Getting Music Onto Your iPad

If you’ve been following our blog, you already know all the reasons I love my iPad. If you’re ready to take the plunge creating your own digital library, the first step is getting music onto your device. There are several ways this can be accomplished:

  1. Download a free score from a public domain source such as IMSLP or the Brigham Young Harp Archives.
  2. Purchase a PDF from an online music source like Harp Column Music or another sheet music retailer. (You didn’t really think we weren’t going to promote ourselves just a little bit here, did you?)
  3. Scan music you already own.
  4. Ask a friend to send you music they’ve already scanned or purchased. (WUT????)

The first two methods are easy, because you’ll start off with a digital PDF that you can easily open directly onto your tablet. The fourth method I’m going to address in a separate post. So in this post, I’m going to primarily talk about the third item on the list, which is arguably the most tricky and time consuming method:


Before you start scanning, take a minute to consider whether what you are doing is legal. Read this post, which also addresses #4 on our list.

You probably already have a large library of sheet music that you’ve accumulated throughout the years, and you’ll undoubtedly want to transfer some or all of that collection to your tablet. Enter scanning. This word probably conjures up images of a traditional flatbed scanner, where you painstakingly place your music on a photocopier-like device and wait for the machine’s bright light to pass by and “scan” your music. In fact, most photocopiers these days are scanners, too. If you have access to one of these machines, it will certainly give you the best end result, because you’ll have more control over centering your music and adjusting contrast the way you would with a copy.

However, traditional scanners can be expensive and time consuming. And who wants to spend hours standing around their local Kinkos–err Fed-Ex store? Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just take a picture of your music using your phone? Guess what—you can! All you need is a scanner app for your smartphone, which turns your pictures into PDF documents that you can save and import to your iPad. The one I use is called Turboscan, and it’s available for both Apple and Android. (Side note: there are many scanners apps on the market and Turboscan didn’t even make the cut on this list of the top five. Most offer similar features, so feel free to choose whichever app appeals to you.)

Before starting, I created a dedicated “Scores” folder in my Dropbox. If you don’t already use Dropbox, you might want to check it out for the purpose of storing (i.e. backing up—more on that in a future blog.) and transferring music PDFs. It makes things a lot easier. A free basic account gives you 2 GB of space. As a point of reference, my “scores” folder currently contains about 600 items (many of which are large multi movement works) and uses about 1.5 GB of space. So if you only use Dropbox for your music library, you’ll have a long way to go before you even need to start paying for it. Of course you can also use a storage service like iCloud or Google Drive, but I find Dropbox to the the easiest to integrate with the process I describe below. Once you’ve set up your Dropbox account, download the phone and iPad apps so you can transfer your scanned PDFs to your iPad. (Of course, you could also save directly to your computer, but using a “cloud” storage option means you never have to connect directly to your computer, and your PDFs will be available from anywhere.)

“But wait!” you’re probably thinking. “My iPad has a camera, so can’t I just scan directly from there?” Yes, you absolutely can. Just download your scanner app to your iPad and scan away. From the scanner app, you should be able to open your PDF directly in forScore and bypass the “save to Dropbox” step. However, there are two reasons you might not want to do this:

  1. The iPad is bigger (especially the Pro) so you might find it more difficult to hold and manipulate to get a good photo scan.
  2. You might not want to skip the “save to Dropbox” step, because then you won’t have a backup of your original PDF. If you’re going to go through that step anyway, you might as well just use your phone, if you find it easier to hold.

Lastly, you may also be wondering why you can’t simply take a photo and use that to read your music. You could, but using a scanner app will turn your photo into line art that looks crisp and clear, like a real piece of music. See my example of a page from Boccherini’s Sonata for flute and harp.

The picture on the left is a regular photo; the one on the right was saved in Turboscan's black and white mode and darkened one degree to bring out the pencil markings.
The picture on the left is a regular photo; the one on the right was saved in Turboscan’s black and white mode and darkened one degree to bring out the pencil markings.

Scanning tips and tricks

Once you’ve got your workflow figured out, you’re ready to scan! Here’s how I do it using Turboscan: From the app on my phone, I select the camera icon at the bottom, and take a picture of the first page. You can easily add more pages by clicking the plus sign before saving. If you’re unhappy with any of the pages along the way, you can delete and re-take just that page without starting from scratch with the whole document. When you’re completely finished, click done and your PDF is saved to your phone. Click the pencil icon to name it, then click the upload arrow icon where you’ll see several options of what to do with your PDF. Choose “Open PDF in…” then “save to Dropbox.” Once you’ve saved to Dropbox, delete the file from your phone, since saving it there will take up a lot of storage.

