Freeing Music From The Page: A Q&A With iSheetMusic’s Matthew Sutton
iSheetMusic is a music app that works for both the iPhone and iPad. One of the company’s founders, Matt Mostad, was struck one night by the fact that he couldn’t remember any tunes to play at a beachfront guitar pull. Why weren’t there tools on his iPhone to help him remember the chords to that Stones song he loved? So Mostad came to his friend Matthew Sutton, who’d worked on the technical side of the music industry for many years, with the idea for a sheet music app. We spoke with Sutton about how iSheetMusic works, what else the company is developing, and how the sheet music publishing industry is transitioning to the digital space.
How did development start with iSheetMusic?
We were focused on the iPhone to begin with and it really made us stretch [the concept of] what sheet music is. How do you approach sheet music? It can’t just be a piece of paper shrunk down to fit on an iPhone screen. [That's] useless. I started working on an idea to extract the music from the paper, breaking it down into measures. The elemental piece of music is the note and the measure, and then the page. So we created an app that displays music on any size screen.
How does the app work?
We [created the app] by reading the digital data files rather than taking notes from a PDF file onto the screen. All of our music is based in digital data so we can read it out, extract it; we can pinch, zoom, and change orientation. Most importantly, we put a metronome in, so it can count and keep the beat for you and turn the page.
What was the process like for licensing music for iSheetMusic?
We started talking to Hal Leonard and Alfred Music about licensing their libraries, which is a long process because they want to be careful and make sure they’re not letting things out into the wild. Hal Leonard brought sheet music to the Internet in the ’90s. One of my observations about the sheet music industry is that it’s largely untouched by the Internet and by the digital revolution. Consider that 30% of the songs sold are digital download and 2% of sheet music sold is sold on the web. There’s a long way to go.
What’s one of the app’s unique features?
We looked at the whole process of repeats. Sheet music has repeats. That’s there to save paper but [with iSheetMusic] we don’t have to pay for the bits. So our software, when it reads through the digital files from Hal Leonard and Alfred, it automatically extrapolates all the repeats and codas – any kind of situation where you might get bounced back, which on a digital leader is very distracting, if you’re playing along and all of a sudden it has to go find the third measure to start the second verse. In many cases, the sheet music doesn’t have the verse listed under the melody line. It’s actually at the back. So we integrated all that stuff in, so that it’s a continuous playing process. All you have to do as a musician is play.
What types of music does iSheetMusic offer?
We are focused right now on popular music and the “fakebook” format of the melody line, chords and lyrics, or the vocal/guitar arrangements. They’re a good framework to build from. As we look to doing choral or multipart instrumentation, we can build off this framework and expand on it. Another place we’ll go is tablature. Lots of people love tabs. As somebody who grew up reading music, it’s not for me, but Matt [Mostad] uses tabs all the time.
Do you know how many people in the U.S. can read sheet music?
It’s a fascinating question, and quite frankly, I don’t have a clue. I grew up taking band. I play the French horn, piano, guitar and flute. None of them terribly well, but I had fun. I do know that there’s half a billion dollars a year sold in sheet music around the world each year. With only 2% of that sold digitally, there’s certainly room [for iSheetmusic] to come in and have an impact on that and hopefully bring new things to that party.
iSheetMusic is available for iPhone and iPad and is free to download in the App Store. Single songs start at $0.99 and five-song bundles start at $2.99.