Reading Sheet Music from Digital Screen, a Risk for the Eyes?

by | Sep 2, 2018

“Although our lives revolve around computers, our bodies haven’t quite adjusted to the idea.
Computer users complain of blurred vision, tired eyes, dry eyes and headaches on a daily basis. Many blame their computers for needing eyeglasses, while others claim that staring at a screen has caused their myopia (nearsightedness) to worsen. High tech employees worry about computer monitor radiation. What they all share is their concern about permanent, irreversible damage to their eyes.
The good news is that extensive research into eye health in Israel and North America has conclusively and repeatedly proven that digital screens do not cause eye damage. Nor has it been proven that intense computer activity can lead to or affect myopia, as in the case of high tech workers. That said, everyone agrees that computer use may cause temporary eye problems, most of which can easily be solved or prevented by simple changes in work habits.
As a general rule, if eye strain symptoms appear following a short period of computer use, this means that there is a specific eye health issue that should be addressed. However, developing tired eyes after eight hours of non-stop intense visual activity is totally normal. After all, wouldn’t you expect your legs to tire after running a marathon? “- Doctor Andrew Fink MD.

This article was written by Doctor Andrew Fink MD, Eye Surgeon, Fellow of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.
We are very grateful for his contribution.

I) Eye Strain: Symptoms and Causes


Intense use

Eye strain occurs when your eyes get tired from intense use over a prolonged period of time, or when the muscles in your eyes fatigue. This means that eye strain can be caused by any number of events or situations, such as reading sheet music in a small font, composing in the dark or even driving a car for extended periods, to name a few.

A temporary discomfort

There is no scientific evidence proving that eye strain causes permanent damage. Eye strain is generally associated with symptoms such as blurred vision, tiredness, soreness, itching of the eyes or headaches. But these are just symptoms of eye discomfort, in the same way that muscles are often sore after exercising at the gym, which is an uncomfortable – yet harmless – side effect. By introducing good habits into your daily routine eye-strain should be prevented, or at least counteracted.

Specific factors

Changes in pupil size
The size of the pupil changes according to the brightness of what the eye is looking at. So if the ambient lighting is continuously changing, the pupil will work more intensely leading to the muscles feeling tired.
Eye movements
If different focal points are far away from one other, the eye muscles make more efforts to move from place to place.
Dry eyes
The size of the pupil changes according to the brightness of what the eye is looking at. So if the ambient lighting is continuously changing, the pupil will work more intensely leading to the muscles feeling tired.
Wearing the wrong pair of glasses
Wearing eyeglasses with an incorrect prescription will cause the eyes to tire more quickly when intensively staring at a screen for extended periods of time.
Wrong viewing angle
Our eyes are designed to look down slightly when reading or doing close-up work. Looking straight ahead at a focal point, or worse upwards or sideways, will cause additional strain on the eye muscles.

Blue Light

Lastly, the blue light factor has been extremely controversial among scientists. Although it can be found in almost everything from sunlight to fluorescent and LED lighting, it is actually considered as having both positive and negative effects on the eyes. Light is made up of electronic particles, and blue light has a very short wavelength thereby producing more energy. Blue light can be more difficult to focus and may contribute to discomfort over longer viewing periods. Laboratory studies have also proven that there is a link between retinal problems and high exposure to blue light. However, computers produce far less blue light than natural sunlight, and the threshold past which exposure becomes “high” has not yet been determined. On the other hand, blue light has also been proven to boost alertness and cognitive function, and help release happy endorphins. For those worried by the effect of blue light, there is no shortage of blue light filters for computer screens or blue light-blocking computer glasses.

II) The Type of Digital Screen is Irrelevant


Let’s start by having a closer look at the technical characteristics of the two main screens on the market: E-Ink (Electrophoretic Ink) and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). E-Ink is an electronic paper display technology integrated into e-book reading devices such as Kindle. LCD screens are found in iPads, tablets, smartphones, televisions and computers.

Screen featureE-ink screensLCD screens
Backlit screenNoYes
Screen reflectivityNoYes
Reactive to ambient lightNoYes
High resolutionNoYes

Basically, E-Ink screens offer a reading experience similar to that of reading a paper book, whereas LCD screens offer a digital experience. Based on these preliminary findings, it would make perfect sense to believe that E-Ink screens are better for the eyes. Surprisingly, however, Dr. Fink and the American Optometric Association state that “the nature of the screen (LCD vs. E-Ink) is largely irrelevant”. So, why aren’t E-Ink screens considered as being naturally better for the eyes?

