As a member of the very first generation to grow up with personal computers, the prospect of digital sheet music has more than piqued my interest. I recently had an opportunity to take Amazon's Kindle DX e-reader for a spin. Here is my report...
Every traveling musician knows what it's like to have to lug around half a suitcase full of scores that collectively make up a concert program. The situation is especially bad for pianists—we might start our program with, say, a Mozart sonata, then play a large-scale Romantic work, and maybe an assortment of smaller pieces by another composer or three. For each one we're forced to carry around a full volume of music—and who wants to carry around all 32 Beethoven sonatas?
Pocket sheet music editions ease the situation somewhat, but even these add up to a lot of extra bulk and weight when traveling.
Meet the Kindle DX. It's Amazon's large-screen, premium e-reader. The Kindle has topped Amazon's bestseller list for electronics, and after using both models for some time it's easy to see why.
The Kindle 2 is the DX's little brother and it's a pleasure to use for reading books. Since this review focuses on Kindle sheet music and there are thousands of reviews of the Kindle for books, there's no need for me to duplicate that info here. Suffice it to say that both Kindle models are really good for reading traditional books. This article is for musicians interested in finally leaving their stacks of sheet music behind.
For this review I had an opportunity to evaluate only the original Kindle DX, not the new version with its 50 percent greater contrast. The models are clearly distinguishable from one another since the older model's case is off-white and the newer one is a dark graphite color, which is said to make for even more contrast while reading.
My first encounter with sheet music on the Kindle DX wasn't an entirely harmonious one. I had read of a digital sheet music company that partnered with Amazon to distribute its scores, and indeed these were the editions that showed up in an Amazon search.
Alas, none of the scores I tried (all of it piano music—I tried Bach and Beethoven) were clearly readable. The notes were simply too small, and the text was very unclear:
I had assumed Kindle sheet music to be mediocre and the technology simply not yet up to par. After all, these were the more or less "official" digital sheet music editions that Amazon was touting. I was about to close the book on digital sheet music for now.
Fortunately, I turned out to be mistaken.
These particular editions simply weren't formatted properly for the Kindle. The publisher left very large margins, and there's plenty of room to present a larger score.
I then downloaded scores from various sources and transferred them to the Kindle. The transfer process is a cinch, by the way: Simply connect the Kindle to your computer using the USB cable and drag any PDF files into the Kindle's "Documents" folder, and you're in business. The Kindle will then automatically recognize the PDF files, including sheet music, and display it just like a regular book.
Here is a scan of a page from an old edition of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Notice that the notes are extremely clear and readable:
The above is an example of a very dense score, by Alkan. It's an old edition that is now in the public domain and was scanned and uploaded to an online archive that contains a wealth of out-of-print sheet music. Although this is an old score and I have the edition from which it was scanned, you can see that the music is very clearly readable on the Kindle DX. I was able to practice the piece without any trouble using the Kindle.
This is an example of a score that was newly digitally typeset:
Every note and expressive marking is very clear, even on the older display. Although this particular score wasn't formatted specifically for the Kindle DX—it's designed to be printed—it makes very good use of the Kindle's screen real estate.
I'm sure future electronic ink screens will have higher resolution, and this will make text and images sharper. (The iPhone 4's retina display is the new reference standard, and I've never seen sharper text. Even professionally printed text isn't as sharp!)
The 9.7-inch Kindle DX screen has a resolution of 1200 x 824, which makes it 150 dots per inch (dpi). By comparison, the smaller Kindle 2, with its 6-inch screen, has a resolution of 800 x 600, giving it 167 dpi. This means that the 6-inch model has a slightly sharper display, with the tradeoff that fonts of a given size in pixels (dots) will be a bit smaller. Only the larger model is suitable for sheet music, and I'm anxious to see higher resolution for sharper text and music.
I did long for improved contrast, but fortunately this detail has already been taken care of in the new version. The original Kindle DX reacted very well to a standard piano lamp and I had no problems reading it.
It is possible to turn the DX on its side and view Kindle sheet music in landscape mode, making the notes much larger. Here is the above PDF score in landscape format:
Currently, landscape mode is really for reference purpose only, to look up the occasional note or some detail or other. Pressing the Next button shows the next part of the page, and a single US letter-sized page takes up three screens in landscape mode. Further, the screen is split wherever it runs out of space, even in the middle of a staff, and there's no way to scroll up or down by only a small amount. This means that Kindle sheet music is meant to be displayed in portrait mode only.
Page turns on the Kindle DX, even when viewing graphics-rich PDF files such as sheet music, are reasonably fast at less than a second. Only when paging backwards to a page that wasn't immediately loaded into memory—and I noticed this difference only when viewing sheet music—are page turns on the slow side. Amazon is working to improve page turn speed in future versions, but I'm happy to report that it's acceptable and will not interfere with music performance. The only exception would be in the case of a repeated section that would require turning back several pages.
It's clear that the future of sheet music is digital, and Amazon is leading the way. In February 2010 Amazon bought touch-screen manufacturer Touchco—clearly touch-screen technology is coming to the Kindle. Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos has announced that they have seen prototypes of color E Ink screens but that the technology, as of this writing, is still "a long way out."
Eventually, e-readers will feature color, high-resolution touch-screens that are hardly distinguishable from paper. They'll be immediately responsive. You'll be able to write notes—fingerings, etc. in the case of sheet music—directly on the screen. Music publishers will offer their entire catalogs in digital format.
It will still be a long time before digital sheet music replaces printed sheet music. Musicians and teachers need to write in their scores, often extensively: performance notes, instructions, dynamics, and especially fingerings (see How to Learn Music). While it's possible to write text notes in Kindle documents, it's just not possible to write in your own fingerings in Kindle sheet music. For that we still need pencil and paper. (I don't recommend writing directly on the Kindle's screen...)
This makes the Kindle DX suitable as a pocket score that can contain most of your sheet music library. Overall, my practice sessions with the Kindle were very pleasant and productive ones. Since the E Ink display is so easy on the eyes, I didn't even miss paper. I'm thrilled to recommend the Kindle DX for sheet music.
Disclosure: Since this ended up being a favorable review and I can confidently recommend the Amazon Kindle DX for sheet music, I decided to use my own affiliate links to Amazon. This means that if you click on my links and decide to purchase a Kindle, this site will make a small commission. It helps me maintain this website and your contribution is greatly appreciated. If for any reason you don't wish to support key-notes in this manner, simply go to Amazon.com separately and search for the Kindle.