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The Basics of Scanning Sheet Music
Scanned musical scores are more difficult to digitally capture and deliver than any other regular document for several reasons:
- They contain small details such as articulation marks, ornaments, dynamics and other musical instructions, which are all crucial for understanding the music.
- They are structured with staff lines and bar lines that tend to look broken after a scan.
- They have very specific sizes and dimensions, from a simple A4 to a double A3 format.
- They sometimes contain important pencil markings made by the musicians that are not delivered well after a scan.
In this article, we will explore the different ways to get the best music PDF file out of paper sheet music.
Rules before scanning sheet music
A. Define the scanning purpose
The purpose of the scan can vary for the same piece and thus the scanning requirements can differ as well:
- E-mailing practice copies, where file size matters.
- Reproducing hard copies of the parts, where a high-quality scan will be required to capture all the small details.
- Archiving original manuscripts, where accurately capturing the colors is mandatory to emphasize the different markings.
- Backing-up the string bowings, edit the sheet music in a PDF editor and then print it out again.
- Viewing the sheet music from a tablet display where the rendering computing time matters.
B. Understand the paper specificities
Before scanning, it is important to take into account the specificities of each piece to deliver an accurate, customized scan.
- Is this a printed score or a handwritten manuscript?
- What is the format: A4, B4, A3 or A5?
- In what condition is the sheet music? Is it scribbled with previous markings, old, used...?
Only once we have understood the specificities of the sheet music we want to scan, and the purpose for scanning it, we can start setting the right scanning resolution.
Setting the right resolution
A. DPI or PPI?
Resolution is the most important criterion to take into account when scanning sheet music.
Two different units measure the resolution quality of a scanned document: dot per inch (DPI) and pixel per inch (PPI).
DPI - for optimized printing:
DPI is the main unit that defines image resolution, and is the standard metric for printing purposes.
PPI - for digital screen viewing:
PPI is also a relevant measure used to define screen resolution. It is the standard metric for reading digital sheet music from a computer or tablet screen.
In this article, we will focus on the DPI unit, while also taking into account screen viewing purposes.
B. Resolution VS Format
Before defining the final resolution (DPI) of the piece to scan, we must take into account the sheet music format.
A3 sheet music (at 300 DPI) contains the same exact number of pixels as A4 sheet music (at 600 DPI). In other words, the smaller the sheet music, the larger resolution (DPI) you will need in order to capture all the small details.
Interestingly, Michael Ferraguto – Principal Librarian at Baltimore Symphonic Orchestra – tells us that the difference in quality between 200 DPI and 300 DPI seems more important than between 300 DPI and 600 DPI. He adds that going beyond 600 DPI does not offer much advantage for the purpose of viewing, printing, or archiving.
That said, if you are scanning a piece in order to make some edits in Photoshop or any other digital editor, you’ll need a resolution of 600 DPI.