PlayScore 2: Music Software Review
Does this phone and tablet app read and play back printed scores effectively?
I was recently approached by the makers of PlayScore 2 to write a review of their software; they had seen my review of Dorico and these two programs have the potential to work closely together with certain projects.
This is quite a detailed review with comments on quite demanding usage, so I can tell you at the outset that this is a clever bit of software that does what it says it will do (i.e. play a piece of music from the printed score). If you are an amateur instrumentalist who wants to know what a piece you are learning sounds like, or maybe you are a choir director who wants playback of the alto part for the benefit of your choir members, then there is plenty to be gained from investing in this neat little app. It is good value and easy to use. However, if you want the detail, read on …
The value of any software is, of course, dependent on what you, as a musician, want to achieve; that is, what kind of musician you are and what kind of functions are of interest to you. I am a frequent user of Logic Pro X and Dorico (both on iMac) and previously used Sibelius before making the switch to Dorico, so I think it is fair to say that I am very experienced with music software. Apart from giving a general review of PlayScore2, my own question was whether it had any part to play in my life of making recordings and music videos, engraving music, teaching music and playing music. I always felt that with a good recording program and a good engraving program, musical life was pretty complete; what else did I really need? Well … let’s find out!
Having installed PlayScore 2 on my iPad (7th generation, 14.6) I set about exploring its primary functions. Essentially, PayScore 2 scans and plays sheet music, so it’s a question of whether you want to do this or not. Some obvious possibilities are:
• find out what a piece sounds like to assist with learning to play it
• demonstrate what a piece sounds like to a class of pupils
• demonstrate individual parts to a choir
Another possibility, and one that interested me in particular, was whether I could use PlayScore 2’s Music XML export function to speed up the process of making an arrangement of, say, a piano piece for string quartet. I imagine the process here to be:
• import the original score into PlayScore 2
• check it for accuracy
• export it as Music XML
• import the resulting XML file into Dorico or other engraving program
But how easy is it to operate and how accurate is it? Well … I found it pretty straightforward. I was expecting the accuracy to be dependent on how clear the score was in the first place and the clarity of the photograph or the scan, and that turned out to be the case.
To get your printed score into PlayScore 2, you have a choice of taking a photo of the score (using the camera icon in PlayScore 2) or importing a PDF or JPG (it doesn’t seem to recognise the HEIC format that the iPhone uses, although if you take the picture with your iPhone within the app, it is fine). The page you have imported then pops up on screen, takes a moment to be processed and you are ready to play it immediately. The tempo can be adjusted easily at the bottom of your screen, where there is a handy ‘?’ which brings up pointers which explain all the functions available on whichever screen you happen to be. If you swipe down in your score, you will see other settings, such as swing on/off, dynamic range and auto transposition. You can also enter a title and composer, which is helpful for sorting once you have quite a number of scores on your device. If your photo or scan is a bit rough, you can crop it too (handy if you want to export or play just a section from whatever you have imported). If you have multiple pages to your imported score, you can reorder the pages and set beginning and end points. Any score you import seems to default to the piano sound (if it has no other information to go on) for playback, but you can change this. There is a sound set which includes all standard orchestral instruments. Admittedly, this is fairly limited, but will do for most things and no doubt will be expanded in time. You can even assign a different sound to each voice in multi-voiced music. So, as well as playing back your score, there is a fairly comprehensive list of functions for editing and playback, but not so many as to be confusing or put the app beyond the wit of the average user, including people who would not consider themselves to be particularly well-informed on the musical front. If you want to export your score, you have a choice of Music XML (which I will discuss later), MIDI, or PlayScore 2 document. The third option means that a file can be shared with other PlayScore 2 users.
Suppose you are a choir director and you want to send something to your members to help them learn their parts. Edit your imported music so that (say) the alto part is balanced to playback louder than the other parts, and share the resulting PlayScore 2 file with the altos from your choir. They can then play this back using the free version of the app to become familiar with their part. This is particularly useful if you have a significant proportion of non-readers in your choir.
So, to the BIG question. How well does it work?
My first experiment was with a bass part from a Beatles tune (so, single notes on a single stave). A quick photo in not great light resulted in generally accurate playback with a couple note errors. With an imported pdf of exactly the same bass part, the playback was flawless.