Backlit screens are actually good for the eyes

One recurring argument is that E-Ink screens are preferable because backlit screens damage the eyes. As it turns out, this isn’t true. According to the American Optometric Association, “backlit screens do not make any difference as our eyes naturally adjust to the amount of light we are exposed to”.
Furthermore, since LCD screens are backlit they offer built-in options to manually adjust screen brightness. Most LCD screens do this automatically by calculating the ratio of external vs screen lighting.
Another argument comes from Carl Taussig, director of Hewlett-Packard‘s Information Surfaces Lab. According to him, “the new LCDs don’t affect your eyes, today’s screens update every eight milliseconds, whereas the human eye is moving at a speed between 10 and 30 milliseconds.”
To improve the reading experience, Apple has introduced the Night Shift and True Tone features. Night Shift is designed to automatically adjust the display color balance in order to reduce brightness. True Tone automatically changes the white point and color balance of the display based on real-time measurements of the ambient light falling on the screen. The idea is to make the display behave more like paper reflecting ambient light and taking on its color.
The adaptive design of LCD screens means that your eyes won’t have to adjust when you look up from the screen, as the screen brightness will have automatically adapted to the ambient lighting, thereby significantly improving eye comfort.

Screen reflection is not a real issue

Screen reflection is also commonly mentioned as being a cause of eye strain. Technically speaking, the presence of glare and reflections on the screen can make viewing difficult due to different degrees of brightness scattered over the screen, which cause constant adjustments in pupil size. That being said, those adjustments are a natural reaction for the eyes and are neither damaging nor completely solvable.
Dr. Fink adds that “the reflection can be easily cancelled by adjusting the direction/angle of your screen or by attaching a glare reduction filter”.
In addition, LCD manufacturers are investing large amount of money on anti-glare and anti-reflective technology. And Apple are ahead of the game. According to them, the iPad Pro has the lowest screen reflectivity compared to that of any other tablet on the market.

High screen resolution is a real plus

Screen resolution and display settings are extremely important when reading from a digital screen. High resolution generally means a better, sharper viewing experience, with less strain placed on the eyes. Reading, annotating and editing sheet music on a device with a high-resolution LCD screen provides a fuller experience, allowing users to zoom-in and comfortably see every little detail, without pixelation.
For example, Apple’s second generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro has one of the largest screen resolutions available on the market, at 2732 x 2048 pixels (264 DPI). E-ink screens, in comparison, are usually limited to a resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels (150 DPI).
Dr. Travis Meredith, chair of the ophthalmology department at the University of North Carolina, sums it up in his own words: “sitting close to a television, or computer screen, isn’t bad for our eyes. It’s the environmental context that matters”.

I read my digital scores from my iPad seven hours a day and have never felt any eye discomfort. On the contrary, I appreciate the flexibility of its brightness settings or the possibility to zoom-in. I simply couldn’t go back to using paper scores.

David Lefèvre

Concertmaster, Newzik ambassador

III) How to Improve the Digital Reading Experience?


Here are a few simple tips to prevent eye strain and improve your eye health:

  • Sit at a comfortable distance from your screen
    The recommended distance is whatever is comfortable, but for reading it’s usually considered to be about 13 inches for both A4- or A3-sized screens. It’s important to make sure that note and font size are not too small.
  • Adjust the position/angle of your screen
    Ideally it should be four to five inches below eye level.
  • Clean your screen
    Dust and fingerprints can reduce clarity.
  • Adjust screen brightness to match surrounding workspace brightness
    Your screen shouldn’t be more than 10 times brighter than your current lighting conditions.
  • Place additional music material close to the screen
    This will prevent constant refocusing between varying distances and directions.
  • Blink!
    We know it sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how little we blink during high focus activities. Use artificial tears if needed.
  • Minimize glare and reflectivity
    Simply adjust the direction of your screen or add a glare reduction filter.
  • Check that you are wearing glasses that are suited to your needs
    And do so on a regular basis.
  • Take frequent breaks
    There is a 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Distance body from screen right position to sit

Taking into account all of the above, we can conclude that eye strain is not caused by digital devices, but rather by a combination of uneducated practices and bad habits. We simply need to give ourselves time to adopt these new habits and begin re-educating ourselves to better cope with intense eye use. If we are diligent in integrating this new approach, we will be able to ride the wave of technological advancements while protecting our eyesight.

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