Category Archives: Music

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

My involvement with the MuseScore (open source notation software) project continues to deepen.  At first I just helped with documentation and support.  Then I dusted off my programming chops and wrote some plugins, and then started bug fixing.  Last summer I went further and implemented a whole new flexible chord symbol parsing and rendering system, and I’ve continued with bug fixing since in preparation for the big 2.0 release, which is getting closer and closer (no, there is no official date to announce).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone in and overhauled the basic note layout algorithms.  I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but more importantly, I’m excited for what it will mean for users of MuseScore 2.0 – better looking scores with much less need for manual adjustment of notes, chords, dots, ties, or accidentals.  You can read more here:

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

The Accessible Music Notation Project

An important announcement!

Some of you may know that I have been working on and off over the past few years on tools and methodology to support blind musicians as well as educators working with them.  I have managed to put this work to good use in my own teaching, but so far, I have not developed anything really polished enough to be ready to share it with the rest of the world.  Recently, I became inspired to try to change that.  After engaging in discussions with some blind musicians and educators – including some of the experts in the field – I have come to believe strongly that that there are some real needs here and some real opportunities to address them.  While I am sure there are any number of people more qualified than I to be dealing with these issues, the universe seems to be telling me that I need to take the initiative to start making some things happen.  So, I have launched The Accessible Music Notation Project:

http://accessiblemusicnotation.wordpress.com/

Right now, the “we” referred to throughout the site is the “royal we” – that is, it’s really just me speaking for myself (albeit with the support of some people I respect).  But I hope to see the project grow over time.  I hope to find musicians and educator willing to share their ideas regarding what is needed, programmers willing to help address these needs, and perhaps people and organizations willing to help fund these efforts.

I honestly do not know where all this might lead, but I have ideas of what I think is possible, and I intend to be setting forth as time permits.  Please feel free to share this and if you have ideas for me, please let me know.  Replies on the site itself would probably be best for any substantial comments.  One of the whole reasons for creating the site was to make sure there was a permanent record of some of the ideas being tossed around via email over the past few weeks.

Solo Piano Concert at the Denver Public Library

This Thursday – June 13 – I will be performing a solo piano concert for the new “brown bag” lunch series at the Denver Public Library. I will be playing a numch of my original compositions that I think work especially well for solo piano. Maybe a standard or two as well. It’s a great space on the 7th floor. See http://denverlibrary.org/event/brown-bag-music-series-marc-sabatella for more information.

Gift of Jazz Presents Graduation Concert for Jazz Education Courses

The students of the Gift of Jazz spring courses are proud to present their graduation concert at Dazzle (http://.dazzlejazz.com/) on Wednesday, June 12, at 7 PM. The concert will be hosted by the instructor for these courses: professional pianist, composer, and educator Marc Sabatella (http://www.outsideshore.com/music/) . Tickets are $10 and you are encouraged to buy them online (http://www.modtickets.com/Mod/Tickets/Tickets.aspx?id=417) .

The theme for this series of courses has been Latin Jazz. We have been working on the rhythms and styles of Afro-Cuban music, and I think you’ll be impressed be how deeply we have gotten inside this music. In addition to performances by the Gift of Jazz ensemble and improvisation students – in which you’ll hear classics like Manteca, Mambo Inn, Afro Blue, and El Manisero – a professional ensemble will be premiering original pieces by the composition students.

The Gift of Jazz ensemble consists of David Atkinson, Bill Germain, David Nelson, Tom Germain, Gayle Mace, Jeff Tomlan, Jack McCutchan, and Robert Lipscombe. The improvisation students are David Land, Gayle Mace, Casey Barnett, Alan Rogowski, Thomas Windham, Lee Ann Gott, Tom Germain, Bill Germain, and Cindy Williams. The composition students are David Land, Charlie Vavra, Gayle Mace, Thomas Windham, Bob Wesley, Alan Rogowski, and Nili Abrahamsson. The professional ensemble that will perform the composition students’ pieces will consist of Tim Libby (trumpet), Sam Bittner-Baird (trombone), Marc Sabatella (piano), Jon Cullison (bass), Manuel Lopez (drums), and Eric Trujillo (percussion).

