The Great Notation Software Roundup 2013
By Jim Aikin
Thu, 7 Nov 2013
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Music software of any kind tends to be bursting with features, but even compared to a DAW, music notation software is notoriously complex. If you’re wondering which of the leading notation programs is right for you, this article will help you make that choice.

The conventions of standard music notation date back hundreds of years, and the symbols aren’t just graphics—they have meanings, and relate to one another in specific ways. Notation software has to do a lot more than just put notes on a staff. You may want to hear your music played back by a high-quality orchestral sample library, upload scores to your website, add guitar fretboard diagrams, or input a piece by improvising freely on the keyboard and then add bar lines afterward.

A complete comparison of the features of these programs would take hundreds of pages. In this article I’ll highlight some of the major differences and suggest a few ways to evaluate your needs. We’ll also take a closer look at just what makes notation software such a complex proposition.

 

PROGRAM

WEBSITE

LIST PRICE

STREET PRICE

SPECIAL PRICES

AVID Sibelius 7

sibelius.com

$599.95

$479.99

$295 academic 

$199 crossgrade

MAKEMUSIC Finale

finalemusic.com

$600

$449

$350 academic/church $139 crossgrade

NOTION MUSIC

Notion 4

notionmusic.com

$149

$129 boxed

$99 download

N/A

MUSITEK

SmartScore X2 Pro

musitek.com

$399

$349

$259 academic/church

MuseScore

musescore.org

free

N/A

N/A

LilyPond

lilypond.org

free

N/A

N/A

 

Notation Programs At a Glance

     

Fig. 1. The user interface of Sibelius 7 has been redesigned to provide easier access to a wealth of tools from the ribbon across the top of the main window. The floating Keypad palette (lower right) mirrors the keypad on the computer keyboard, providing quick shortcuts during data entry.

Fig. 2. This score was created in Sibelius and later imported into Finale as a MusicXML file. The differences are subtle: By default, Finale doesn’t add the measure numbers, though adding them yourself is easy, and the quarter-rests in the horn parts in the second ending are aligned differently. Finale’s palettes of tools are displayed along the upper edge and the left side.

 

Fig. 3. The same score as Figures 1 and 2, imported into Notion. (Note the loss of formatting of the rehearsal letter ‘D’ in the upper right corner.) The floating tool palette is always at the center bottom of the window. The six buttons at the upper right open windows for chord symbols, a guitar fretboard, the mixer, and so on.

 
Fig. 4. SmartScore’s interpretation of the opening of the Schumann “Arabeske,” Opus 18. The scanned graphic file is displayed in the upper pane, SmartScore’s notation in the lower, ready for editing. Measures that SmartScore detects have the wrong number of beats based on the time signature are highlighted in pink. Separate voices on one staff are shown in different colors.
Fig. 5. MuseScore is absolutely the best bang for the buck, because it’s surprisingly powerful and also free. It has no orchestral sound library, but loads and plays General MIDI SoundFonts, which are available for free download on the MuseScore website.
 

Sibelius is a robust, feature-rich program, designed to meet the needs of the professional (see Figure 1). Its user interface is streamlined, making data entry about as easy as it could be, and it ships with a massive 34GB sound library on three DVDs. Sibelius files can be uploaded to your website using a free utility called Scorch. Unfortunately, the long-standing Sibelius software development team has left Avid, which leaves the future of Sibelius somewhat uncertain. If you buy Sibelius, you may want to be cautious about updating your computer OS, as future OS versions might turn out to be incompatible with Sibelius.

Finale is used by many publishers to produce professional-quality scores and parts (see Figure 2). It’s a mature, feature-rich program. The learning curve with Finale may be a bit steeper than with Sibelius, as its user interface is heavily tool-centric. An added plus is the availability of several entry-level versions, with which you can do basic scoring while learning the tools.

Notion has a strong set of features, but even so, it qualifies as an entry-level program (see Figure 3). It’s inexpensive, will work fine for basic needs, and has some features that guitarists and worship music directors will like, such as a graphic fretboard for clicking chord shapes and transferring them automatically to tablature, but it comes up a bit short on publication-quality details. Notion’s 7.7GB sound library is smooth sounding and very adequate, especially considering the program’s modest price.

SmartScore is the right choice if you need to scan a lot of existing sheet music (see Figure 4). You can also enter new scores into it by hand — but if that’s your main need, Notion or MuseScore would be more cost-effective. If you’re already committed to using Sibelius for notation, Neuratron PhotoScore Ultimate would be a better choice for scanning, as it links well with Sibelius and is less expensive than SmartScore. However, PhotoScore itself has no facility for entering new music. With either program, don’t expect miracles of the scanning technology (see sidebar).

MuseScore may be the perfect choice for notation if you’re on a tight budget, because it’s free (see Figure 5). Like the commercial programs listed above, MuseScore has a WYSIWYG editor. For many users, the most important difference between MuseScore and the commercial programs will be that MuseScore doesn’t come with a large orchestral sound library. It’s not without limitations—for instance, there’s no real-time entry while listening to a metronome click. Even so, MuseScore is impressively powerful.

LilyPond is another great freeware option, especially if you have an adventurous spirit, a physical disability, and/or lots of free time. There’s no graphic editing, and it doesn’t do audio playback or MIDI data entry. You enter your LilyPond score in the form of text, which is undoubtedly a painstaking process, but the program’s creators have gone to great lengths to produce beautiful graphical output in the form of printable PDFs.

Cut to the Chase. Between Finale and Sibelius, it’s a toss-up, for various reasons. I personally prefer Sibelius, but I’m still waiting to read a commitment from Avid about its future development. If you need scanning, SmartScore is a fine choice, unless you want to pair PhotoScore with Sibelius. For basic notation needs, MuseScore should do the job just fine, and at no cost whatever.

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