All the Right Notes

How a London composer orchestrated an ADA-winning app.

David William Hearn may have won an Apple Design Award for his music notation app, StaffPad, but he’s never seen himself as a tech guy. In fact, his original career goals were much more, well, purple.

“I wanted to be Prince,” says the Londoner with a laugh, “though that didn’t work out for various reasons. I’m a composer, musician, and arranger. I never think of myself as a software developer.”

StaffPad turns handwritten notes into official-looking sheet music on the fly.

Today he’s all of those things. StaffPad instantly transforms handwritten (or frenetically scribbled) music notation into professional-grade sheet music. It updates in real time, so if you’re amending your work on the fly, musicians you’re sharing your score with will see the changes immediately. And when you’re composing, StaffPad can have a lush, simulated orchestra play your piece for you.

But Hearn’s road to an ADA didn’t begin anywhere near software development. At 18 he left school, moved to a youth hostel in London, and started covering music by the Beatles and Van Halen on guitar and piano. Tenacious and gregarious by nature, he found work as a session musician, sometime writer, and all-around studio helper for a number of early-2000s London acts. Then, quite out of nowhere, he was asked to contribute a string arrangement to a Kylie Minogue song.

Changes in StaffPad automatically populate before your orchestra’s very eyes.

“I’d never done it before, but I thought I should give it a go—and panicked over the weekend,” he says. “The biggest block was getting all that music to all those players. At the time, notation was still stuck in a place where you had to type it out on a QWERTY keyboard.”

Minogue approved the arrangement, and not too long after, Hearn found himself working with the noted film orchestrator Nicholas Dodd (who's orchestrated more than 100 movies). Dodd’s preferred writing method was decidedly old-school: “He always worked with pencil and paper, and was just unbelievably quick. I was almost jealous,” Hearn says. “I thought, ‘If I wake up in the morning and think about music, I want to be able to just scribble it down.’” The idea for StaffPad was born.

StaffPad’s early development was all about handwriting recognition: a quarter-note here, a quarter-rest there.

But there was still the challenge of bringing such natural fluency into the digital realm. To handle the under-the-hood work, Hearn reached across the pond to Pittsburgh-based developer Matthew Tesch. After years of video calls, the Windows version of StaffPad was released in 2015. With the introduction of Apple Pencil that same year, Hearn commenced work on the iPad version. StaffPad arrived to iPadOS—and a new world of composers—in early 2020.

Hearn now splits his time between the app and a successful music career–he’s worked on the films Mary Poppins Returns, Les Misérables, and In the Heart of the Sea. Music is still his first love, but StaffPad has taken on an unexpected life of its own.

“What’s been amazing is the amount of material people send me with a story attached,” Hearn says. “There was a kid who wrote to say he’d composed his first symphony for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. You put something out there into the hands of people, and it’s amazing what they can do.”


    Music Notation and Composition


Download StaffPad on iPad.