Other Scale-Based Voicings

There are other logical ways of constructing voicings; too many to describe individually here.  Most approaches are similar in that they they associate a scale with each chord and construct the voicing from notes in that scale. By using a scale approach, you can devise your own patterns for voicings. For instance, a second with a third stacked on top is a somewhat dissonant but not too cluttered sound that many pianists use extensively.  For a chord such as Fmaj7, you can apply this format at any position in the associated F lydian or F major scale.  Since the F major scale contains an avoid note (Bb) in this context, one would normally opt for the lydian scale and the B natural, so that none of the generated voicings would contain any avoid notes.  The particular pattern described above yields “F G B”, “G A C”, “A B D”, “B C E”, “C D F”, “D E G”, and “E F A” over the F lydian scale.

Most of these voicings are very ambiguous, in the sense that they do not readily identify the chord.  As with the 3/7 and quartal voicings, however, you will find that the presence of a bass player, or just the context of the chord progression being played, will allow almost any combination of notes from a given scale to make an acceptable voicing for the associated chord.

You may wish to experiment with different patterns and different scales to see if you can find any voicings you particularly like.  Often, the goal is not to find a voicing that completely describes a given chord, but rather to find a voicing that conveys a particular sound without seriously corrupting the chord.  You may find that at a given point in the music, you may wish to hear the characteristic authority of a perfect fifth, or the characteristic dissonance of a minor ninth or of a cluster of several notes a second apart, but without the characteristic wrong note sound of a completely random selection of notes.  Thinking of the associated scale and putting your sound into that context gives you a logical and reliable way to get the sound you want without compromising the harmony.

Close Position and Drop Voicings

The simplest voicing for a four note chord is the close position voicing, in which all the notes in the chord are arranged as close together as possible.  For example, a C7 chord might be voiced in close position as “C E G Bb”.  This is referred to as root position, since the root, C, is at the bottom.  The chord might also be voiced in close position as “E G Bb C”, which is also called the first inversion, since the bottom note has been inverted to the top.  The second inversion is “G Bb C E” and the third “Bb C E G”.

A drop voicing is created from a close position voicing by dropping one of the notes down an octave.  If the second note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 2 voicing; if the third note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 3 voicing.  For a C7 chord in root position, “C E G Bb”, the corresponding drop 2 voicing is “G C E Bb”.  The second note from the top, G, has been dropped down an octave.  The corresponding drop 3 voicing would be “E C G Bb”.  Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings can be constructed from any of the inversions of the chord as well.  On the piano, the dropped note must normally be played in the left hand, so these are almost always two handed voicings.  The intervals in these voicings make them perfectly suited for guitar.

Close position and drop voicings are effective when used to harmonize a melody, particularly in a solo setting.  Each melody note may be harmonized by a different drop voicing, with the melody note on top.  Pianists and guitarists often use this type of approach in their own solos.  A phrase in which every note is accompanied by close position or drop voicings is said to be harmonized with block chords.  Red Garland, Dave Brubeck, and Wes Montgomery all regularly played block chord solos.

Polychord and Upper Structure Voicings

The basis of a polychord voicing is to play two different chords at the same time, such as one in the left hand and one in the right on a piano. The relationship between the two chords determines the quality of the resultant chord.  These are always two handed voicings on a piano, or five or six string voicings on the guitar.  They produce a very rich, complex sound compared to the voicings presented so far.

The simplest style of polychord voicing is to play two triads; for instance, a C major triad in the left hand on a piano, and a D major triad in the right.  This will be notated D/C.  This notation is overloaded in that it is usually interpreted as meaning a D triad over the single note C in the bass; it is not always clear when a polychord is intended. Polychords are seldom explicitly called for in written music, so there is no standard way to notate them.  You must normally find your own opportunities to play polychords.

If you take all the notes in this D/C voicing and lay them in a row, you will see that this describes either the C lydian or C lydian dominant scales.  Therefore, this voicing can be used over any chord for which those scales are appropriate.  If you experiment with other triads over a C major triad, you will find several combinations that sound good and describe well known scales.  However, many of these combinations involve doubled notes, which can be avoided as described below.  Among the polychords that do not involve doubled notes are Gb/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, Bb/C, which produces a C mixolydian scale, Dm/C, which produces a C major or C mixolydian scale, Ebm/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, F#m/C, which also produces a C HW diminished scale, and Bm/C, which produces a C lydian scale.  These polychords may be used as voicings for any chords that fit the corresponding scales.

