About six weeks ago, I asked Neuratron for some technical support about their Photoscore product. Their CEO Martin Dawe, as well as sorting out my Photoscore problem, invited me to test out NotateMe, an app for Android (and now iOS) which lets you write music out with your finger on your phone’s screen, and while you’re writing it, translates your squiggles into real music. It uses, no doubt, some of the wizardry behind Photoscore, which can read music from graphics files and convert it into a format that music processing software like Sibelius can use.
Now it wasn’t very long ago that there was talk of a similar app for iOS which would let you do exactly what NotateMe now does. There was a very glossy video ‘demonstrating’ the app. Some eagle-eyed viewers noticed one or two things slightly amiss, however, and one was moved to ask if they’d had permission to use Sibelius’s fonts in their app. And then the truth began to come out, over a two-week period, that the app didn’t actually exist yet, and the video demonstrating it had been mocked up in Sibelius and other bits of software. Then followed a crowdsourcing attempt which didn’t reach its target, and people began to feel that it was a pipe dream, and that the whole idea was ridiculously far-fetched and not really achievable. The app itself meanwhile is promised for this autumn, which is now.
So when, right on schedule, an app doing the same job appeared from different quarters, and familiar quarters at that, it amused me a little. But unlike the other lot, Neuratron has form, and I was more than willing to trust their handiwork and pay a discount £9.99 to beta test it.
I’m really glad I did. My head swims a little, I must admit, when I think of how wincingly complex a job translating hand-written data into music is, but NotateMe is surprisingly good at it.
To start off with, NotateMe analyses your handwriting, gradually building up a picture of your own personal way of doing it. But even while it’s still doing that, you can just start writing. You add the instruments you want to your score, change the clef and time signature if necessary from the ones supplied, and then write in your key signature with your finger, and start putting the notes in. As you write, NotateMe works out what you’re writing, and transcribes it onto another stave above the one you’re writing in.
There Is No Rose, with my index-finger-on-small-screen effort below, and NotateMe’s transcription above. (NotateMe picks up triplets even when you don’t explicitly label them, as in the first 3/4 bar here.)
It doesn’t get everything right of course, and even if it did you’d still need the facility to edit what you’ve done in case the mistake is yours. You can add more marks to make things clearer if necessary, or you can delete things, move things, copy & paste things about the score or whatever you need to do. When you’ve finished, you can export your score as MusicXML and import it from there into Sibelius or whatever you’re using.
A lot of thought has gone into using the space available on a small screen, and there’s a certain amount of compromising to be done. You can opt either to have a small input area and see more musical context around it, or have a bigger input area and not see so much context. In my experience on a 4.3 inch HTC One S, using a big input area in portrait mode is the best solution. Your mileage may vary. Also, I’ve been using my finger, but if you have a stylus, or a device with a bigger screen, you should find things even easier than I did.
In my tests, NotateMe performed well from the beginning. I found some problems, to be sure, for example NotateMe not recognising some things that to a human eye were perfectly clear, but the bug reports I sent (there’s a facility in the app that makes reporting them easy) were acted upon very quickly by Neuratron, and sometimes a new build was released, fixing the bug, on the same day. But the bits that went wrong were easily outnumbered by the bits that went right, and with each new build it got better and better.
Once I felt that I’d learnt enough about the software, and that it had learnt enough about me, and knowing that real-world testing is more useful to software developers than directionless fiddling, I decided to try to prepare a piece for publication using NotateMe for the note input phase. If it passed muster even in its beta testing period, that would be an excellent sign for the future.
NotateMe knows where your ties should end, even if you’re not careful about it.
Well, it did, and the result is David Truslove’s There Is No Rose
, a 9-page piece for choir and semichorus (or solo quartet), with all eight parts written out by my index finger on a 4″ screen. After the notes had gone in I exported the score as MusicXML and imported into Sibelius to carry on (adding the text, producing the piano reduction and generally laying out the score).
This must surely make There Is No Rose pretty much the first published piece in the world to have been prepared for publication in this way, but I’m convinced there’ll be many others as the technology, already extremely promising, matures and develops. Neuratron already has plans for new features in NotateMe, including the ability to input notes by singing them into the phone!
I’m not suggesting of course that putting the notes in in NotateMe is faster than doing the same thing in Sibelius – far from it. But if you’d find it handy to be able to do your note input on the move – on a train, say, or on a beach – I can say that NotateMe is working extremely well here! Hats of to Martin Dawe and everyone at Neuratron. I am in awe, and am delighted that we’re in at the beginning of this new era in music processing technology.
Start here to try it out: http://neuratron.com/notateme.html