The Surface Pro 3 or 4 can be used as sheet music readers without special apps

By Stephen Pate – I’ve been using an iPad Air for an electronic sheet music reader but need to find something more suitable. Along with the need for a larger screen, my criteria for a sheet music reader are:

  1. Full page display
  2. Portable
  3. Easy to use in performance or practice
  4. Program or App to Read music notation and chord charts
  5. Use Bluetooth page turning
  6. Allow annotations
  7. Standard operating systems – iOS, Android or Windows 10
  8. Cost less than $1,000

A website suggested using a Windows laptop for the job and that got me thinking about the Surface Pro 3 or 4.  Yes, either of them work quite well. The Surface Pro 3 was on sale at the Microsoft Store USA icon (Canadaicon) and Best Buy USA (Canada),  I picked the Surface Pro 3 i5 for this story, cost $940 Canadian. Update – the current model is the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

Full size sheet music

Surface Pro 3 chord chart (click for full size)

Surface Pro 3 chord chart

Since I started using the iPad for a music reader I’ve been frustrated by the small size of the text and music notation. Sheet music is 8.5″ by 11″ or larger. The iPad screen is only 5.75″ by 7.5″ obviously too small.

To read music vertically, the page has to shrink to 32% of full size or be split into two pages horizontally.

Neither choice is preferable. When the text is smaller, it’s harder to read. Paging down for the 2nd half can be distracting but possible with a Bluetooth pedal.

My criteria for a better system are that the sheet music reader must be simple and not distract from the musical performance.

On this quest for a better full-page music reader I discovered the Surface Pro 3 or 4 solution. The Surface Pro 3 are very similar so I will call this simply the Surface Pro 3 solution.

From Paper to Pixels – Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution is an excellent guide to moving your sheet music to a tablet. The author has 12 years of experience that saved me months of effort. He is biased towards the Apple iPad but that’s not uncommon. Highly recommended.

The Surface Pro 3 screen is 6.5″ x 10″ with 6.5″ x 9.5″ available to display sheet music. By removing the white space in the margins, the Surface Pro 3 can display the text and music the same size as the printed page.

Surface Pro 3 full size text

Surface Pro 3 full size text

Removing the margins is extra step in creating PDF sheet music files but worth the effort if you like full-sized text. Since Windows 10 takes up .5″ at the bottom of the page, the display area is actually 6.5″ by 9.5″.

I used Adobe Acrobat 9.5 to crop the 8.5 by 11″ pages to fit the screen. There are other PDF programs that can do the same thing. I used cropping of Top: .5″, Bottom: 1″, Left: .75″ and Right 1.25″. Those settings may not work for every song but you can preview and make adjustments.

Adobe Acrobat settings to crop the A4 page to a Surface Pro 3 screen

Adobe Acrobat settings to crop the A4 page to a Surface Pro 3 screen

The basic applications that come with Windows 10 like Adobe Touch Reader, OneDrive and Explorer along with the Surface Pen make the Surface Pro an efficient full-page sheet music reader.

Portable

The Surface Pro 3 is definitely portable with battery power and WiFi connectivity. It’s lighter and more agile than a laptop turned sideways.

With the touch keyboard, the Surface Pro 3 weighs 1.76 pounds, about the same as an iPad Air with a case. However, it’s tall size in portrait mode makes it a little unwieldy for holding. I recommend you get a music stand holder or clamp to keep it from falling during practice and performance.

Easy to use in performance or practice

The good thing about the Surface Pro 3 is Windows 10 which is a full operating system, uses standard programs, and has a tablet touch mode to keep use simple. The bad thing is Windows 10 can be complex and you don’t want that in the middle of performance.

It’s important to be ready with the Surface and simplify the performance cycle and that can be done. Performance setup for the Surface Pro in Windows 10 includes:

  • Charge the battery
  • Set the Display mode in Settings, System to Text 150%, Orientation Portrait
  • Turn off notifications in Settings, System, Notifications and actions
  • Display turn on Settings, SystemTablet Mode
  • Delay screen blanking and going to sleep for some longer interval with Settings, SystemPower and Sleep. The screen can be set to something longer than the time it takes to page down or change songs and sleep should be set longer than the total performance.

Program or App to read music notation and chord charts

Music Reader apps import the sheet music in PDF format from Dropbox, iCloud or from email. The apps sort the sheet music by genre, composer, or set list. With the iPad and Android you need apps to perform the organizing tasks because they don’t have a file manager.

The apps also help with annotation but can’t do much more. Few of them can transpose the key of the song unless they support MusicXML files.

There aren’t many Windows 10 apps for reading notation and chord charts but with Windows you don’t need an app since the functions are already there. The free Acrobat PDF Touch Reader works well for display and annotation.

File Explorer sorts the sheet music in sub-directories by genre, composer, or set-list. Adding PDF meta-tags to the sheet music makes that information searchable by the file manager and some programs.

OneDrive automatically shares the music between a desktop computer and the Surface Pro 3 Most of the apps make you import the sheet music from Dropbox, iCloud or from email. All of those steps are not necessary with Windows 10.

The Surface Pro 3 is multi-tasking. You can run the reader, a metronome, a video clip of the song and other programs at the same time.

Bluetooth page turning

I tested the Surface Pro 3 with the AirTurn PED Wireless Foot Controller. (1) After a software update, the PED worked reliably turning pages forward and backwards. The PED can also be set to turn pages up and down and move through the music a few lines at a time.

The update uses an iPad which demonstrates that the iPad has been the most popular device for sheet music readers up to this point.

I hope to also test the PageFlip Firefly Bluetooth/USB Page Turner Pedal soon.

Allow annotations

It seems that the sheet music needs changes or notes. Either a key or tempo change or something is wrong and needs editing.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 comes with a Surface Pen that is a cool device for markup of songs. The free Acrobat Touch Reader supports sticky notes, highlighting and strike through on the sheet music files. The annotations can be saved with the file and shared on OneDrive.

This is probably the best solution I’ve found for making notes on sheet music. Acrobat Touch Reader and the Surface Pen are easy to use. Most of the iOS and Android apps I tried allow you to make notes but not export your notes.

Standard operating systems – iOS, Android or Windows 10

The Surface Pro 3 comes with Windows 8.1 with a free upgrade Windows 10. Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10 installed.

Granted Windows can be complex for this task; however, it does give you a fully featured tablet that can do almost anything. From my experience, setting up the Surface Pro in advance can minimize the complexity during practice and performance.

Cost less than $1,000

The Surface Pro 3 costs between $699 and $999 from Microsoft Store USA icon (a little more in Canadaicon) and Best Buy USA ( also in Canada). The i3 model is more than adequate for displaying sheet music. However, the Surface Pro i5 model is the sweet spot for power and price since it can do much more when you want a tablet for other programs.

The Surface Pro 4 is the newer model and has a slightly larger screen,by .3″. That is not a noticeable difference. 8.5 x 11″ sheet music still has to be cropped. It runs cooler and faster if that matters to you for other programs. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4  starts at $899 and $1,179 in Canada.

I recommend getting the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Type Cover  (also in Canadaicon) for either the Surface Pro 3 or 4. It’s a better keyboard.  The Type Cover costs between $130 and $170 which may put the price up or above $1,000 but it sure is handy.

If I could find a larger screen tablet that didn’t require cropping my sheet music, it would be the preferred solution. As it is right now, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is the best I can find.

(1) Review AirTurn PED supplied by Leoné MusicReader B.V. The Netherlands.