For the past several years I’ve used a standard-sized iPad. I’ve had several models over the years, all with a 9.7" (diagonal) screen. For me it’s been a general-purpose device, something easy to toss in a briefcase and use for reading and writing email, drafting blog posts, as well as for sheet music. Tablets have now made it possible to carry whole libraries of sheet music in one small and slim device.
As I’ve explored digital sheet music, I’ve found the practicality of tablets preferable to carrying around heavy bags of sheet music when I travel. Especially now that airlines charge high fees for checked bags and impose low weight limits on carry-on bags, investing in a tablet for sheet music makes more sense than ever. (On a recent transatlantic flight the airline nearly charged me an extra € 100 to check a bag! Since I was already slightly over the weight limit, carrying just one printed sheet music edition would have meant having to pay this extra fee.)
While I haven’t abandoned paper scores altogether, I now get high-quality digital scores if they’re available. In another blog post I recommended the Henle Library app as the best digital sheet music solution for classical musicians. Henle is one of the most respected music publishers and they bring their decades of expertise and a rapidly growing catalog to tablets.
As I’ve used digital sheet music more and more, I’ve felt the need for a larger-screened device. The 9.7" screen is a handy size for carrying around—you can pretty much toss it in a bag and mostly forget it’s there. It’s also an especially convenient size for most of the everyday things people do with tablets: email, surfing the web, social media, YouTube videos and the like.
9.7" is, however, decidedly not optimal for reading sheet music. Most of the digital sheet music available online is in PDF format that was scanned from full-size scores. Viewing this on a tablet, especially with their often wide margins (these are fine for printing but bad for small tablets), makes for an acceptable score for occasional reference but it’s no replacement for full-size sheet music. I sometimes found my posture lacking as I leaned forward to read music, and sometimes I would misread a fingering because these markings were meant for a letter-sized sheet of paper rather than a screen less than 10 inches diagonal.
I had therefore been keeping my eye out for the right time to trade my smaller device for the largest iPad with its 12.9“ screen. When Apple announced the 2018 iPad Pro redesign, it seemed like the perfect tablet for musicians… except for the price. Then I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and took advantage of a Black Friday special. I ended up with a new 12.9” iPad Pro.
Which tablet do musicians need?
For sheet music, any large tablet with about a 13“ screen will do. The 2018 iPad Pro models are overkill in terms of their processing and graphics power. They don’t offer any tangible advantage for displaying sheet music or PDF documents. These are pretty basic tasks that don’t tax the processor to any degree. The first generation iPad Pro is still way more than powerful enough for this task. If you can find one used for a low price, it will be perfectly adequate for displaying music. The second generation 12.9” Pro can sometimes be found new at a heavy discount since this model has been discontinued. This would also be worth getting.
There is a practical advantage to the new 2018 model. The device has been redesigned to be quite a bit smaller while keeping the screen the exact same size. The new design is lighter and more portable as a result. I like to travel as light as possible and didn’t want to have to carry a heavy briefcase around just for a big tablet. Luckily I found a shoulder bag by a company called Jost that fits the new iPad like a glove.
Apple’s devices are known for their high-quality screens, although they’re hardly the only tablets with quality screens. Since you’ll be staring at this screen for many hours, it pays to get one that will be easier on your eyes. These days nearly all screens offer very high resolution, so you won’t be seeing individual dots, but there are other factors to consider such as viewing angles, even backlighting and brightness. In addition to their overall high quality—despite their sometimes lower pixel density, Apple’s LCD screens have been measured to be the best in the industry overall—Apple includes two features in its iPads that make them even better for your eyes. One of the features is limited to the most recent two generations of Pro models (2017 and 2018). This is called True Tone. It has a sensor that measures the color temperature of the ambient light in the room or outdoor space you happen to be in and then automatically adjusts the screen to match the surroundings. This makes whites look white rather than bluish, regardless of the environment.
The other feature is available on all iOS devices since it’s software-based. This feature is called Night Shift. Some researchers have discovered that what makes screens bad for our eyes is blue light at night. The reason is that at sunset, the sun turns reddish and there is much less light at the blue end of the spectrum. If our electronic screens emit a lot of blue light, it tricks our brains into assuming it’s daytime, and this subconscious confusion can disrupt our sleep cycles. The solution is to reduce blue light at night on electronic screens, making the onscreen colors appear very warm. I actually like to use the Night Shift feature during the day when I’m practicing music. The screen then takes on the warm background color that is similar to printed music editions. It’s easy on the eyes and I don’t have to worry about harming my eyesight while practicing.
If you do invest in an iPad Pro, you’ll probably want to use it for more than just sheet music. I’ve found that adding Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the most part turns it into a laptop replacement, at least for most tasks. Some reviewers though it was a bit too small, but I think Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the 9.7“ model is perfectly adequate for writing emails and drafting blog articles. They’ve since expanded the keyboard for the newer 10.5” and now 11“ Pro models. These larger keyboards, and especially the 12.9” version, feel like normal laptop keyboards, so you can use them for drafting the Great American Novel without your fingers feeling cramped. The feel of the keyboard to me is also good. The Smart Keyboard pretty much gives you the best of both worlds: a lightweight tablet that’s effectively convertible into a laptop. I still need a traditional computer for video editing, programming and music notation, but otherwise the iPad Pro can effectively replace most tasks in my workflow. (I still think Apple’s keyboard is overpriced, but there’s nothing we can really do short of complain.)
I don’t yet have the new Apple Pencil for the new model. Unfortunately the first version isn’t compatible with the latest generation of iPad Pro. I did use it with the smaller model for writing in fingerings and marking up scores. This works well in the app forScore, which is my recommended app for sheet music in PDF format. The pencil is supported by the Henle Library but due to how scores are marked up in that app, I find it’s usually better to stick with the built-in symbols such as fingerings.
If you’re a musician, you’ll likely find having a large-screen tablet of around 13 inches indispensable for sheet music. Any 12.9“ iPad Pro, including the first generation released in late 2015, is more than powerful enough for sheet music. The later models, released in summer 2017 and fall 2018, offer True Tone displays that balance the colors to the ambient lighting. This is a ”nice to have" feature but by no means a sufficient reason to upgrade. The 2018 model was redesigned to be considerably smaller, thinner and lighter. It’s no longer too big for most tablet tasks and is more powerful than nearly all laptops made today, including most MacBook Pro models. The processing and graphics power of the latest model is sheer overkill for most music applications but the size and future-proof internals may make the outlay worthwhile for musicians. If not, I can easily recommend getting one of the older models, especially the 2017 model which can sometimes be found at a heavy discount.
P.S. Here is a list of my favorite apps and tools to optimize your iPad for music!
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