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Music Notation Software

Most of you probably have some compositions or exercises floating around on manuscript paper. Personally, I like to compose and get rough ideas with a good old fashioned pencil and paper (affiliate link). It’s much less cumbersome that dealing with notation software.

At some point, you have to put those compositions in a nice, typeset format. It’s easier to read, and let’s you distribute the score in PDF format if you desire. To that end, here are some free programs to get your music into digital formats.

Free Software

Lilypond is the heavy hitter in this category. For those of you unfamiliar with Lilypond, it’s not anything like Finale or Sibelius. You create music score by entering code into a text editor (I’ve used smultron to do this before). After the score is coded, Lilypond generates a PDF of the music. It sounds like a lot of work, but Lilypond does produce very nice scores. If you work on a Linux machine, Fescobaldi provides a visual what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editor that works on top of Lilypond.

MuseScore is a powerful, cross-platform WYSIWYG music engraver. To be honest, I believe this program will eventually kill Finale and Sibelius. It has many of the same features, and the scores look very good. It’s still very early in it’s development, and I find it a bit clunky, but it’s a very good alternative to the aforementioned, very expensive music editors.

Music Editing in Your Browser

Noteflight is a WYSIWYG music editing web application. In other words, you can create scores from your browser and print them. You can also share share your scores on Noteflight by allowing it to viewed (or edited) by anyone. Noteflight is a commercial endeavor, working on a freemium model. The basic service does require an account, but there’s also a $50/year premium service.

Scorio is similar to Noteflight, but lacks a lot of the features. It does require registration to print or share scores. Scorio is not point and click music entering, it requires you hit the notes on a virtual keyboard. Not exactly guitar friendly.

Neither of these options is going to be as full featured as a the software options listed above (yet).

Blank Sheet Music

Blank Sheet Music.net let’s you create just about any type of manuscript paper you desire. This is what I usually use to get some blank staff/tab paper.

Staff Notes is awesome. It puts some lines for note taking next to blank music or tab staffs. I wish I would have had this for undergrad music theory courses: it would have made taking notes on those musical examples so much easier. Instead I cut up manuscript paper and taped it into my note books (no joke).

What I Use

All the scores on the free stuff page and musical examples you see in posts and ebooks are created with Finale 2010 (affiliate link). Why? Because I knew how to use it before, and I didn’t want to waste time learning another program as completely as I know finale. If you like screaming at your computer and dealing with ridiculous glitches, I suggest giving Finale a try. Other complains about finale include…

  • It’s not at all guitar friendly, and requires you to create certain elements.
  • The default document standard to finale sucks, but if you create your own it makes your life much easier.
  • There are some very strange defaults. For instance, if you notate a second, with each note in two different voices, it comes out like this:

    Seriously?

  • Generally speaking, it takes a lot of tweaking to get music spaced correctly. There tends to be a lot of overlapping that just happens. Especially with guitar music and and using multiple voices in each staff.
  • The cheaper versions of finale, many of which I demoed before buying the full version, lack crucial features, and make it extremely difficult to really create good scores.

My point with this ranting, it to convince you to explore free options first. Don’t feel like you have to have finale to create scores.

19 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 November 26

    I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, the best program out there is Guitar Pro. Granted, some of you might say that it’s not free, but you and me both know that there are ways to tweak it. If you don’t know how, then simply Google and you’ll find out 😉

    • 2013 April 26

      on guitar pro the bendings are visible on the tablature but not visible on the staff. i wonder which program do publishers use to make electric guitar books….

  2. 2010 November 27
    JACK permalink

    hello there!, new here. I play guitar since mid-2005, and was about to comment about guitar pro also, I learned by myself with help of computers– you know, internet.

    Guitar pro played a pivotal role in this. while I had it at least. the Demo version is quite enough.

  3. 2010 November 27
    JACK permalink

    I was forgetting the point of this… I know that while guitar friendly, guitar pro also relies heavily on the use of tabs.

    But in the last versions you can deactivate them and just use the appropiate way.

  4. 2010 November 29
    Gary permalink

    I looked at the demo for GuitarPro and the one thing I don’t like about it is that you can’t indicate string number (number in a circle standard). Just placing a number next to the note does not cover enough. MuseScore and TuxGuitar also do not support this. MusEdit does support this feature and appears to have the same functionality as GuitarPro (less all the amp multimixing) for about the same price. Since MuseScore is still a 0.9.x version it may be possible that they will include this in a future release, if I put it on the wish list.

    • 2012 January 5
      Nerses Boyadjian permalink

      I checked MusEdit website, and when I downloaded the app. I realized it had .exe suffix, which means it is NOT Mac friendly app. 🙁

      However I have another program title would like to encourage guitarists to check, and it’s called TabEdit. With this program you can add strings to the guitar tab! So you are not limited to 6 strings guitar tab.

  5. 2010 November 30

    The Lilypond mailing list offers outstanding support, even for novice users.