You may have noticed that Db/C, Abm/C, Bbm/C, and B/C also involve no doubled notes and sound very interesting, although they do not obviously describe any standard scales.  There are no rules for when these polychords may be played as voicings.  When your ear becomes accustomed to the particular nuances and dissonances of each, you may find situations in which you can use them.  For example, the last polychord listed, B/C, sounds good when used as a substitute for Cmaj7, particularly in the context of a ii-V-I progression, and especially at the end of a song.  You may resolve it to a normal Cmaj7 voicing if you wish.

You can construct similar polychords with a minor triad at the bottom. Db/Cm produces a C phrygian scale; F/Cm produces a C dorian scale; Fm/Cm produces a C minor scale; A/Cm produces a C HW diminished scale; Bb/Cm produces a C dorian scale; and Bbm/Cm produces a C phrygian scale.  In addition, D/Cm produces an interesting, bluesy sounding scale.

I mentioned before the desire to avoid doubled notes.  One way to construct polychords that avoid doubled notes is to replace the triad at the bottom with either the third and seventh, the root and seventh, or the root and third of a dominant chord.  Voicings constructed in this fashion are also called upper structures.  They always imply some sort of dominant chord.

For example, there are several possible C7 upper structures.  A Dbm triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9#5 chord.  A D triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#11 chord.  An Eb triad over “C E” yields a C7#9 chord.  An F# triad over “C E” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An F#m triad over “E Bb” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An Ab triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#9#5 chord.  An A triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9 chord.

You will find it takes a lot of practice to become familiar enough with these voicings to be able to play them on demand.  You may wish to choose a few tunes and plan ahead of time where you will use these voicings.  It is well worth the effort.  The richness and variety introduced by these voicings can add a lot to your harmonic vocabulary.

Quartal Voicings

A style of voicing made popular by McCoy Tyner is based on the interval of the fourth.  This type of voicing is used most often in modal music.  To construct a quartal voicing, simply take any note in the scale associated with the chord, and add the note a fourth above, and a fourth above that. Use perfect fourths or augmented fourths depending on which note is in the scale.  For instance, quartal voicings for Cm7 are “C F Bb”, “D G C”, “Eb A D” (note the augmented fourth), “F Bb Eb”, “G C F”, “A D G”, and “Bb Eb A”. This type of voicing seems to work especially well for minor chords (dorian mode), or dominant chords where a suspended or pentatonic sound is being used.

These voicings are even more ambiguous, in that a given three note quartal voicing can sound like a voicing for any number of different chords.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, if you wish to reinforce the particular chord/scale you are playing, one way to do this is to move the voicing around the scale in parallel motion.  If there are eight beats of a given chord, you may play one of these voicings for the first few beats, then move it up a step for a few more beats.  The technique of alternating the voicing with the root in the bass, or the root and fifth, works well here, too.  On a long Cm7 chord, for instance, you might play “C G” on the first beat, then play some quartal voicings in parallel motion for the duration of the chord.

As with the 3/7 voicings, these voicings are convenient left hand voicings on the piano or three or four string voicings on the guitar. They can also be made into two handed or five or six string voicings by stacking more fourths, fifths or octaves on top.  For instance, the Cm7 chord can be voiced as “D G C” in the left hand and “F Bb Eb” in the right, or “Eb A D” in the left and “G C G” in the right.  The tune “So What” from the album Kind Of Blue used voicings consisting of three fourths and a major third. On a Dm7 chord, the voicings used were “E A D G B” and “D G C F A”.

3/7 Voicings

It is somewhat of a shame that the most common type of voicing used by most pianists since the 1950′s has no well established name.  I have seen these type of voicings called Category A and Category B voicings, Bill Evans voicings, or simply left hand voicings.  Because they are based on the third and seventh of the associated chord, I call them 3/7 voicings.

The basis of these voicings is that they contain both the third and seventh of the chord, usually with at least one or two other notes as well, and either the third or the seventh is at the bottom.  Because the third and the seventh are the most important notes that define the quality of a chord, these rules almost always produce good sounding results.  Also, these voicings can automatically produce good voice leading, meaning that when they are used in a chord progression, there is very little movement between voicings.  Often, the same notes can be preserved from one voicing to the next, or at most, a note may have to move by step.