I went on to try something a bit more demanding. I took a photo of the bass part of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. This is in 12/8 time, four sharps and has staccato and glissando markings. Also, there are a few notes with cross heads. This resulted in playback that had missing notes and all sorts of inaccuracies, including missing out dotted minims. I figured this might be due to the quality of the photo, so I set about importing the same page as a pdf to make sure there was no loss of quality in the image. Same problem (somewhat to my surprise after the earlier experiment). So, I re-typset the same piece in Dorico and tried again. Perfect playback resulted. What was going on with the first score? I eventually tumbled to the fact that perhaps it did not like the jazz font of the score (which is hand-written style). The perfect playback from the Dorico score was done reading the default Bravura font (designed for Dorico by Daniel Spreadbury at Steinberg). So, if jazz fonts are a problem, let’s try the same score again using Dorico’s jazz font, which is Petulama. I quickly converted the same music to Petulama in Dorico and reimported to PlayScore 2. Perfect playback … again!
I later discovered from the makers of PlayScore 2 that it is primarily designed to handle normal printed music and that handwritten music and any publication with a handwritten style to it (such as you may find in a real book) is not currently supported (they are quite clear about this), although I did get good results with some examples in a handwritten style.
The conclusion from that experiment is that if you give PlayScore 2 a good quality pdf to work with, you will get very reliable results. A poor quality photo (blurred, bad light, shadows etc) will inevitably lead to inaccurate playback. A quick photo, carefully taken, can lead to surprisingly good playback as long as it is not handwritten-style music.
So, onto my next experiment.
A rather careful photo of a Chopin Waltz for piano resulted in good playback with just a couple of note errors in the more complicated bars (chords with notes for every finger and multiple accidentals). The playback recognised the repeats but seemed to have trouble with the 1st and 2nd time bars (It played the 1st time bar on the repeat.) Depending on what your task is, this may not necessarily be of any concern. I then tried to export the photographed Chopin Waltz as Music XML in order to import it into Dorico to see how the resulting score compared with the original. With Dorico being such a high quality engraving program, I was hoping that I may actually get a better looking score than the original Augener’s edition. Once I had imported the Music XML file into Dorico, the resulting score certainly wasn’t useable as it was, but it did not take too long to correct couple of voicing errors and add a tempo marking and metronome speed. Whether these errors were anything to do with PlayScore 2 or not, I don’t know; they might be connected with Music XML or Dorico’s importing of it. Anyway, I got a useable piano score from a quick photograph fairly quickly. The only thing that didn’t seem to get picked up by PlayScore 2 was the pedal markings – this maybe to do with PlayScore 2 rather than other stages in the process as I couldn’t hear any pedalling in PlayScore 2’s playback of the page in question.
Having gone through the process of reading a page of piano music with PlayScore 2 and then trying to convert it into a useable score via Music XML, I got the impression that PlayScore 2 might be a very useful program if you were, for example, doing a second print run and update of a previous publication. I came across a book of clarinet studies, used by many teachers, from a well-known British publisher (which I won’t name!) where the second edition has come out with a lovely new cover, but the actual printed music is of poor quality compared with the first edition, as it appears to be just a photocopy of the first print run, rather than a new engraving. This is pure laziness on the part of the publisher, but perhaps with an efficient way of getting their older publications from a printed copy to Dorico, Sibelius etc, they may be more inclined to do the job properly.
My third experiment was to produce some parts for a saxophone quartet for which I only have the printed score (having lost the parts somewhere). This was slightly problematic; PlayScore 2 has an auto-transpose function (to deal with playback for transposing instruments). The playback of this piece in PlayScore 2 was accurate other than not playing all parts play back in the correct octave (it did not seem to know that the baritone sax music should sound an octave lower than the alto sax music). In terms of producing a score from the exported Music XML, this was fairly straightforward. As long as you know what you are doing with instrument transpositions and what the correct pitch of each part should be, there should be no problem with producing a correct score from PlayScore 2’s exported Music XML.
Having also installed PlayScore 2 on my iPhone 8, I went on to take a few photos of various piano pieces (Grieg Lyric Pieces, Debussy Arabesques). These scores included publications by Durand and Novello. In every case they played back mostly correctly even though I did not spend much time over the photos. I did put the music on a stand, laid flat and made sure there were no shadows cast on the image. When you take the photo within PlayScore 2, there are lines across the screen to help you get the picture straight with minimal bowing of the image. Had I scanned these pages, I think you would get even more reliable playback.
In the pipeline for further development is the ability to recognise the correct octave for certain instruments and to expand the range of music styles that can be recognised. Having said that, these minor difficulties really only affect advanced users and can be got round fairly easily.
In conclusion, this app is a neat little package. It is easy to use for musicians and teachers at all levels. For anyone (including non music readers) who wants a quick overview of a printed score, it is equally useful. It is also very good value. A full description of its functions is given on the App Store.