When the pop-up Christmas tree stores take hold in my home of New York City each year, it’s a reminder that the clock is ticking to buy goodies to be lovingly wrapped and placed under the tree — once the tree makes its way from the street to its rightful place in the home, of course.
While most trees might be adorned with boxes of sweaters, toy trucks or jewelry, on this blog the ideal gifts — whether for yourself or for your favorite music notation aficionado — are more likely to take the form of books, apps, or gear. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite selections.
The second edition of Samuel Z. Solomon’s incredible How to Write for Percussion was published in April 2016, and it’s worth every penny — even if you already own the first edition from 2004. There are even more excerpts to pore over, and Sam interviews percussionists and composers to get their individual takes on the challenge of writing effectively for the seemingly limitless variety of instruments that a percussionist might find himself or herself playing at any time. In addition, there are a whopping nine hours of online videos to complement the book — perfect for binge-watching by the fire.
Price: $30 in paperback.
Every year I recommend Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, and there’s even more reason to do so this year. First published in 2011 to great acclaim, the 704-page master reference quickly became indispensible for professional engravers, copyists and publishers. This year, consumers were treated to a wonderful surprise: the imposing hardcover format has been joined by nimble e-book versions, for Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks. Whether or not the original hardcover graces your bookshelf already, having the option to take this resource anywhere is worth the purchase price.
Price: $66 in hardcover; $36 in e-book format.
If the Gould is the heavyweight tome on the subject of music notation, then the Alfred Essential Dictionary of Music Notation is its ideal counterpart. Small and lightweight but chock-full of goodies, it’s the perfect quick reference on a surprisingly wide range of notation topics. With clear illustrations and practical descriptions, it’s the ideal gift for the budding composer who is looking to improve upon the beauty of their score. It’s presented alphabetically, so it’s not necessarily meant to be read in sequence. But that’s the nature of a dictionary, after all, isn’t it? Also in the “Essential” series are dictionaries of orchestration, and terminology — together, they are the three kings of pocket music references.
Price: $7 in paperback; $6 in Kindle format.
We all know what the big news in scoring software was this year: Steinberg’s long-awaited Dorico, the professional-level music notation program developed from scratch starting four years ago. First released about a month ago, the software shows enormous potential but is still very much a version 1.0 iteration, as we noted in our extensive review. Promisingly, a significant update is forthcoming by the end of November, and features beyond that are squarely on the road map. Winter break might be the perfect time to get familiar with the new kid on the notation block.
Price: $580; discounts available for crossgrades and academic users.
Of course, if you want to write music on computer and don’t want to take the Dorico plunge yet, you have several well-established platforms to choose from, and they’ve all seen healthy updates over the past year. The latest Sibelius version stands at 8.4.2; there have been four “point” updates so far in 2016, with each one bringing at least one notable new feature and a number of other improvements. 8.4 saw more custom staff sizes, laying the groundwork for further improvements in that area; 8.3 brought support for individual note colors; 8.2 included independent note spelling in a score and part along with a note sliding feature; 8.1 brought us “magnetic” rests and MP3 export. Any Sibelius user would surely be happy to receive these stuffers in their stocking.
Price: $599 or less – varies based on license; discounts available for crossgrades and academic users; upgrades from previous versions available.
If you’re looking for music notation software for the amateur or student in your life, or even the more advanced user who doesn’t need every last pro feature, look no further than Sibelius First. It’s been fully updated in 2016 based on the most recent Sibelius code, and includes many of the same new features present in the latest Sibelius updates, such as rest collision avoidance, sliding notes, multiple staff sizes, improved playback, and more. Best of all, there’s a discounted upgrade path to the full version of Sibelius, if your Sibelius First user is stretching the bounds of this entry-level software.
Price: $119 or less – varies based on license; upgrades from previous versions available.
With its first paid upgrade in nearly three years, version 25 of Finale was the first to be 64-bit, a behind-the-scenes process that was nevertheless essential for the future of the program on modern operation systems. As we noted in our review, the primary purpose of this release was to modernize the program and pave the way for more frequent incremental updates. Notable new features include ReWire support, a separate staff attribute for time signatures in scores and parts, contoured dashed slurs, and additional Garritan sounds. If you already use Finale, you won’t be thrown off by any of the changes, and if you’re new to it, you’ll have the benefit of using a widely-supported, feature-rich program to score your next magnum opus.