For instance, consider a ii-V-I progression in C major.  The chords are Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7.  The simplest form of the 3/7 voicing on this progression would be to play the Dm7 as “F C”, the G7 as “F B”, and the Cmaj7 as “E B”.  Note that in the first chord, the third is at the bottom; in the second chord, the seventh is at the bottom; in the third chord, the third is at the bottom.  Also note that, when moving from one voicing to the next, only one note changes; the other notes stay constant.  This is an important characteristic of 3/7 voicings: when they are used in a ii-V-I progression, or any progression in which root movement is by fourth or fifth, you alternate between the third and the seventh at the bottom.  An analogous set of voicings is obtained by starting with the seventh at the bottom: “C F”, “B F”, “B E”.

Normally, you would use more than just the third and seventh.  Often, the added notes are the sixth (or thirteenth) and ninth.  For example, the C major ii-V-I could be played as “F C E”, “F B E”, “E B D”, or as “F A C E”, “F A B E”, “E A B D”.  The added notes are all sixths or ninths, except for a fifth in the first chord of the second example.  When playing these four note voicings on guitar, any added notes will usually be added above the third and the seventh, or else your voicing may end up containing several small intervals, which is usually possible to play only with difficult hand contortions.  Thus, the C major ii-V-I might be played with four note voicings on guitar as “F C E A”, “F B E A”, “E B D A”.

Note that none of these voicings contain the roots of their respective chords.  It is assumed that the bass player will play the root at some time.  In the absence of a bassist, pianists will often play the root in their left hand on the first beat, and then one of these voicings on the second or third beats.  Actually, you can often get away with not playing the root at all; in many situations, the ear anticipates the chord progression and provides the proper context for the voicing even without the root.  It is not forbidden to play the roots in these voicings, but it is neither required nor necessarily better to do so.

These basic voicings can be modified in several ways.  Sometimes, you may wish to omit either the third or the seventh.  Often, a minor of major chord that is serving as a tonic will be voiced with the third, sixth, and ninth, and these voicings might be interspersed with regular 3/7 voicings. Also, voicings with the fifth or some other note at the bottom can be interspersed with true 3/7 voicings.  This might done for any of several reasons.  For one thing, when played on the piano, note the voicings described thus far all tend to slide down the keyboard as the roots resolve downward by fifth.  The normal range for these voicings is in the two octaves from the C below middle C on the piano to the C above middle C.  As the voicings settle downward, they will start to sound muddy, at which time you might want to jump up.  For instance, if you have ended up on a Dm7 as “C F A B” below middle C, and need to resolve to G7 and then Cmaj7, you might want to play these two chords as “D F G B” and “E A B D” respectively to move the voicing upward while preserving good voice leading.  Also, roots do not always move by fifths; in a progression such as Cmaj7 to A7, you might want to voice this as “G B C E” to “G B C# F#” to preserve good voice leading.

One thing to note about these voicings in the context of a diatonic ii-V-I is that, because the chords imply modes of the same scale (D dorian is the same as G mixolydian is the same as C major), a given voicing can sometimes be ambiguous.  For example, “F A B E” might be either a Dm7 with the seventh omitted, or a G7.  In the context of a modal tune like “So What”, it clearly defines the Dm7 or D dorian sound.  In the context of a ii-V progression, it probably sounds more like a G7.  You can use this ambiguity to your advantage by making one voicing stretch over several chords.  This technique is especially useful when applied to the more general scale based voicings discussed later.

Another thing you can do with 3/7 voicings is alter them with raised or lowered fifths or ninths.  For instance, if the G7 chord is altered to a G7b9 chord, then it might be voiced as “F Ab B E”.  In general, the notes in the voicing should come from the scale implied by the chord.

These voicings are well suited on the piano for playing in the left hand while the right hand is soloing.  They can also be played with two hands, or with all strings on a guitar, by adding more notes.  This provides a fuller sound when accompanying other soloists.  One way to add more notes is to choose a note from the scale not already in the basic voicing and play it in octaves above the basic voicing.  For instance, on piano, for Dm7 with “F A C E” in the left hand, you might play “D D” or “G G” in the right.  In general, it is a good idea to avoid doubling notes in voicings, since the fullest sound is usually achieved by playing as many different notes as possible, but the right hand octave sounds good in this context. The note a fourth or fifth above the bottom of the octave can often be added as well.  For example, with the same left hand as before, you might play “D G D” or “G D G” in the right hand.

