Music is often seen as the art-form that most frequently utilizes the cutting edge of modern technology in its performance. Most popular modern-day musicians are as reliant on Logic Studio as they are on a recording studio, and as skilled at operating arpeggiators as they are at playing arpeggios.
But if you are a musician of the more traditional type, the outlook is somewhat different. Instrument design has been adapted only marginally in three hundred years, and most dedicated musicians still go to music shops to buy manuscript in print. Why? Because, as yet, technology simply hasn’t been able to compete with the usability of paper. The opportunity to scribble notes on the music, the ease of page turning, and, of course, the lack of concern over battery life, remain as factors that trump any conveniences technology has to offer.
What if an app could solve some of these issues? That’s what Tonara is aiming to do. Along with a large library of purchasable music, Tonara offers performance recording, automatic page turning and manuscript annotation. But is this enough to outweigh the benefits of the traditional, tried and tested medium?
The obvious first port of call in testing an app like Tonara is the music itself — any app designed to present digital manuscripts needs to offer a comprehensive music library.
Along with the two pre-loaded pieces (“The Entertainer” by Joplin and “Canon in D” by Pachelbel), and a weekly selection of ten freely downloadable pieces (and plenty of other free music), Tonara offers its own music store. The variety is good, ranging in style from rock to baroque, and in primary instrument from cello to piano, via viola, violin, flute and voice. Most casual players, particularly those who like piano pop/rock, will probably find enough to keep themselves entertained.
But there are some gaping holes in the catalogue — some genres are completely empty — and some bad pricing issues, particularly among the classical pieces. Sonatas and suites are priced by the movement, meaning that purchasing the four available movements of Bach’s “Capriccio” will cost you an eye-watering total of $12.96. Some pieces have missing movements. From time to time, you also stumble upon spelling mistakes and listing errors (The Beatles listed under Classical? Really?), which doesn’t do much for the feeling of quality.
Thankfully, you can add music from elsewhere. Tonara has the in-built options to browse and download music from external catalogue websites. You can even import sheet music via storage services such as DropBox and Google Drive.
Not that Tonara is, primarily, a digital catalogue. This is actually an app which is trying to be an all-in-one home for your music, and a major part of that equation is performance.
The chosen number of four lines to each “page” in the manuscript is just about right, making notes and annotations easy to read, but manual page turning is in need of improvement. You turn the page by swiping, but the bottom of the screen, the very place you’re likely to reach for in the split second between playing notes, is completely unresponsive.
Alternatively, you can use a bluetooth pedal to flip pages, but few musicians are likely to own such an accessory.
This is where Tonara’s signature feature, its Auto-Magic page turning, is designed to step in. In essence, the app is meant to follow your playing, and flip to the next four lines with perfect timing.
As long as you stick to the melody as it is written — no improvisation here, please — Tonara does a good job of keeping up, and it turns pages at roughly the right point. More experienced and proficient players will probably find the default turning point, half a bar (a.k.a. measure) before the end of each page, to be a fraction too late. This can be changed to anything between no bars and two bars, though, making the right timing possible, regardless of your playing style.
Clever page turning isn’t the only aid to the playing experience in Tonara.
Next to the Auto-Magic toggle switch is another toggle, which operates Auto-Record. This feature also utilizes Tonara’s in-built melody tracking, and it records your performance from the moment it “hears” you starting to play. These recordings can be accessed via a drop-down at the top of the manuscript, and they can be saved and emailed in MP4 format.
Also on offer is a metronome, which works both visually and audibly. The on-screen graphic is a little small to be seen out of the corner of your eye, but the audio option has a satisfyingly authentic bounce and tick to it.
Another key extra is manual annotation. Ornamentation and musical instructions can be placed anywhere, and you can even create multiple layers, each in a different colour. There are a couple of symbols missing — phrase marks are a serious technical omission for string and wind instrumentalists — but the selection is, by and large, fairly comprehensive.
If the aim of Tonara is to convince committed musicians to ditch the paper and rely on this app, then it has been unsuccessful in its mission. But for more casual players, Tonara will probably appeal. Automatic page turning is convenient, the ability to download new music from your living room saves hours of physical browsing, and the option to record your own performance is great for those who like to share.
That said, Tonara still has a lot of work to do. The usability of manual page turning is poor, the in-app store needs more content and some considerable tidying, and the omission of key ornaments from the annotation menus ranges between vaguely irritating and crippling.
Overall, though, Tonara is a pretty solid offering, and if you’re the kind of player who just likes to play a melody from time to time, Tonara will suit you nicely.