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Rethinking Sheet Music, With A Few Bells And Whistles

Steinway launches a revamped version of Etude, its customized sheet-music store. Stephen Frederick/Steinway & Sons hide caption

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Stephen Frederick/Steinway & Sons

The acoustic piano hasn't changed much lately, but you can't say the same for sheet music. These days, piano scores are a click away — not just on your laptop, but via fancy new apps like Etude 2.0, which Steinway & Sons officially launches today for the iPad. It's essentially a souped-up sheet-music store, with a couple of slick interactive functions, at least one of which is designed to help you learn to play.

I downloaded the free Etude app and immediately found plenty of fast, free sheet-music downloads. Not a pianist, I opted for something super-simple, the Pachelbel "Canon," then shuffled off to our Yamaha grand to see if Etude could help me learn to play it.

Nothing short of Leon Fleisher could teach me to play the piano, but I was surprised how easy it was to follow the interactive score, which scrolls along by itself with notes or measures (your pick) conveniently highlighted. The music plays for you if you wish — albeit far from gracefully — approximating a real performance, while a keyboard bar below the score cues you for finger placement, color-coded for left and right hands. You can even set the tempo, although some might justifiably wish for a more accurate "virtual metronome" function.

Then I asked a real pianist to test it out — my NPR colleague Daniel Shukhin. He noted how well the sheet music is formatted to the screen; easy enough to see, but you get only one page at a time.

"It would be really cool," he said, "to have this app run on two iPads at the same time, with synchronized scrolling and page turning. After all, an old-fashioned music score allows for viewing two pages at a time. Having to swipe the iPad screen twice as frequently isn't actually that fun."

You can choose to have the score scroll by, or hear the music in this piano-roll version. Steinway & Sons hide caption

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Steinway & Sons

When it comes to looking for classical scores to download, Etude — although it comes from the venerable Steinway company — comes up surprisingly short. Search for Rachmaninoff and you get two options: "All By Myself" (the pop song that steals a Rachmaninoff melody) in a version by either Celine Dion or the pop-opera boy band Il Divo. You won't find anything by John Adams, William Bolcom, Sergei Prokofiev or Philip Glass. There is only one piano piece by Schubert, three by Brahms and nine by Chopin, depending on how you spell his name. Etude's metadata includes spellings with and without diacritical marks.

Etude looks great, and will probably be of interest for young student players and those who want pop-music scores by the likes of The Beatles, songs from Glee, Lady Gaga and the Wicked soundtrack. Like many iPad apps, there's a surface beauty to Etude that doesn't exactly strive to run deep.

Tell us how you get your sheet music these days in our comments section.