The 3/7 voicings are perhaps the most important family of voicings, and many variations are possible.  You should try to practice many permutations of each in many different keys.

iPhone/iPad apps for the jazz musician and educator

I suppose every blogger with a smartphone or tablet has this idea that it might be good idea to share a list of their favorite apps. You’d the think the world would have had enough of these articles, yet I constantly get questions from people, especially with regard to my iPad – “what do you really use that thing for?”

I’m going to try to keep my list reasonably focused: the apps that actually help me in my day to day activities as a professional jazz musician and educator. Some, of course, will be very specific to music. Others are more general, but I’ll try to describe how they can be of use to musicians and educators specifically.

You’ll note there is relatively little in the way of hardcore “content creation” apps here. I’m still usually more comfortable using my PC for music notation (MuseScore), audio editing (Audacity), and so forth. These are things I do not generally need to deal with when away from my computer, and the range and power of applications available for Windows or Mac is still quite a bit ahead of what is available for mobile devices. Even the free applications for Windows and Mac (MuseScore and Audacity are both open source) are as good as or better than the high end apps for iOS.

But even a laptop is more hardware than I want to carry around most of the time. My iPhone and iPad, on the other hand, go with me to the classes and lessons I teach, the ensembles I direct, and the gigs I play. The apps I list here save me from needing my computer or stacks of papers and books in order to get my job done on a day to day basis.

Some apps I tend to use more on my iPhone, others I tend to use more on my iPad, and others still I use on both equally. I’ll talk about this more as we go. BTW, while I am an iOS user, I should mention that most of these apps have Android versions as well. And even when there is no Android version of a specific app, there is usually something pretty comparable you might look into.

Finally, I should mention that as a professional musician, I am as sensitive to price as anyone. A lot of these apps are free. But for the ones that aren’t, I think they are well worth what they cost, as they really help me do my job.

Music Apps

These are the apps that you wont read about on general lists of recommended apps, because they are mostly useful only to musicians and educators.

Set List Maker

This gets top billing because it was really the game changer for me – the app that transformed my iPad from an interesting novelty to an indispensible tool. Set List Maker does what the name suggests – it helps me put set lists together for gigs. And it does this very well – much better than trying to do so with paper and pencil, constantly erasing or crossing out titles as I experiment with different ideas, etc. But Set List Maker also does so much more than just manage set lists. As a performer, I lead a few different groups, each with its own repertoire. As an educator, I also direct several others, again each with its own repertoire. Set List Maker manages separate databases for each of these ensembles, letting me track which songs I do with each. For each song in the database, I can keep notes on arrangement and solo order, attach recordings and PDF charts, list the tempo, and more. I have a special set list for each ensemble I use to track what tunes to work on in rehearsal, and of course a list for each gig. During performance, I can consult my notes, read the chart, use the built in metronome to count off, etc. Being able to track what we’ve performed on which concert is another benefit.

Anyone who leads/directs bands – especially multiple bands – will be likely to appreciate this app. I use it primarily on my iPad as I much prefer typing on the larger keyboard, also reading charts on the larger screen. But it also runs on iPhone and easily shares data between them via the cloud. Entering data on the iPad but then running from the iPhone on the actual gig would make a lot of sense, if you weren’t needing to actually read charts from the screen.

iReal Pro

This is a very popular app (formerly known as iReal b, and before that iReal Book) whose main function is to provide automatic playalong accompaniment (piano, bass, drums) for practice, and it does a great job of this. I’ve long been a fan, if not actually a regular user, of Band-in-a-Box for Windows/Mac. But iReal Pro presents a rather nicer user interface, not to mention a much more portable package. iReal Pro does almost as well as Band-in-Box in terms of the actual quality of the accompaniment, and it costs only around a tenth as much. Entering your own chord progressions is possible if a bit awkward, but the real value for most people will be the 1000+ songs (and that’s just in the jazz category) you can download from the company’s web site in a matter of seconds. Being able to provide this kind of accompaniment to my students during lessons – and of course the fact they they can get this at home too – is having an unbelievable impact. It is literally transforming the musical experience for many of my students. And it’s also bailed me out on gigs when someone calls a tune I don’t know. I put this in the indispensible category; I cannot recommend it highly enough!

