Digital Music

I’m going to write about my experience with digital music. No, not MP3s and whatever else iTunes does. I’m going old-school. Pre-recording. Sheet music, guys. As a musician, sheet music is something I have a lot of – my choir binder is a 1-inch black binder, and it is very nearly at maximum capacity. At the start of this school year, I took it upon myself to ensure that all the music across the choir program (4 different performing groups spanning roughly 300 students) was available digitally. So I created a website (using Weebly, which I later wished I’d thought to check for an education discount type thing on) and got started.

Now, as I might have convinced you, this wasn’t a small project – one of the annoying things about music is that it rarely comes in the scanner-standard letter size of paper. 8.5×11? Pshaw. Even worse, a sizeable amount of it is printed in booklets. Despite the scanner I used having a lovely double-sided autofeed system, I didn’t get to use it very often. Manually flipping from page to page. Probably the best bit of time-saving I had was when I was given the copies of things – the copiers used were set to automatically scale things to normal letter paper, so those ones I could just send through the feeder.

After far too much time spent sitting beside the scanner, flipping from page to page, I had a folder full of PDFs. I decided to use PDF mainly because it was the easiest way to keep the various pieces of music organized – all the pages in one nice unit. I had, at one point, tried doing image scans and then dropping them in Word documents, and it was terrible. Microsoft Word, while a powerful text editor, is not meant for large images in any way, shape, or form.

So. Folder of PDFs. Next thing I did was try to upload them. Sadly, I was on the ‘free’ level Weebly account, which comes with unlimited storage but a rather compact maximum file size. Most of the music worked, but a few pieces didn’t. Dropbox to the rescue! That handy Public folder, making it easy to share big files.

So. All the music was posted online for all the members of the choir to access, as well as neatly organized by choir. What next?

I decided to work on how I could turn this digital music to my advantage. I went with what I had available – the laptop has a good screen size for it, but it’s not so lightweight that I’d enjoy lugging it around all day. Plus, whipping out a laptop during choir would be slightly odd. Next option: phone. I can get away with it during my chamber choir, because it’s a smaller group composed almost entirely of upperclassmen. We’re fairly tight-knit, and the director is very much aware that I’m not going to be using my phone for something stupid in class.

Using my phone (an iPhone 5, by the way) was not too bad – the screen was high-enough resolution that I could distinguish everything on the scanned page, but it also wasn’t large enough to be easily readable at a comfortable holding distance. Additionally, as I didn’t ever go to the effort to move the files out of the Dropbox app, I couldn’t do any annotating of the PDFs.

I also tried putting things on my Kindle (the PaperWhite model, which I find is a pleasure to read with), which worked out… variably. The PaperWhite has what is advertised as a ‘6 inch’ screen, whatever that measurement actually works out to. In the default portrait mode, it just scales an 8.5×11 scan to fit the screen. Legible, but only technically. It worked out okay for a song that I only needed the occasional tip on the notes of, but not for anything that I was still learning.

Then I found, tucked away in the three-lines-icon ‘more’ menu, a ‘Landscape Mode’ option. That worked wonderfully, for a couple pieces of music. Switched to the wider layout, it would then crop the page to fit. This worked marvelously for anything that only had two lines per page – it cut right between them, perfectly dividing it so that I would tap the screen to advance to the next line, every time. Other sizes of music, though – things printed on other sizes of paper (see the aforementioned booklets) or with more than two lines per page – suffered. And, once again, I couldn’t annotate anything. Sure, the Kindle has that lovely touch-and-drag to select text which then offers a ‘highlight’ or ‘note’ option – but it barely functions on scanned PDFs. Selecting either fails utterly or selects an entire page at a time. Highlighting is useless, at that scale, and the annotation options are nothing like what I’d want.

And so, my new goal: I’m working on getting myself a tablet (probably a Nexus 7), which I’ll load up with a good Dropbox app (I’m thinking Dropsync, something which has gotten good reviews and offers the kind of entire-folder sync that I’d want and that the normal Dropbox app doesn’t offer) and something for PDF annotation (I haven’t decided just what yet, I’ll be looking around later). Whenever I actually get that done, I’ll do a write-up of my experience with that.