  6. 2010 November 30

    Here’s a recent review of Lilypond which also mentions Frescobaldi: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2010/05/lilypond-free-beautiful-music-notation-engraving-for-anyone/

  7. 2010 December 3
    JGH permalink

    Sibelius is relatively simple to learn, VERY guitar friendly and generates excellent, beautiful scores. Plus, once you learn the keyboard shortcuts you can work out a score almost as fast as you can type. I recommend dumping Finale all together.

  8. 2010 December 9
    Olive permalink

    My experience with Scorio was that you can easily enter notes with point and click without using the virtual keyboard. You have to register to use all features but it’s free. It is not Flash, so might also use it on the iPad for example.

  9. 2010 December 11

    Great post, I had not heard about a few of those software programs before. I think most of the big places use either Sibelius or Finale. I been using G7, a sort of stripped down version of Sibelius. Its been fine, but unfortunately midi output is no longer supported with the latest Mac operating system. So eventually I will have to buy something else.

    Another fun program is Notion. It is fairly easy to use right away, but perhaps not as flexible as Finale or Sibelius. They have a full featured demo you can download, which is nice.

    I think its important to find a piece of software and stick with it, as alot of these notation programs can have a steep learning curve.

  10. 2010 December 20
    JEFF permalink

    I don’t know why people think Guitar Pro is so good. I tried the demo, & It’s OK for electric guitar tabs, thats about it. It can’t notate in dual voices, which excludes 99% of all classical guitar compositions. Noteworthy Composer can’t do multiple voicing on one staff either. Neither can Musescore or Noteflight, nor dozens of other programs.

    Sibelius has a lot of features, but it’s primarily a piano transcriber, & not very guitar friendly.

    In fact, if you’re an actual classical guitar composer, who needs a true notation program that can do it all, Finale is the best. Unfortunately Finale is a bitter pain in the ass. It’s complicated & the tutorials are about worthless. I joined the Finale user forum to ask for aid & help, but was banned because the auto checker detected spam when I tried to post. I guess it picked-up on the brand names I was talking about, much like I did here. After that, I ditched Finale.

    Now I’m trying MuseEdit. It does dual voicing (fairly well), tab, right & left finger marks, fret marks, etc… It doesn’t have all the features of Finale, but it’s easier & it gets the job done.

  11. 2010 December 22
    Joe Rash permalink

    Unless I am not understanding “dual voices”, Guitar Pro allows up to 4 voices on one staff. I have Finale, Guitar Pro and MuseEdit, but not expert in any. I do find Guitar Pro the easiest but I am not as demanding a user as others may be.

  12. 2011 January 12

    http://www.scorio.com will launch a guitar template until the end of the month. i hope this will match your requirements. Please fill free to post a comment on the forum: it will be answered and your wishes will be taken into account. You can also join us on http://www.facebook.com/pages/scoriocom-Music-Notation-on-the-web/111010092271340 or http://twitter.com/scorioTweet to let us know how to improve the editor. Thanks a lot for your interest.

  13. 2011 February 25
    ethan permalink

    why hasn’t anyone mentioned Encore 5.0? it’s a solid program, and lightweight as well. too bad i can’t afford it right now, otherwise i would be using it. it runs great on Linux, too, through WINE. and is VERY guitar friendly.

  14. 2012 February 20

    I like MuseScore. They have circled string numbers, 1234 fretting fingering, and pima pick fingering. But am very disappointed in certain aspects. One very important one is their tempo writing ability. There is no fermata, ritard or accellerando, crescendo, etc. These are as important to score writing as any other music writing tool is such as the staff, notes, time signature, key signature, etc. How can they ignore tempo variations and holding notes etc? I have read some people who just keep changing the tempo marking little by little to imitate slowing down. It’s cumbersome and only works if your intention is just to play it back. But for writing it out for publication or for another musician to read it’s useless. The word ritard just isn’t there.

    But I do like it’s ease of use in many ways over Finale, which I believe is cumbersome, slow, and unnecessarily complex. Who has hours, weeks, and months to figure it out? And the guitar section is really only good for single note lines, and chords, like writing a jazz chart, and for tab…you can write a symphony with Finale yet they focus on guitar tab(!?!?) No circled string numbers, pima right hand fingering, even left hand 1234 fingerings aren’t there. How do you write for classical guitar, or even delta blues for that matter? I like MuseScore. They just need to expand on tempo markings and realize you can’t give a professional guitarist a piece of music to read without them…or even a violinist for that matter. Any instrument needs them.

  15. 2012 November 25
    Joe Starr permalink

    I arrange music for guitar. The scores are writen chord-melody style in notation only.
    I find that being bogged down working out all the input functions in notation software takes me away from creating an arrangement. I would like a logical and very easy approach to music notating.Also, on the software that I’ve tried, there doesn’t appear to be any function for inputting fingering.
    I would appreciate any help you guys could offer in this regard.Thank you.
    Joe Starr

    • 2013 October 15
      George permalink

      I don’t know if you need this information at this time. A goods music notation programs oriented to classical guitar scores are ENCORE (used by the uruguayan composer, teacher, and player Cesar Amaro) and better OVERTURE. Unfortunately, they are not free, but you can download a free trial on their sites. All of them have ALL NOTATION SIGNS for classical guitar sheets and more. No lacks, and very intuitive learning.

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