The Best Sheet Music, Notation and Tab Readers for the iPad

A person playing piano
Public Domain / Pexels

The iPad is well known as a great way to read books, but what about music? The sleek design is ideal for putting on a music stand, and with the performance features of some of these apps, you can even turn the page without taking your hands off your instrument, which is something that would take very good toe dexterity when using paper sheet music. These music readers also support tablature for guitar, c-instrument notation, and the best apps make entering your own music a breeze either through specialized editors, scanning actual sheet music or both.

01
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forScore

What We Like

  • Very highly rated — a 4.9 (of 5.0) score with more than 10,000 ratings.

  • Good use of annotations.

  • App makes great use of full screen real estate on the iPad.

What We Don't Like

  • The base price point is a bit high compared to competitors.

  • In-app purchases for the work of some composers.

If you are primarily interested in simply displaying your music on your iPad and keeping it all organized, forScore is the perfect solution. It doesn't have all of the bells and whistles as some of the other apps, but it has enough functionality to take over as your music library. And because it doesn't have all of those bells and whistles, it can be easier to learn.

You can use forScore to display all types of written music from traditional piano or c-instrument sheet music to just chords and lyrics. The app comes with a fair bit of classical music, and you can buy additional music packs.

But the true power is in importing your own music into forScore, which means you can scan your current sheet music collection and display it on the iPad's screen in an organized fashion. And because the forScore app has metronome that can scroll your music automatically, the app can make it even easier to play. This makes it one of the best apps on the App Store for musicians, whether performing or simply aspiring to perform.

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OnSong

What We Like

  • Optimized for its purpose — guitarists playing a worship service.

  • Good opportunity to annotate and modify within the app.

What We Don't Like

  • Expensive base price, plus additional in-app purchases.

  • Focus on chords to the exclusion of pure sheet reading.

While OnSong is one of the more expensive music readers on the iPad, it can easily be worth every penny for those who value simplified music notation with just lyrics and chords, especially those looking to create their sheet music library from scratch.

The biggest strength of OnSong is the editor and markup language that can make writing up a song fairly easy. Each song starts out with some "metadata", which are simply lines of text that contain the song's title and information about the song. The bulk of the text is dedicated to the music itself, which is laid out in the standard intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus format.

One cool aspect of the OnSong editor is doing away with the need to repeat anything. OnSong includes a 'Flow' feature that allows you to arrange these sections in order without actually repeating the text.

Another cool feature of the markup language is how it deals with chords. Instead of marking the chord above the lyric, you notate it within the lyrics. You can then choose how you want the chords displayed. OnSong will even display editable chord charts to help you out when playing the song.

OnSong also includes performance tools such as a metronome, support for playing backing tracks, the ability to use a foot pedal to scroll through the music among other nice additions.

03
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Notion

What We Like

  • Great for composition.

  • Handles complex inputs like handwritten notation.

What We Don't Like

  • Expensive base price plus even-more-expensive in-app purchases.

  • User reviews suggest that the app isn't fine tuned and contains aggravating bugs.

Notion falls into the category of music composition moreso than simply being a library for your music. This powerful music notation software allows you to compose on your iPad, including a sample library that covers a wide range of instruments and the ability to mark up articulations for various instruments, such as notating a bend or a slide on the guitar.

While not as stage-friendly as forScore or OnSong, it is a perfect fit for those who want to get serious about writing music. Notion can handle tasks like transposing into a different key, importing MIDI files, handwriting recognition for composing with a stylus and support for chord, tab, and full music notation.

Tip

You can connect a MIDI controller to the iPad, and with GarageBand, you can turn your iPad into a number of different instruments.

04
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Songsterr

What We Like

  • App is cleanly organized and easy to use.

  • Good mix of tools for guitarists.

What We Don't Like

  • The app is an afterthought to the website.

  • The app is well reviewed, but user reviews bemoan sundry glitches.

Songsterr takes tablature to the next level, rising above websites like Ultimate Guitar by breaking down every single instrument in a song into its own tab. It also includes a playback feature that makes it easier to learn the part by playing it in time. This will keep you from jumping back and forth between the tab and listening to the music to get the feel just right.

The breakdown of the song into its different parts can sometimes make the musician's job a little tougher. Often, tablature combines some of what the rhythm guitar with the signature lead licks to give you a single instrument interpretation of the song. But with the individual tracks isolated into their own tab, you can break down the song and decide how to put it together yourself.

Songsterr is available as an app, but the website provides the best value for those who aren't interested in paying a monthly subscription fee. You'll be able to view tab and hear the playback without a subscription, although if you find yourself using Songster as the primary way to learn songs, you may want to switch to the app and pay the monthly fee for extra features like half-speed mode, loop mode, offline mode and the ability to use apps like Amplitube for a mobile practice studio while you learn the song.

05
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GuitarTab

What We Like

  • Simple app optimized for guitar tabs and chords. No complexifying bells and whistles.

  • Free app, with just a few inexpensive in-app purchases.

  • Great user reviews.

What We Don't Like

  • Could be too basic for some users who need extra support.

  • User interface is probably too spartan to provide contexual help for guitarists-in-training.

The user interface for GuitarTab may be lacking, but it easily makes this list for two solid reasons: (1) it's free and (2) it's got a ton of content in its free section.

The library isn't quite as extensive as the one found in Songster, and you won't get all the bells and whistles, but if you are simply looking for a way to kickstart learning that song, GuitarTab on the iPad is a great alternative to apps like Tabs and Chords or Tab Pro that force you into an expensive subscription service. 

GuitarTab also offers in-app extensions that allow you to remove the ads, print the music, transpose to a different key among other neat features, but the ads aren't as intrusive as most guitar-oriented websites and the basics of looking up and playing tab won't cost you a dime.

06
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MusicNotes

What We Like

  • Great way to organize your sheet music.

  • Many positive reviews.

What We Don't Like

  • In-app purchase model is fine for a free app, albeit pricey.

  • The focus is on the sheet music; not many additional value-add tools.

What about buying sheet music? Most of the apps on this list are for creating a music library song-by-song, organizing your sheet music library and for performance. But what about simply buying a ton of music and learning to play it?

MusicNotes is the iBooks of sheet music. Not only does it store your music, it will help you learn it. You can play the music back and even slow down the beats per minute to help make learning it easier.

MusicNotes supports traditional sheet music, c-instrument or lyrics/chords music notation and tablature. The app comes with a half dozen songs as examples, but if you want to build your library, you will need to create an account on the ​MusicNotes website.

Why do you need to go to the website to buy the sheet music? Similar to what Amazon does with the Amazon Kindle reader, buying from the website avoids paying Apple's 30% cut, which ultimately means they can sell you the music for cheaper by cutting out the middleman.