This app runs equally well on iPhone and iPad. I tend to use it on the iPhone more for playback, but I like the iPad for entering my own songs (and these can be shared as well). And of course, iPad is easier to read on a gig, but the chord-symbol-only display is such that it’s not bad on iPhone either. Oh yeah, Android version too

unrealBook

I know hundreds of songs, and when I do a gig as a sideman doing jazz standards, I really don’t need to consult fakebooks very often. So I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking any with me at all. But I own quite a few, legally produced and legally purchased, and I have PDF versions of many of these loaded onto my iPad. unrealBook is the app I use to access these. It comes with no PDF files itself, but allows you to load any PDF files you already have. And if you create a specially formatted index file along with the PDF, unrealBook provides a very handy facility that makes it easy to find any given tune regardless of what book it lives in. Again, you need to provide the PDF and index files, but unrealBook takes it from. So from the point someone calls some onscure tune I don’t remember to the point where I have the chart in front of me on the screen is a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to carry around a stack of fakebooks to have access to them on the gig.

Because the main point of this app is presenting charts to read on a gig, it really only makes sense on iPad.

Pro Metronome

I assume everyone reading this knows what a metronome is. This app is not terribly fancy, but the free version does everything I would expect and then some. It’s easy to dial in a tempo and easy to select a time signature so you can hear a “special” sound to mark the downbeat – that much is the bare minimum I expect from the windup pendulum metronome I used as a child. This app also lets you tap in a tempo, so you can easily figure out what tempo you want. And in addition to selecting a time signature, you can even customize the sound used for each beat individually. So you can choose 7/4 and set it up to play a strong accent on 1 and then secondary accents on 4 and 6 if you wish. All with a simple and nice looking interface, for free (a paid version unlocks more features).

This app runs on both iPad and iPhone, but somehow the size of the iPhone seems a more natural fit.

GarageBand

GarageBand can do quite a few things, but to be honest, I primarily use it for one feature: live performance. If I’m directing a band in rehearsal and need to demonstrate some musical concept but can’t be bothered to walk over to the piano, I can play the GarageBand keyboard and the students can hear. And if we are rehearsing without a bassist – which happens all too often – I can hook up my iPad to an amp and play bass lines using the GarageBand keyboard. There are other apps that do this at least as well, I’m sure, but I suspect most musicians will need no prodding to check out GarageBand for its other music creation features. So that is why I list it here rather than any of the simpler apps that exist to just provide a virtual keyboard or other instruments.

Because I use this mostly for live performance, the larger screen of the iPad makes it the more natural choice. But when I do create loops in advance – as I have on occasion for playalong tracks where I need something more specific than iReal Pro can do, I like the iPhone for playback. Songs can be synced between devices via the cloud.

SoundCloud

Photographers have Flickr, videographers have YouTube, and musicians have SoundCloud. That should give you an idea of what this is about: a sharing site for audio recordings. You don’t need the SoundCloud app to participate, but I find it useful just for its recording feature (the iPhone is a fair-to-middling audio recorder) and the ability to instantly upload recordings. If I didn’t wish to access the SoundCloud sharing service, an app like Pocket WavePad might also be a good choice just for recording and editing on the iPad or iPhone. It’s a much more full-featured audio program, but a bit clumsy to get music into and out of.

The extreme portability of the iPhone makes it the natural choice for live recording applications. Plus I imagine most iPhone models have better audio specs than most iPad models, although I could easily be wrong about that.

iLift

There are quite a few apps out there to help one learn music from recordings – marking a section to loop, slowing down the audio to make it easier to hear what is goong on in complex passages, etc. But for my money, the most valuable feature a transcribing app can offer is easy to use basic transport controls. In particular, a simple way to mark a spot and start playback there, or to back up just a few seconds to hear a given phrase again. iLift is easily my favorite of the apps I’ve tried for transcription precisely because of how well it handles the basic transport controls. Displaying the waveform on the screen is an especially nice touch. I don’t actually use the slowing down feature as much as some might, and I will confess that the quality of slowed down playback in iLift is not quite up to the standard of the very best apps. But I just find it so much easier to use than anything else I’ve tried that I am very willing to settle for a slight (and it is slight) degradation in audio quality when slowing down. Oh, by the way, it also has a function to adjust the overall tuning of a track to better match whatever instrument you might be using, and also to actually change the ley of the recording. It isn’t unique in providing these functions either, but again, it’s the ease of use that really shines here.

