Scanning Best Practices for Sheet Music

by | Dec 20, 2017

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’ll walk you through how to get the best music PDF file out of your paper sheet music.

This article is written by David Castin, from Numelex scanning services. We are very grateful for his contribution.

1) Rules Before Scanning Sheet Music

Define the Scanning Purposes

The purpose of the scan can vary for the same piece and thus the scanning requirements can differ as well:

Send it by e-mail
E-mailing practice copies, where file size matters.

Print it
Backing-up the string bowings, edit the sheet music in a PDF editor and then print it out again.

Archiving original manuscripts, where accurately capturing the colors is mandatory to emphasize the different markings.

Read it on a tablet
Viewing the sheet music from a tablet display where the rendering computing time matters.

Save it or edit it
Backing-up the string bowings, edit the sheet music in a PDF editor and then print it out again.

Paper sizes scanning practices

Understand the Paper Specifities

Before scanning, it is important to take into account the specificities of each piece to deliver an accurate, customized scan.

For instance:

  • 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.

2) Setting the Right Resolution


Resolution is the most important criteria 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.

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.

“The difference in quality between 200 DPI and 300 DPI seems more important than between 300 DPI and 600 DPI. Going beyond 600 DPI does not offer much advantage for the purpose of viewing, printing, or archiving”tells us Michael Ferraguto, Principal Librarian at Baltimore Symphonic Orchestra.

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. To conclude, it seems that 300 DPI is a good resolution for viewing, sharing or printing. Whereas 600 DPI is ideal in order to edit within a graphic design software.