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Tonara puts sheet music on iPad, listens to musicians play

First to compete today in the Startup Battlefield at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, company tackles sheet music industry with a store and a very clever iPad app.

Randi Zuckerberg sings "Over the Rainbow" during Tonara's demo today at TechCrunch Disrupt. Rafe Needleman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Some musicians are avant-garde technophiles. Plenty are stuck in the mud of tradition. But almost all of them use sheet music, to the tune of $2 billion a year. The first company today to compete in the Startup Battlefield at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference here was Tonara, which is bringing sheet music and new music technology to the iPad.

In the Disrupt Battlefield, TechCrunch-chosen startups get a chance to give a six-minute pitch to the audience and a panel of VC judges. There is a user vote for the startups and the prize is $50,000, the "Disrupt Cup," and "new open doors." The judges on the startup panel didn't like Tonara, citing the "small" market size and reliance on public domain content. I think they're missing something big.

The Tonara demo showed how the iPad app, which displays music, can track the musician as he or she is playing and turn pages on the iPad automatically. That's cool, and this app apparently works with classical, pop, instrumental, or vocal music.

Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, sang "Over the Rainbow" during the demo, and nicely, too. And the judges still didn't dig the product. They didn't believe, apparently, that Tonara would be able to secure enough of the $2 billion market to make it worth the effort.

Not shown during the brief onstage pitch was the most critical piece of the business: how the company plans to become the Kindle-like store for sheet music. If the company can wrangle that content (it's pretty fragmented, as far as I know) into a store and if the app is really good enough to replace a book of printed music on a stand, then this company actually could go somewhere.

Also not shown was how the app deals with musicians' annotations on their music, but that might only be a big deal for pro-level musicians. The market for amateurs is probably big enough to make this a serious play.