iPads are used more and more by musicians to manage and maximize abilities on stage. The reason is clear. These devices have the power and capabilities of a laptop in a package smaller than a sheet of paper. It’s easy to see the future of paper for sheet music, chord charts, and set lists isn’t paper at all.

The bane of the gigging musician has always been the binder – a massive 5” D-Ring behemoth loaded with plastic sleeves and chicken scratched dead trees. Sure, there are songs you can play in your sleep or when particularly inspired, but unless you are a professional musician performing the last eight songs on your latest LP, you’ll likely need some visual aids to get the groove going.

Music is social. You need to get the set-list to the band before the gig with the proper key and composition. In a world of electronic communication, maintaining a paper binder feels downright caveman. It’s time to stand upright and lighten the load of heavy binders and equipment!

One of the first apps available on iPad was OnSong, the de facto standard app for modern musicians. Unlike other music readers, OnSong brands itself as a “stage performance” app handling all aspects of what a musician needs during a performance. While OnSong is one of the pricier options, it is well supported and is responsive to new technologies and user needs.

If you already have your music in a digital format like text, PDF, or Word documents, it’s likely OnSong can view it. If not, it’s easy to write songs with it. It’s a great tool for songwriting.

For those musicians using scores and music notation, a better option could be ForScore which supports PDF-only workflows. If you need to be able to import PDF books and navigate with a direct paper analog, ForScore is a great option. I’ve found that needing to convert everything to a PDF file doesn’t work well with my band’s needs.

OnSong features powerful import capabilities as well as drag and drop in iOS 11 that makes it easy to import or write your songs. If you’re using a text-based format, you get capabilities like chord detection, page formatting, and transposition. That means if your lead vocalist had a rowdy Friday night, you can transpose into a Saturday night range.

There’s no shortage of options on the App Store, but I have found that there is an element of “you get what you pay for”. Free or cheap apps tend to be clunky or less supported. They may charge subscriptions, require WiFi, or lock you into their content. This can cost you with trial and error and time investments. It’s best to pick a professional tool if that’s what you need. No matter what app you choose, you’ll soon find out why so many musicians have shut the book on paper.

It’s been said that no one ever buys music stands and that may no longer be an inside joke. Mounting a tablet to a mic stand has made awkward music stands disappear from pubs and clubs. Because iPads are backlit, you don’t need reading lights. Creative performers have even hidden their iPads by turning them sideways. For low light conditions, you can make the page black with white text. Although the iPad is much smaller than a music stand, you’re not limited to an 8-1/2×11” page and fumbling with paper is forgotten with the best feature of using an iPad for your charts – hands-free page turning.

Bluetooth foot pedals let you control your music with your feet. AirTurn is the most well-known brand and has been producing page-turning solutions for years. With just two foot switches you can completely flip through all the songs in your set without taking your hands off your instrument.

While hands-free page turning alone is enough to switch from paper, apps can do even more. For instance, OnSong can assign foot pedals 40+ actions like triggering MIDI commands or starting backing tracks. You are no longer limited by the talent of your techs or the budget of your band. It’s time to put your foot down, ditch the binder and embrace the future.


  1. Great article! As a weekend warrior (sometimes during the week) I struggle to remember Lyrics. (funny, music I can retain). The OnSong app contains all my Lyrics so I can feel confident when I perform so I won’t forget and lose my place . I really enjoy performing more now then ever now thatI became aware of OnSong .

    • Hey Steven! Thanks for the feedback – that is SO cool. I think we’ve all seen ‘that band’ where they’re all up there flipping pages in their binders (been there) to get on the same page. Whether for rehearsal (and many weekend warriors don’t get much time for that) or performance on the gig, this is a huge help when needed. I loved the idea of setting the background color to black and the text to white to keep the screen from being a noticeable distraction for the audience. Very cool – thanks again for taking the time to post – appreciated! Cheers ~ Doug;)

  2. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who can’t remember lyrics. I’m in 2 different bands and with one I’m still using a 3-ring binder. With the newer band it’s all new songs, so I’m utilizing my iPad for the lyrics. A friend of mine suggested OnSong. It’s made it quite easy for me to add songs, organize playlists, etc. The older I get the smaller the font seems to be, so with a swipe of my fingers I can enlarge the font at any time during the gig. Now my goal for the new year is to dump the massive 3-ring binder for my other band.
    Eric Clapton believes that singers should memorize the lyrics. Paul McCartney has a teleprompter for his lyrics. If I could remember I would memorize. I tell people “the velcro in my brain ain’t what it used to be!” Thanks for your article, it’s good to know I’m heading in the right direction! BC

    • Hey Billy! Thanks for taking the time to share this. GREAT to hear OnSong is serving you well, and I loved your comment about the mental velcro. Better to iPad than forget! Again thanks for your feedback and Happy Holidays – Cheers ~ Doug:)


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