Mar 31, 2023

Digital Music Shops

I have been super quiet in the last several years on this blog and social media, but trying to make a little time this year to do a few blog posts. I have a backlog of things I want to do, but first, I thought I would start with a non-engineering topic.

I have played piano since I was 8 but took a break after my kids were born until a few years ago. While I love acoustic pianos, being a software engineer, I’ve always loved blending in technology, staying with my old Cakewalk and Yamaha PSR-500 configuration from the mid-90s.

Now that I’m back, there are a ton of things that have changed in technology, but the key one for me is sheet music — I no longer need to have a ton of books and flip through them like a madman or have a bunch of individual sheets and find creative ways to keep it together. Not only do you have tons of options for viewing sheet music, but you also have many options for organizing that music and annotating it.

Today, I’ll walk you through my current setup and how I get my sheet music. In case it matters, I play mostly classical and various music I like throughout the ages — it’s sometimes an “interesting” mix. In future blogs, I’ll discuss how I organize my music in my current setup. I’ve noticed in many of my piano circles that my setup is more tech-focused than the paper solutions, so hoping that my take will help with this.

Current Setup

I currently have an Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch , which is a bit smaller than books, but not by much. It has a long battery life, is very stable (it won’t crash during your performances), and carries a lot of music in a small package.

I use the iPad in portrait mode, which provides a larger view of the music, but you could use landscape mode and show two sheets of music. I just find it’s too small to be useful. Some technology is being worked on to extend that iPad screen onto two iPads which can help this — but really, I think what is more valuable is a pedal which, while isn’t the same as having more music in front of you, does fit most of the same purpose. I use the AirTurn Duo, which is quick to configure, and you can quickly turn pages — assuming you aren’t using the Una Corda and sustain pedal concurrently!

I recommend the Apple Pencil so that you can annotate your scores just like you would with your paper copies, although I actually find the color and erasing options better than the paper alternatives.

In terms of software, I use forScore. This allows me to use the same library on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone — yes, you read that right, the iPhone. I only do organization on my iPhone, but you can play music from it. This is super powerful, very usable for free, and you can unlock some additional features for a super affordable $9.99 a year. If anything, I would like to give them more money…

Before forScore, I used the Musicnotes app for about a year, which is good if most of your music is purchased from it, but it has a lot of limitations beyond that discussed below.

Before moving on to the next section, I will say that picking an app is the most critical part here, especially once you start to have a lot of music (reorganizing it in the new app is a pain!), and the hardest one is really the annotations! Once you have started using annotations extensively in many pieces, it’s hard to switch. Newzik is one that I have considered trying a few times, but outside of the more expensive subscription and relatively few differentiating features, the time to redo the folders and, more importantly, the annotations is just not worth it.


The vast majority of my music is purchased via Musicnotes. It has a good selection and is easy to use. When first using it, I would make sure that you look at many copies of the same piece of music before you buy one — for example, I am not a fan of their Singer Pro versions, but that is my preference.

They offer a subscription, which I recommend if you plan to make regular purchases with them. In addition to some other capabilities, it gives you 15% off purchases and you can purchase Pro Credits. When not on sale, Pro Credits are about $4 per piece, and whereas most of your pieces after your discount are just under $5, so a better value — this, of course, assumes you are purchasing them on the web; the app store is generally more as Apple has to take their cut…

In terms of the subscription, they have a Pro Premium plan, which for the first year makes sense, but after that, it feels expensive. Of note, in addition to 12 Pro Credits, it also gives you 12 free “Musicnote Editions”; this sounds great, but the selection of those is limited and, to me, not as interesting.

If you are into Concertos and longer pieces, I don’t find Musicnotes as great for this. They usually only offer the theme or the individual movements or something that will add up quickly.

I started using Musicnotes way before I had an iPad, and I want to mention this because most pieces you can print out. So your investment is still worthwhile even if you decide to return to paper later. I’d probably recommend saving the PDFs and printing a copy of the PDF, as some pieces have restrictions on how many times you can print them.

Lastly, they do offer a great IOS app. I used it for about a year and generally liked it. If most of your music is purchased from Musicnotes, it makes sense to use it. While it can import PDFs, it does not preserve those, so if you decide to change iPads in the future or use the Web app, you can’t get to these anymore — and even if you re-import them, they are not preserved in playlists. When I talk about my organization in a future blog post, this may make more sense.

That said, forScore has direct integration with Musicnotes, and once you’ve connected it, new purchases can automatically download.

