Sheet music is perhaps the oldest element of the modern music ‘industry’ as we know it, but it’s no surprise to find a number of startups exploring how it can evolve in the digital world.
Swiss firm Tomplay is one of them, and it’s trying to do more than simply digitise sheet music. Like a growing number of startups, it’s trying to make it interactive.
In this case, that involves an iPad or Android app that provides a digitised score that scrolls across the screen in sync with the accompanying music. Users can slow down and speed up that accompaniment; add annotations; and record and play back their own playing, among other features.
“We realised that when musicians are learning a piece of music and playing it, they have the score – the visual element – but they don’t have the sound inside the score. You have to just read it,” co-founder Alexis Steinmann tells Music Ally.
“We started thinking about how we can put the music in the centre of the music learning. Some people learn by looking at the score, and some by the sound. Our idea was to combine both: allow a kid that has never played to be able to listen to the audio, get inspired by it, and also to play along with it.”
The app, which now has more than 50,000 users, gets its music from several sources. It has licensing partnerships with classical labels Deutsche Grammophon (in beta) and Naxos, for example, for a selection of tracks from their catalogues. Tomplay also works with music publishers.
“We have started working with score publishers as well. Big players but not only. There are hundreds, even thousands of small publishers who would like to extend their offer to digital as well. They don’t have the financial resources for this, or simply are not ready to take the risk to invest in an area they don’t know well,” says Steinmann.
“We work with these publishers and offer them the opportunity to digitise their catalogue in our app, without any cost or risk. It is a win-win situation. We can even take on the costs of recording the tracks, through our partner studios.”
This is an important aspect to Tomplay: rather than simply providing MIDI recordings, it provides audio tracks recorded by professional musicians. While some are master recordings licensed through Deutsche Grammophon and Naxos, others are commissioned by Tomplay.
That includes separating out the tracks so that, for example, a student can isolate the piano or violin parts of a recording to listen to or accompany.
“With our partner studios, we are working with hundreds of musicians a week: duets, trios, quartets through to orchestral ensembles,” says Steinmann. “It’s good for motivating children to play: when they are at home, they have no possibility to play with a pianist, for example. But with our app, at home they can play in an ensemble.”
Like many music edtech startups, Tomplay is trying to target two separate (but related) markets. First, there are the amateur musicians learning at home, often alone. They can download Tomplay’s app for free, then pay for individual pieces via in-app purchase: £2.99 is the most common price.
The second market is schools and music teachers, for whom the a-la-carte model may not be quite as appealing, as Steinmann admits.
“We will offer in addition a subscription offer for the schools and teachers, with unlimited access to the catalogue for a fixed amount a month. Teachers want full access, they don’t want to buy the scores one by one,” he says.
In these kinds of relationships, teachers will also be able to make requests of Tomplay for specific pieces of music, which it will then pursue to license, record and make available.
Steinmann doesn’t see rival sheet-music apps as Tomplay’s main competition. “It’s paper!” he says. “Well, paper and PDF scores. But this isn’t about how many competitors you have on digital. It’s about how you attract traditional musicians from paper scores.”
Steinmann adds that music schools are going digital, making use of tablets and other technologies, albeit more slowly in some cases than others.
“The market is moving slowly to digital, but we are growing quickly. There are huge markets like Japan, South Korea and China that we have just entered and that have a big potential,” he says.
Tomplay might look like a classical-focused app on the surface, with Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Händel featuring prominently on its most popular in-app purchases in Apple’s App Store. However, the sight of Hans Zimmer’s work for Pirates of the Caribbean shows that this isn’t a narrow focus.
“For us, it’s not a question of genre: it’s a question of what is nice to play. If you take the piano, there are some classical pieces that are blockbusters: great to play on the piano. But you have jazz pieces that are blockbusters, and we have a partnership with Sony/ATV too, so we have pop and rock, Bob Dylan and ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’,” says Steinmann.
“We have a bit of all genres: world music, South American music, Eastern European music, and jazz, which is a great genre to play on the piano! We are app developers, but we are also also score-editors, deciding which catalogue we grow and what kids are going to want to play.”
Tomplay currently has more than 6,000 scores available in its app, and is adding around 200 a week, with 12 instruments currently supported. Steinmann says the company also has a longer-term goal in mind.
“Our goal is that at some point, people will be able to play together. We have the technology to synchronise our recordings with the score, but what if it could become like a Skype for musicians, with one person in the UK and another in China, for example, and have the cursor synchronised live between these two musicians, so they could play together?” he says.
“One of the big challenges in music is that people learn alone, yet there’s a huge value for musicians in learning and playing together. That’s what we want to achieve with our app, and by playing together, they will learn faster as well.”
“Music is written to be played together. When Bach wrote, he meant for people to play those pieces together. And that’s the purpose of our apps: to bring musicians who don’t know each other, from different cultures, together to play music.”