The iPad version is easier to use on some ways – the bigger screen makes it easier to take advantage of the waveform display to help you set the song markers. But it definitely looks good and works well on iPhone too.

Planbook

If you teach a class that meets regularly, you’ve probably made up, or thought about making up, lesson plans. There are plenty of calendar and to-do-list apps out there, but most are not optimized for the specifics of teaching a class. They won’t show Thursday as being the next lesson after Tuesday if you teach that type of schedule, they won’t have an easy way to move all lessons back a day to accomodate a snow day, they won’t have an easy way to attach assignments or other files to a given day’s plan, or otherwise model much about teaching classes actually works. This is what Planbook does. To be honest, I don’t really “love” this app – the interface seems very clunky to me – but I haven’t found anything I like better. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this!

Planbook runs on iPad only, but even if it was available for iPhone, I’d prefer using it on iPad for the larger screen.

Spotify

In my teaching, I often want to play a recording of a song for a student, so I want access to a large library of recordings. There is an awful lot of music available on YouTube for free, and I do take advantage of this, but I find it is worth it to me to pay for a subscription to Spotify. This gives me a much more useful search engine for music, better organizational facilities, and an easy way to download music to use offline. On the other hand, music from Spotify can’t be loaded onto iLift or other apps, so I do also purchase music on iTunes.

I tend to prefer to use my iPhone for music playback, but I like how Spotify runs on both iPhone and iPad as well as on my PC, and I appreciate that it synchronizes data (like playlists) automatically.

Productivity Apps

These are the apps that are of equal interest to people who are not musicians or educators. But again, I will focus on how I use these apps in my work.

Evernote

This is a basic note-taking app, but its main claim to fame is how well it synchronizes notes between devices. It does a lot more in terms of letting you attach pictures, web links, and more, but I mostly just type. And like any typing-heavy app, I use it mostly on my iPad.

Splashtop
or
TeamViewer / TeamViewer HD

Splashtop has been my ace in the hole that allows me to feel comfortable leaving my laptop at home. The app gives me full access to my PC from my iPad – or even my iPhone. A server program runs in the background on the PC, and I connect to it over the Internet from my iPad. The result is that everything on my PC at home is displayed on my iPad screen, and the iPad on-screen keyboard (or a Bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPad) controls the PC. It’s like my iPad is a monitor and keyboard attached to my computer at home via an impossiby long cable (that also happens to be invisible). My computer doesn’t run quite as fast when accessed remotely as when using my PC normally at home, but playing audio and video is actually quite feasible.

Since I originally posted this article, I became aware that Splashtop has become more expensive for new users. Rather than selling the app outright, it is now offered for free, but they charge a (very low) monthly fee to access your computer from anywhere but while actually at home. As a long time user who paid for the app originally, I am grandfathered in and don’t have to pay the monthly fee. For what you get, I think many may still decide it is worth the price. But since I know there are other remote access apps out there, I decided to look into them for you. Two years ago when I initially compared, I found that Splashtop was really the only good choice if you wanted to work with audio, and it also handled video much better than other apps. But the others have made great strides since, and I’m happy to report that TeamViewer – which is free for “personal” (as opposed to corporate) use – works reasonably well for audio now and does provide a viable alternative. It still doesn’t seem to do as good a job with video as Splashtop, but that’s probably not an issue for most musicians considering this type of app. Other apps also offer free versions but don’t handle audio or video at all; others still handle audio and video but charge monthly fees higher than Splashtop’s. So the choice really comes down to Splashtop versus TeamViewer, I think.

Anyhow, no matter which remote access app you use, you will find that taking a program designed for a PC (with mouse and keyboard) and running it via a tablet (with touchscreen only) is an interesting exeperience. Some applications are pretty awkward to use this way, as you might imagine. Others – like Audacity for editing audio – actually work so well you might easily forget you aren’t running them locally on your iPad. It’s a real “wow” experience, technologically speaking.

Obviously, the iPad is easier to use for viewing your PC display, but the iPhone does work better than one might expect.