Virtual Sheet Music

My next place to shop for music is Virtual Sheet Music (or VSM). It has a good selection, but you need to know how to find it, as its entire interface feels like a late ’90s website. They provide you with all kinds of pieces — it has the concertos and longer works that Musicnotes doesn’t have and is beautifully printed, and sometimes has versions of things that are better than Musicnotes in my experience, and pricing is better in many cases.

Virtual Sheet Music also has a subscription—like Musicnotes, it offers you discounts, and I would recommend it if you purchase things regularly from the site.

I wouldn’t recommend their app. Instead, forScore has a direct integration with it, and it is also super easy to export PDFs from VSM and get them to where you need them to be.

Sheet Music Direct

I find Sheet Music Direct very similar to the content of Musicnotes or Virtual Sheet Music; however, it does have some content that the other two don’t. For example, when I wanted the PDF version of Schirmer’s Chopin Ballades, Sheet Music Direct was my only choice for this particular copy.

While forScore does not have an integration with it, the PDFs exported from SheetMusicDirect slipped into forScore like a glove and required no metadata editing. I really loved this experience.

One of the things that SheetMusicDirect has is a subscription model where you can get all of the music you want without purchasing it. This sounds great, but I feel it is more expensive over time. I have no data here, but daily, I tend to play the same 4 things every day that I am working on for the last year, and if I still have time (that’s a big if), I’ll pick up a couple other things.

Henle Library

Another app and store I love is the Henle Verlag Music Library app. There are two things I love about this app. First, it is more like when you purchase the book; it will include the information around the piece, such as the reception of the work, notes, sources, editions, etc.

Second, I love the customization it provides. Some pieces will have a couple different options for fingerings, and you can pick which one you want or none if you are a power pianist. You can change the background color, customize the staff spacing, etc. And then, once you have it just like you like, you can also export it as a PDF into other apps like forScore.

Classical Music Repositories

Let’s face it: lots of classical music is (or should be) in the public domain, so some of it you can get for free or at super low prices.

The first one I’ll mention is IMSLP.org which has a bunch of recordings and PDFs of various pieces. I’m not a lawyer, so I will leave it to you to read the fine print to ensure it is legal, but I have used some copies from here. The quality generally varies; some are personally scanned versions with hand-written notes, while others are professional copies.

The next one is pianostreet.com which, if you have a subscription, you can access their sheet music library. I have found a couple pieces here, but I’ve not used them enough to justify the subscription.

Finding other Music

If you are not finding what you are looking for in one of the above places, take it to your favorite search engine and start looking for the piece. I have found a couple pieces on Noteflight.com or MuseScore.com, but your mileage will vary.

If you do not find it there, take a look at Google Play Books and see if they have a version. You can either use the Google Play Book App on your iPad or, with care, you can export the PDF from a desktop computer. Note that many of the copies of the books I’ve seen on Google Play have issues in their rendering; you can file a ticket with Google, and well, I’ll let you know if they resolve these eventually.

Importing the Physical

I much prefer importing a PDF from one of the other mechanisms in this article; however, if you have a book you love or can’t find it online, you can scan it.

ForScore can scan in music, but I’ve never used it. I use KeyScore instead. You point your camera at a piece of music, which will automatically line up most of your music, and you can even play a sample of the piece! Once you are happy with your importing, I export it to a PDF and bring it into ForScore.

If you subscribe to Pianist or similar publications with sheet music in their app, I take screenshots of the music and use Sheet Music Scanner to assemble those images into a PDF. Once you load the app, tap Import, select Photos, and import each page individually. When you are done, export it into a PDF.

Other forScore Integrations

ForScore integrates with a few other services that I do not use. To save you the time of searching for what types of music you love, I’ve put together this list:

BriLee MusicChoral Music
PresserClassical Solos, similar to Musicnotes or VSM in my experience
Carl FischerOrchestral Music
NoteflightI use it more for online notation (which doesn't integrate) but it has a music store that I have used in the past

Other options include:

Universal EditionA variety of calssical pieces, but unfortunately, they do not yet have my favorite Chopin Preludes book as a digital download yet...
DonemusPublisher of Dutch composer pieces

There are other providers such as Hal Leonard which also have digital libraries but these are not in PDF or formats that allow for general usage, so I would recommend against these.

Closing thoughts

This post was longer than I anticipated, but as with most things, there are countless apps, music stores, and opinions, so I’m just sharing my two cents. I hope some of you will find it helpful.

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