Price: $600 or less; discounts available for crossgrades and academic users; upgrades from previous versions available.
This year, MakeMusic unveiled the new incarnation of its interactive learning software SmartMusic. It’s entirely browser-based and can run on any computer, including Chromebooks and tablets. This platform isn’t something you’re likely to purchase for an individual student, but if you’re an educator and looking for a way to integrate thousands of ensemble and solo titles into your classroom practice routine, and enable your students to take full advantage of the platform on just about any device, this may be the one item sure to bring you some holiday cheer. The pricing scales based on the number of teachers and students that will use the product.
Price: Starts at $399/year.
The only music notation software to have complete integration with its desktop and mobile app is Notion, and, compared to its competitors, you’ll have plenty of gelt leftover with which to spin the dreidel after you purchase it. Notion 6 came out in August and the feature updates are substantial: cross-platform handwriting recognition, Side-by-side workflow integration with Studio One, new layout control, new instruments, MIDI over ReWire, and updated MusicXML support. While Notion remains largely a niche product among the broader music scoring market, it has its enthusiasts, and at $79 for a crossgrade, the newest version is certainly worth exploring if you’re looking for another approach to the centuries-old practice of getting notes down on a page.
Price: $150 or less; discounts available for crossgrades and academic users; upgrades from previous versions available.
StaffPad, the music scoring app that works on Windows pen-and-touch devices like the Surface Pro, continues to push new innovative updates to its revolutionary product. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been about 19 months since StaffPad turned imagination into reality, transforming handwritten music into engraved notation. This year saw two major updates: one in April and another just last week. The attention to detail and user workflow continue to make this product a must-have if you own a Surface already, and it plays well with MIDI and MusicXML so you can work with your scores in other programs. (No, there still isn’t an iOS version, despite it being asked about here and elsewhere about a bajillion times.)
Amidst the various sheet music reader apps for iOS, one that is breaking out as one to watch is Newzik, available for iOS in both free and paid versions. It’s notable among the emerging apps for tablets in that it does not use a proprietary file format, instead making use of MusicXML and PDFs, as well as MIDI and text files. Its MusicXML reader will automatically reflow the music to fit the page, and scores can be synced with audio and video files for practice purposes. Annotations can be made in real time and pushed to an entire group, and page turns can be done manually or synced among all the players in an ensemble. The app’s developers recently collaborated with the Opéra de Rouen in a performance exclusively performed using Newzik, and they are seeking to extend the app’s reach in the future.
Price: Free; premium version is $20.
forScore is another sheet music reader app for iOS worth considering as a virtual stocking stuffer. It’s well-regarded among gigging musicians that need a way to keep hundreds of songs organized from show to show, and its simple interface belies a sophisticated bevy of features that can make you wonder how you ever performed without it. With larger screens on the iPad Pro making it easier to read pages of music at near-100% the size of a printed page, apps like forScore have become even more useful. It works with virtually any PDF file and can be configured to sync with cloud services like Dropbox.
The beautifully engraved scores from G. Henle Verlag are now available on the Henle Library app — a customizable way of viewing and playing along with the best editions that Henle has to offer. Users can to view the digital Henle scores in vertical or horizontal high resolution formats, create their own alignment of the staves, optionally view layers of fingerings and bowings by top musicians, and record themselves playing along with the music. The app is contiuously being updated and new scores have been added since the app’s initial release in February. Scores are purchased through a system of credits — $1 buys about $10 credits, with discounts if you buy more at a time — which could make the app quite pricey in the long-run. But you get what you pay for, and Henle’s exceptional scores are worth it for aficionados of the most reliable Urtext editions around.
Price: Free; in-app purchases required.
The newest addition to CME Pro’s roster of MIDI keyboards is the Xkey Air. The Air takes the Xkey’s slim form and makes it wireless for the first time. Available in both 25-key and 37-key configurations, the Xkey Air has earned a permanent spot on my desk for its ease of use and unassuming profile. It can connect to a desktop, laptop or tablet via Bluetooth (BLE MIDI), and its powerful feature set includes velocity-sensitivity, polyphonic aftertouch, and a handful of CC buttons, which work just as they do on the wired versions of the keyboard (you can also connect the XKey Air via USB). The free Xkey Plus app for PC, Mac, and iOS isn’t necessary to use the keyboard, but it adds advanced options.
