Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scanning music scores

I make big use of score-sharing websites - IMSLP and others - to get hold of public domain scores that I would never have found in the second-hand music shops or music libraries I used to visit in the UK.  Most have, alas, now closed down or restricted their activities.  However, although much music is now available from these sources, few people contribute new scores.  I encourage anyone who has old scores that are not already available online to scan and upload them before they crumble away.

My own technique for scanning music is:

Method 1 - best quality for A4 scores that will easily lie on a flatbed scanner:
  • Scan the plain title pages and music sheets with a setting of Black and White (not grayscale) at 300dpi - this gives a readable output, and keeps the file sizes down.  I use a standard A4 size scanner, but would use a larger one if I had one!  It can be difficult to position large-size sheets on the scanner to get all the content in - and for those, Method 2 is better.
  • If there is some good cover art, scan this and upload as a separate page in colour so that people have a choice of whether to view or download the larger file.  Note that one of the major score contributors, the Eastman School of Music Sibley Library does this, as here.  You can see from the stats on this this example page how many more people download the music than the cover art.
  • I have the excellent PaperPort software (an old version that came with the scanner) to manage the scanning process and process the scanned pages.  The features I use are:  
    • rotating the pages (sometimes you have to scan pages upside down); 
    • erasing marks on the scanned pages and black areas around the edges of your scans.  Remember that printing ink is one of the most expensive fluids on the planet.
    • aligning the pages vertically where they have been scanned crookedly.
    • putting the pages in the correct order (stacking them).
  • After doing this I end up with a stack of sheets on the Paperport desktop.  I then print this stack using a virtual PDF printer.  I use the free PDFCreator which will create a single PDF document out of the stack, that is ready for uploading.  Note that the printer settings should match the scans - so set the printer quality as  Black and White, 300dpi.  This is really important as you will otherwise end up with a far larger file than you (or the end user) need.
  • If you follow my suggestions, other than the colour cover art page(s) each black and white sheet should add no more than about 70Kb to the file size (eg, a recent scan of a six-page 19th century salon piece which I did resulted in a file of 384Kb).  Again this is important as making the files too big wastes bandwidth (for uploading) and space on servers and local storage media.
  • Finally, when naming files, put the composer's surname first, followed by the work and opus number if possible - eg.  'Grieg - Piano Sonata Op. 7.pdf' .  This will help anyone downloading the file to their digital collection to identify it.  File name lengths are not as restricted as they once were.
Method 2 - for large pages and scores bound in books which cannot fit a flatbed scanner:
  • Using wireless digital camera (or camera fitted with Eye-Fi card), photograph pages of score using text setting.
  • Upload to computer or tablet.  I use an Android tablet with the excellent MDScan app.
  • Import photos into scanner app and crop, then process as black on white.
  • Upload processed scores to cloud storage via wi-fi (if processing done on tablet)
  • Process using A-PDF to Black/White (see below) to reduce file size.
When handling scores scanned by others, you may find that they have not followed the above suggestions, and you may be forced to use a file that is much larger than it need be.  A particular problem is with scans done in colour where the background comes out as cream or yellow.  This makes them very hard to print in black and white.  I recommend processing the file before printing with the interesting A-PDF to Black/White software which will analyse the files and convert the backgrounds to white.  You will need to test each file out to get the right setting so that you do not lose any faint content or convert areas of scanned 'dirt' or shadow turned to black.  This software is also very useful for processing scanned manuscripts where the composer has written in pencil or a colour other than black.


  1. Another useful tool is PDF Annotator as it allows you to do a lot of easy page edits, including being able to remove over-sized margins which often turn up in PDF scans of sheet music.

    If you've scanned the docs yourself of course you can edit the source page images easily enough, but I've got so many old scans where the image is dirty or has gigantic margins etc where this tool has been a godsend as I can clean up many pages in one operation.

    It's even better if you have a tablet, as you can do more precise clean-up or even pen-annotate the document with (erasable) fingering instructions.

    1. Thank you for that. I am looking forward to the day when I can have an affordable 22" flexible tablet on which I can store all my scores and annotate them with PDF Annotator or similar!

    2. I had a Motion Computing M1300 tablet back in 2003 whoise 12.1" screen allowed me to display A4 pages at nearly full size and sit it at the piano.

      Since it was a full Windows XP device I could run Finale in it, and even theoretically connect it to the MIDI output from a keyboard.

      Still haven't seen an off-the-shelf product that has been close to it for sheet music purposes. I'm waiting for that 22" flexible tablet too!

  2. Very useful information. Looking forward to reading from a tablet/monitor also!

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