price.
  • Only the most expensive tablets / iPads come close to the size of printed sheet music.
  • There are no tablets / iPads larger than Letter / A4 paper format (except folding tablets, which are extremely expensive).
  • The batteries last a very long time, but you still need to recharge them.
  • Turning pages with a foot switch is not so easy.
  • Some tablets have readability problems in direct sunlight, or even overheat.
  • There are so many tablets / iPads and so many sheet music apps, that it’s hard to choose.
  • Scores need to be downloaded or scanned.
  • Weighs around 2.2 lb (1 kg) with cover, stylus, and pedal.
  • You may forget the pedal. In fact, you will often forget the pedal.
  • The transition takes time and can be difficult.
  • Substantial ecological footprint.

Tablet or iPad: terminology

In theory, the word “tablet computer” or “tablet” is a generic term for tablets from all manufacturers. The top five manufacturers Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo, and Xiaomi together account for 80% of the tablet market.

The term “iPad”, on the other hand, refers to Apple-branded tablets. Due to the very high market share of Apple tablets (40% worldwide, almost 60% in the U.S.), the term iPad is often used generically to refer to any tablet computer.

In some contexts, however, the terms “iPad” and “tablet” are used in opposition to each other. The former refers only to Apple tablets, the latter to other tablets, which generally use Android or Windows as their operating system.

To reflect all uses and to appear in search engine results, I frequently use both terms side by side.

How to choose a tablet / an iPad for sheet music?

To avoid any unpleasant surprises or a purchase you may regret, here are six tips to help you choose a tablet (Android or Windows) or an iPad:

1. The screen should be as large as possible

In theory, the further away the musician is from the scores (e.g., strings, trombone, percussion), the more important it is that the scores (and therefore the tablets) are big enough.

However, even musicians who are physically close to their scores, such as pianists or choir singers, don’t particularly enjoy playing on small scores (pocket scores or half letter / A5 sheet music). If you can afford it, try to avoid tablets that are too small.

The best iPad for sheet music: iPad with sheet music on a music stand, as seen from the timpani in an orchestra.

When it comes to reading sheet music, even the largest Apple iPad doesn’t look huge – especially when it’s at some distance from the performer. Photo: tablets-for-musicians.com

2. Compare the tablet's screen size with printed sheet music

Larger tablets like the 12.9″ iPad Pro or the Samsung Galaxy Tab S9 Ultra barely reach Letter or A4 paper size. Yet it’s common for printed music scores (especially orchestral scores) to be larger than Letter / A4 format.

Let’s take an example: the “standard” iPad, with its 10.9″ screen, has a display area equivalent to 57.6 % of the area of a sheet of US Letter paper (59 % of the A4 format), which brings it close to the very small half letter / A5 format. The “standard” iPad is therefore not ideal for displaying sheet music.

3. Maximum screen brightness must be taken into account

When playing outdoors, the brightness of the tablet or iPad screen is an essential factor. A tablet can become unreadable in direct sunlight if its maximum brightness is too low.

A maximum brightness of 400 nits (cd/m²) is a minimum; 600 nits or more should be preferred. However, if you never play outdoors, you can ignore this point.

4. Consider buying used or refurbished products

High-end tablets have a long lifespan. In particular, iPad Pros receive security updates up to 10 years after their release date. In my opinion, it’s better to buy a 12.9-inch iPad Pro that is one to three years old than a new, mid-range tablet with a much smaller screen.

5. Tablet lifespan ranges from two to ten years!

Here again, Apple leads the way, but Samsung promises at least five years of security updates on its high-end models. At Lenovo, it’s four years on the most recent tablets, such as the “Tab Extreme” and the P12.

Beware of lower-quality tablets, often delivered with outdated Android versions such as Android 11 or 12, and whose software support may be non-existent over the long term.

6. The operating system is one of the most important choice factors

When choosing a brand of tablet, you’re also opting for an operating system: Apple’s iPadOS, Android or Windows. The music software available depends greatly on the operating system. Here is a short summary:

  • iPadOS (Apple): you’ll find the widest choice of music applications on Apple iPads. Many apps are only available on iPad, for example forScore and Newzik, the most popular sheet music reading apps.
  • Android, the most widely used tablet operating system in the world, runs devices from Samsung, Lenovo, Huawei, Xiaomi, and many others. For reading sheet music, MobileSheets is the most popular application, and (good news!) it’s an excellent one. If you have an Android phone, are happy with it, and want to read sheet music on a tablet, choose an Android tablet.
  • Windows is used on two-in-one devices, both laptops and tablets, produced by Microsoft, Dell, or HP. This is the best option for running music notation programs (aka scorewriters), and if you don’t want to own both a tablet and a laptop. It is perfectly possible to read sheet music on a Windows tablet, and here again the MobileSheets app is the best option.
  • ChromeOS is the operating system running on Chromebooks. These are inexpensive hybrid laptops or tablets putting Chrome, Google’s web browser, at the center of the user experience. The music apps available are the same as for Android.
Tablets for musicians – Tablets with piano sheet music on a Steinway grand piano

From left to right: Android-based tablets Samsung Galaxy Tab S9 and S8 Ultra (14.6 inches), S8 Plus (12.4 inches), S7 (11 inches) and Lenovo IdeaPad Duet Chromebook (10.1 inches). Photo: tablets-for-musicians.com

Tablets and e-readers for musicians: Questions and Answers

What is the best screen size to read sheet music on a tablet (or e-reader)?

The tablets whose format comes closest to the size of sheet music are the following:

  • On iPadOS: the 12.9-inch iPad Pro
  • On Android: the Samsung Galaxy S9 Ultra (14.6-inch screen)
  • On Windows: the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 or the XPS 13 2-in-1 (13-inch) convertibles

E-readers of a format suitable for sheet music are as follows:

  • The Onyx Boox Tab X with its 13.3-inch screen (and its carbon copy, the PadMu 4)
  • Their predecessors, the Onyx Boox Max Lumi 2 and the PadMu Lumi 2

E-readers or tablets with screens 11 inches or smaller are not suitable for reading sheet music or for effectively using most music software. However, they may be sufficient to display songbooks, tablatures and song texts with chords.

Which e-readers are good alternatives to tablets (for musicians)?

For reading sheet music, practicing and performing, the best e-reader as an alternative to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the Onyx Boox Tab X, with a 13.3-inch e-ink display.

The best e-reader as an alternative to the 10.9-inch (iPad Air, "standard" iPad) and 11-inch (11-inch iPad Pro) iPads is the Onyx Boox Tab Ultra.

Its 10.3-inch electronic ink (e-ink) screen is, however, too small to work on sheet music and scores comfortably. To do so, you will have to consider its big brother, the Onyx Boox Tab X.