Google Drive

There are a number of “cloud” services out there to choose from, and of course, we don’t really have to choose at all. I have free accounts with several of them, and use different services for different purposes. But the one I use the most is Google Drive. Compared to Dropbox – and it is always compared to Dropbox – it offers several features I especially value. One is being able to easily share entire folders (as opposed to just individual files) with my bandmates or students without requiring them to sign up for accounts. The other killer feature is “Google Docs” – the office apps (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation) built on to Google Drive. I use Google Docs for my class rosters, grade books, syllabi, course notes and handouts, and so forth. I can use my computer to create these documents – as well as scores using MuseScore, or other files – and save them to my Google Drive folder. Then they are instantly available on my iPad and iPhone, where I can view them, edit them, and – very importanly to someone like me to who is to cheap to pay for unlimited data on my mobile plan – I can make files available for offline access. If I save the files in a folder that I have shared, then the files are also immediately available to others. This makes it incredibly simple to share files with my students or bandmates – I simply send them a link to the shared folder and they can always access the latest versions of the files I save there. I can also access my Google Drive files on any other computer. This allows me to create school-related documents at home, save them to my Google Drive, and access them on a school computer to print them. So this has also replaced my flash drives.

Documents in Google Drive are of course easier to edit on my iPad, but the convenience of being able to access files on my iPhone is nice too.

SugarSync

I think of Google Drive as a service where my files primarily live in the cloud but where I can have a local copy of them on my PC and can also view them on my iPad and iPhone. SugarSync is kind of the other way around – I think of the files as primarily living on my PC but a copy is kept in the cloud. Google Drive presents itself as a “special” location my PC, and I don’t feel inclined all my files there. SugarSync allows me to designate any folders I want for cloud storage.

With this in mind, I use Google Drive to store files that I know in advance I will want to access remotely or share with others – like my teaching materials or ensemble charts – but I use SugarSync to back up my entire Documents folder from my PC to the cloud. These are files I may never need to share or access remotely, but that I want to have backed up offsite. And if that were all SugarSync did – cloud backup for PC – I would find it valuable but of course not relevant in a list of iOS apps. But the fact that all of my PC documents also live in the cloud means that SugarSync can also provide an app to allow me to access these any of these files can from my iPad or iPhone should the need arise – so naturally, they do just that! Of course, many of the files on my PC are in formats I can’t open on my iPad, but many of the files I am most likely to want to view remotely (eg, PDF) will open on my iPad just fine. And sometimes, I don’t actually need to open a file from my PC – I just need to email it to someone. This is accomplished very easily – much more so than logging in to my PC via Splashtop and doing it that way. SugarSync does a great job of giving me quick remote access to all of the documents on my PC.

As with Google Drive, actually working with my documents is something I am more likely to do with my iPad, but having access to them – such as to just email to someone – is very valuable from my iPhone as well.

Genius Scan

This app allows you to take a picture of document (or use an existing picture) and automaitcally turn it into a PDF. It make it easy to build a multi-page file by taking pictures of each page, it provides cropping controls, and it does some effective automatic contrast adjustment and B&W conversion to turn a color photo into a readable document. I find this handy to create PDF copies of sheet music, but it has plenty of other uses, too. Once you have created the PDF, you can send it to any other app, including email or a cloud service to make the document available to others.

The app runs native on iPhone, and since my iPhone has a much better and easier to use camera than my iPad anyhow, I use the app on my iPhone exclusively. But for sheet music in particular, I would be likely to then transfer the file to my iPad (via email or a cloud service) to actually use the document.

Paper

Listing this app is a bit of an indulgence. It has nothing to do with music, and it’s not really the sort of general productivity app I can honestly claim that most people would benefit from. But I love Paper and want to give it some props here anyhow. It’s a drawing app, and it appeals to me primarily because I am also an artist. Paper is not the most full-featured drawing app in the store – on the contrary, it is pretty limited. But it really feels very natural and produces great results. And it does have one useful application for music educators: I use it as a portable whiteboard to demonstrate things for my students. I can easily draw in some staff lines and a few notes, big enough for a small roomful of students to see. It also has a clever “rewind” feature that lets me erase the notes and leave the staff lines so I can keep reusing the same page, which is rather nice.

Paper is iPad only. And for the type of use I am talking about, I can’t see wanting to use it on anything smaller.