Price: $199 for the 25-key configuration; $299 for the 37-key configuration.
The music apps mentioned above only scratch the surface for what’s possible on a tablet. With these and other music apps improving all the time, a larger screen can fulfill the promise of many of these apps for the first time, especially those used for reading notated music. If you’ve been really good this year, Santa might deliver you an iPad Pro for you to use in your music endeavors. Its beautiful Retina display is easy on the eyes, if not on the pocketbook, and if you get one with more storage space — at an additional cost, of course — just think of all the back pain you’ll avoid by carrying around the equivalent of bookshelves of music. Of course, it’s not just a glorified sheet music reader — it’s a top-of-the line iPad, after all.
Price: $729 and up, depending on storage space.
Now, Apple isn’t the only player in town when it comes to tablets. And if you’re looking for an approach that combines a tablet experience with the full PC experience, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is worth equal consideration. The updates to Windows 10 have brought broad usability improvements to what was previously a ham-fisted approach to hybrid computing, and there have been many occasions where the Surface is the only device I take with me on the road, since it serves ably as a tablet and can run Sibelius, Finale and all my other key desktop apps to boot. With StaffPad’s rewrite from a year ago taking full advantage of Windows 10, if you’re in the market for a new laptop, you might indeed find the Surface meeting all your needs, and then some.
Price: $900 and up, depending on configuration.
If you own a Surface or are thinking of getting one, you’ll know about its pen-and-touch approach to interacting with the device. The newly-introduced Surface Dial brings another element to the interface party, and, having had the chance to work with it a bit on StaffPad, I can report that it’s quite extraordinary. With the pen in one hand and your other hand manipulating the Dial, you’re always constantly in the flow — the dial rotates and can be pressed, contextually morphing to help with the task at hand. StaffPad has already added support for the Dial in its latest update, and with more apps on board, the decades-long paradigm of mouse and keyboard might eventually be usurped by the pen and dial.
Have you been really good this year? I mean, really, really good, so good that Santa and his reindeer have added a special stop on their itinerary? If so, then maybe you’ll be the lucky recipient of the new Surface Studio from Microsoft. Yes, it’s the third Microsoft product in this year’s shopping guide, but, let’s face it — Microsoft is courting creative professionals in enthusiastic fashion, while Apple seems to have taken for granted that customers will buy a Mac Pro that hasn’t been updated — or discounted — in three years. The Studio is a remarkable new entry into the world of desktop computing that brings pen-and-touchscreen technology to large-display (28-inch) consumer PCs for the first time. In speaking with a number creative pros (not just in the field of music), this, and not a Touch Bar, is what they’ve been hoping for to up their technological game.
Price: $3,000 and up, depending on configuration.
For fun and art
I have one movie and one music selection to add to an otherwise practical list this year. The movie selection is a classic: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I’m talking, of course, about the 1974 film with brilliant performances by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw (not the more recent and utterly forgettable remake with John Travolta). It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and not just for its unique combination of wit, suspense, and utter New York 1970s grit. The 12-tone jazz/funk score by David Shire perfectly captures the essence of the story with its angst and jarring yet propulsive rhythmic figures. I never tire of watching it, and if you enjoy the music as much as I do, you’ll want to get the album, too.
The genius of Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is its uncanny and utterly prescient ability to provide a clearer insight into modern political times than any newspaper article or television commentary. For it takes those familiar sources and weaves them into an unrelenting experience of visuals and sound that transports the audience into the world of paranoia and conspiracy, more adequately explaining the otherwise inexplicable insanity that we often feel about world events, especially in the last half-century. Although the fully immersive experience of the live performance is missing from the audio-only album, it’s worth listening to as purely a musical journey in its own right. If Shire’s score to Pelham is the musical embodiment of a fictional train-hijacking conspiracy, then its rightful descendant is Argue’s Real Enemies, which hauls the conspirators out of the dark subway tunnels, shining a bright spotlight on the through line of our past — and what may be yet to come.
Price: $15 for the CD; $11 for the digital album.