It does take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of getting a good photo scan using your phone. If you’re not careful, the perspective of your image will be skewed or crooked. Try the following:

  • Place your music on a flat surface—either a table top or the floor.
  • Flatten your music out as much as possible, since any curves in the pages will result in distorted images. (I wasn’t very careful with my example above, and you can see the uneven bottom line where I didn’t flatten the page enough.)
  • Stand or kneel directly over the music and try hold your phone parallel to the music. Don’t tilt it up the way you would if you were taking a regular picture.
  • Center the page to fill the entire space of your camera. It’s OK to crop some of the music’s border as long as the notes are all there!
  • Allow your camera time to focus, and try not to shake it when you take the picture.

Turboscan (and probably most good scanning apps) offers some features to make things easier. Before you save the PDF, you can toggle between “photo,” “black and white,” and “color” modes, and you can also lighten and darken the image. Experimenting with these options can significantly improve the readability of your music along with how well any pencil markings you’ve made on your original show up in your scan. If Turboscan thinks you did a bad job centering your image, it will also automatically display a red alignment box allowing you to easily adjust the edges and cropping before you save. There’s also a “3X” feature, whereby your camera consolidates a series of three images into one scan, with the end result supposedly being a sharper image. I generally don’t use this because I don’t see a big difference and it takes longer.

By now you’re probably overwhelmed and thinking, “Gee, this is much more complicated than I was expecting!” So here’s my last and most important tip: Don’t obsess about getting it perfect. Your goal is to get through a lot of material quickly and that’s never going to happen if you agonize over every page. You probably don’t notice when your original music is a bit crooked or dog eared from sitting on your shelf over time, and the same will be true with a less than perfect scan. Plus, you can always re-do it later if something continues to bother you.

Importing to forScore on your iPad

Ok, so now you have a bunch of music scanned and saved in Dropbox. The next step is to import it to forScore on your iPad. (If you haven’t yet installed forScore, go do that now.) I should probably point out that you don’t have to use forScore to read your music. In fact, you could simply open your PDFs in the “books” app that comes with your tablet and read them from there. But you’d be missing out on forScore’s annotation and organizational features designed specifically for music, so I can’t imagine why you’d want to do that! Plus, forScore integrates with the Apple Pencil (more on that later) so you can mark your music directly on the screen.

There are three ways to import a PDF to forScore. (Note that if you have an earlier version of forScore or an older iPad, you will not be able to use the first method.)

Method 1—Import files directly from forScore

  • First, connect forScore to Dropbox by clicking the Toolbox icon to the far right, and then “Services” (the cloud icon); click the plus sign, and add Dropbox (or a different service if you prefer). You only need to do this step once.
  • From the cloud icon on the main toolbar, choose Dropbox and select your file to import it.
  • Click on the music note icon to the far left to see the most recently imported files.

Method 2—Import files from Dropbox app

  • Open your PDF on your tablet using the Dropbox app.
  • From the upload icon at the top, choose “Open In” then “Copy to forScore.”
  • You’ll now be taken to forScore, where you can click on the music note icon to the far left to see the most recently imported files.

Method 3—bulk import files by connecting your iPad to your computer

If you already have PDF files saved on your computer, or if your Dropbox account is linked to your computer, you can also bulk import files directly onto your iPad. Here’s how:

  • Connect your iPad to your computer with a cable.
  • Open iTunes and select your iPad. Then select “Apps” and “forScore.”
  • Scroll to the bottom of the documents column and click “Add.”

Congratulations! You’ve now scanned and saved your music to your iPad. Trust me, you are not going to believe how liberating it feels to show up and play somewhere with everything you need in one tiny bag. Enjoy!

What tips do you have for scanning and importing music? Share them with us in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Getting Music Onto Your iPad

  1. says:

    I’ve always scanned using the “Darkroom” built into ForScore. Do you find that Turboscan does a better job? The latest update to forScore has ways to enhance, darken, lighten and straighten so it works great and eliminates the step of importing to forScore.

  2. Kimberly Rowe says:

    Great tip Susanharp! I haven’t tried using Darkroom much since I’m so used to working with Turboscan, and I also like the small size of my phone for getting a good picture. But I’m glad to know you’re happy with the “Darkroom” feature. I’ll check it out.

  3. Pingback: How to back up forScore - Harp Column Music

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