What is the best notation app for me and my students?
One of the most common questions I have from teachers with iPads is: “what is the best notation app for me and my students?”. There isn’t a straightforward answer because the three main notation options each have different benefits and features. And one of the three isn’t even really an app. So my answer to that question is always – “it depends what you want to achieve”!
The reasons for wanting an iPad notation app are varied:
- I’m a teacher who composes and arranges music for my students and I want an iPad notation solution so I can work “on-the-go”
- The iPad is my school’s device of choice for my middle school students and I want them to be able to use it to compose music
- I’m an elementary teacher and I want to print student compositions, but I want them to learn how to handwrite notation
- My older students want to be able to sketch their musical ideas wherever they are
There are solutions for all of these scenarios. Below are my thoughts on the three best iPad notation options and their different strengths and purposes.
If you use any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below so that we can all learn from one another.
(Free for basic account; varied paid options for education accounts)
First of all, it’s important to point out that Noteflight is not actually an iPad app that you will find in the app store. Noteflight is a web browser-based app: open Safari on your iPad and visit the Noteflight website. You will need to sign up for an account, but there is a free version which is ideal if you’d like to “try before you buy”.
Noteflight is the best all-round option for K-12 students, and especially for middle school students. It is used by teachers and students in K-12, higher ed and by private music instructors. The company has a strong focus on education and support for teachers and students and there are lots of support materials and lesson plans available for download.
The interface is intuitive and easy to use. Notes can be added to your score by selecting a rhythmic value and tapping on the stave to place the note on the correct pitch. You can also use an on-screen keyboard to enter notes.
Because Noteflight is browser-based, student scores can be accessed from any device (iPad, Android device, laptop, desktop computer) as long as they have an internet connection. This makes is the ideal choice for schools that have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy.
The IT staff at your school will be happy that there’s nothing to install and you never need to worry about updates or upgrades because they all happen automatically, behind the scenes on the Noteflight website. This also means that you and all of your students will always be using the same version.
Signing up for a school account is an economical choice for schools with 1:1 iPad programs (you pay an annual subscription fee based on the number of students) and means you can take full advantage of the education features. Your students are grouped into classes and you can view and assess their work from your teacher login. There is no need for students to email scores to you or export them to Google Drive or Dropbox, so in this way, Noteflight overcomes many of the workflow difficulties usually associated with using iPads. For more information about school accounts, visit Music First.
A little tip: add a Noteflight shortcut to your iPad screen. The shortcut icon will sit alongside all your regular iPad app icons and it makes it easy to access. To do that, open Safari and visit Noteflight. Tap the Share button and then tap Add To Home Screen.
Notion for iPad
(Notion is USD $14.99 at the time of writing)
The Notion app is useful for older students and for teachers who want to create compositions and arrangements on a portable device. If playback sound is important to you, this will be your app of choice: scores are played back using top quality sound samples from London Symphony Orchestra.
Notion can either work as a standalone notation tool, or as an “on-the-go” option: start a score in the Notion iPad app and then continue to work on them in Sibelius, Finale, the free notation program MuseScore or the desktop version of Notion. Conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen can be seen using Notion on his iPad in this Apple ad.
It’s a feature-rich app and if you’ve ever created a score in Sibelius, Finale or MuseScore, you won’t have many problems picking up Notion. Musical elements can be selected from a series of palettes and added into your score with a few taps. You can use an on-screen keyboard or guitar fretboard, or plug in a MIDI keyboard.
This video takes you through the basics of entering notes into your score:
Transferring scores between music notation apps is done by importing and exporting scores in the MusicXML format – the standard open format for exchanging notation files between different musical applications. In addition to MusicXML, you can export your Notion scores as MIDI, PDF, WAV or AAC.
Notion comes with a limited selection of sounds and you can access a wider range of extra sounds via in-app purchases.
NotateMe and NotateMe Now
If you prefer handwriting notation, or want your students to handwrite scores and exercises, then the NotateMe app is ideal. What’s more, it will transform your handwriting into “printed” digital notation in real-time, while you write on your iPad screen. I know this suits a lot of composers and arrangers who “think through their pencil” and there is definitely something magical about seeing your handwriting transformed instantly, not to mention being able to play it back. It’s also useful when you want your students to produce digital notation, but still keep up their handwriting skills – the best of both worlds really.
The promotional video from Neuratron (makers of the app) shows how it works:
There are two versions of NotateMe –
- a free version with just one stave and limited export options (no export as PDF option)
- a full version (US $39) with unlimited staves and multiple export options
NotateMe works best with a stylus, but if you or your students don’t have a stylus handy, use of the zoom-in option to make the stave as large as possible on the screen.
Writing notation on the iPad screen is quite a different experience to using pencil and paper and you’ll need to decide whether it will work with your students. I tested it with my 7 year-old some time ago (link to previous post ) and you can see the results in this Using NotateMe with Students video:
US teacher Christopher Russell has been using NotateMe with his middle school students in their music theory classes. He has a series of videos on Youtube which serve a dual purpose – to teach them how to use the app and to reinforce their music theory knowledge.
For those that like to handwrite, I think NotateMe is the perfect “idea sketching” app. Once you have created your NotateMe score, it easily transfers to the Notion app on iPad or desktop, or to Sibelius or Finale where you can expand your ideas, add more details and perfect the formatting.
For some tips on using NotateMe, take a look at John Hinchey’s article NotetateMe Tips: A Great App For Handwritten Music Recognition.
Neuratron recently added a scanning feature to NotateMe which allows you to take a picture of a printed score using your iPad camera, import it directly into NotateMe and then playback and edit the score. It’s a separate add-on which costs US $29, but you can try it for free (with a single-stave score) in NotateMe Now.
Christopher Russell (Technology in Music Education blog) wrote about the Photoscore add-on here and more recently here and Paul Shimmons (iPad and Technology in Music Education blog) gives a detailed step-by-step walk-through of the process here (including transferring the score to the Notion app and to Sibelius).
If you use any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
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More iPad Music Project Ideas!
iPad Projects for the Music Classroom includes 22 step-by-step projects you can use straight away with your music students. Take the guesswork out of choosing apps and discover how you can use iPads in an engaging and meaningful way.
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