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
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
Notation Programs At a Glance
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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
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
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.
Next: Workflow and Your Needs
People use notation software in various ways, for various purposes, but in essence the process usually looks like this:
When creating a new file, you tell the program what key
signature and time signature your music will be in, and what
instrumentation you need. Different key and time signatures can later be
inserted at any point in the score, of course.
Next, you enter the basic data for your score: the notes
and rests. Some programs let you play parts in real time while listening
to a metronome click, but afterward you may need to clean up
misinterpreted rhythms and note lengths. Step entry is more reliable,
and unless you’re an accomplished keyboardist it may even be faster.
Most programs let you enter the notes on a staff by playing with one
hand on a MIDI keyboard and selecting note or rest durations with the
other hand on the computer keyboard. After a little practice, you’ll be
able to “touch-type” while looking at the page from which you’re
entering the data.
Once the basic score is entered, you’ll need to go back
and add dynamics and expression markings, slurs, double bars, and other
elements. While doing this you may need to flip stems up or down, change
enharmonic spellings, and adjust the spacing so that the page is nicely
Audio proofing, by watching your score while listening to
it played back, is important. Most notation programs come with a sound
library that you can set up so as to produce a reasonable approximation
of the intended performance. The audio is not likely to sound as good as
a real ensemble, but it will be plenty good enough for proofing.
The last step, if your score has multiple instruments, is
extracting single parts for printout. The program may handle necessities
such as grouping multi-measure rests automatically, but you’ll still
need to tweak the details of the appearance of the parts.
What Are Your Needs?
Before buying notation software, it’s a good idea to
consider carefully what you intend to do with it. Some features may be
essential; others you may not care about. Here are a few guidelines that
may help you figure out what features to look for.
Practically everybody needs to be able to extract and
print single parts from a score. All notation software, with the
possible exception of one or two beginner programs, will do this. More
challenging: If you’re planning to create scores for full orchestra,
where two wind parts traditionally share a single staff in the score,
you’ll want to look into what steps you’ll need to take to separate
Everybody needs the software to check the number of beats
in a measure and alert them in case of a mistake—either that, or
automatically extend notes that are too long into the next measure and
add ties. Notation software tries to be intelligent about the meter and
note values, so if you need more freedom—for instance, in the unlikely
event that you want one part to play in 5/4 while another is in 4/4,
with bar lines in the same places—you’ll need to investigate the
limitations of the software carefully before purchasing it.
Most people need audio playback, because proofing your
score by listening to it is much more reliable than just staring at the
screen. All of the programs in this roundup (except LilyPond) can play
back notated tracks through software instruments. Some programs can also
use third-party software instruments, which can give better results if
you already have a good orchestral library. Some programs offer more
sophisticated features for audio playback. Finale, for instance, can
import an audio file (one per score) and play it along with your
notation, which could be useful if you’re in the process of adding new
parts to an existing arrangement.
Most people need to be able to input note pitches by
playing a MIDI keyboard that’s connected to the computer. Except for
PhotoScore and LilyPond, all of the programs herein allow this type of
Most notation software will handle triplets during data
entry. Not all programs will do complex “tuplets” with odd values,
Fig. 6. A text box appears in Notion when you’re entering
lyrics. Press the Tab key to advance to the next note. The software
spaces the words or syllables automatically, widening the measures as
Songwriters and pop arrangers need to be able to position multiple lines of lyrics below a melody (see Figure 6
). They may also need chord symbols, guitar fretboard
diagrams, and guitar tablature. If you’re writing for a horn section,
you need a variety of jazz articulations, such as scoops and doits
Classical composers need to be able to create good-looking
scores for large ensembles. Depending on how avant-garde their work is,
they may need a variety of unusual features, such as diverging beams
and imported graphics. They may need to dispense with bar lines or break
long measures from one staff to another.
Worship music directors need to be able to scan old sheet
music and clean it up. They often need to transpose songs to new keys.
If a pop group is part of the music presentation, the worship music
director may have the same needs as songwriters and pop arrangers.
(Spell-checking the Latin in a traditional hymn? Sorry, you’re on your
Music educators may need to extract examples that are only
a line or two long as graphics, so as to import them into a word
processor document. Depending on their specialty, they might also need
archaic notation symbols and other features, such as figured bass.
An important consideration that’s different for different
individuals and therefore hard to assess is whether you’re comfortable
with the user interface. Three of the four commercial programs discussed
this month have downloadable demos. (Notion doesn’t.) By spending some
time with the demo, you can explore the user interface and decide how
comfortable you are with it, and also evaluate the quality of the
documentation. Patience is recommended; don’t expect to learn your way
around in an hour, or even in a couple of days.
Next: Score Appearance
It’s certainly possible to use a notation program strictly
as a composing tool, with the audio output played by computer
instruments or MIDI hardware. If you’re composing for an ensemble, you
might even want to try doing the writing directly on-screen rather than
with a pencil. But none of these programs gives users the kind of
control over the sound of virtual instruments that you’ll find in a DAW.
Chances are, you’ll be using notation software to print out parts and
scores for players to read. In other words, you’ll be wearing several
hats—not only composer or arranger, but also art director and publisher.
So let’s look closer at the features that will affect how your printed
Notes and other symbols are stored in the computer as
fonts. You may have a choice of several, just as your word processor
lets you choose Times, Arial, Courier, and so on. Most sheet music being
published today uses a fairly standard font, but jazz and pop charts
are often printed in a more casual-looking “handwritten” font. The font
may or may not scale down smoothly at smaller sizes; the stems could get
too thin, for instance.
Percussion parts normally need a choice of note heads:
triangles, the letter X for “ghost notes,” and so on. In pop music,
rhythm chording instrument parts may need slashes. String harmonics
sometimes require diamond-shaped note heads.
Percussion parts, especially in orchestral music, are
often displayed on a single-line staff. Guitar tablature is normally on a
six-line staff. Early music may also require an unusual staff and
unusual note heads.
A wide variety of articulation symbols may be needed,
especially for jazz band and modern orchestral scores. The symbols of
common-practice classical music (staccato dots, dynamic markings, and so
on) are found in every notation program, but exotic symbols may or may
not be available.
Fig. 7. Draggable handles in Sibelius appear when you
click on a slur to select it. The end handles, in light gray, are hard
to see in this image; the curvature handles are darker.
The curvature and positioning of slurs and ties often need
to be adjusted by hand. The software will attempt to guess at the
desired position when inserting the symbol, but it will sometimes guess
wrong. Some programs display mouse “handles” at the ends and middle of a
slur, allowing you to drag it to a better position or a better shape
(see Figure 7
Notation programs handle the default stem direction and
stem length automatically, so the user seldom needs to worry about them.
But stems occasionally need to be adjusted so that stems and beams
don’t collide with other elements, or so that beam angles have a more
pleasing appearance. Most programs can display graphic “handles” at the
ends of stems, which can be grabbed and dragged with the mouse.
The vertical rhythmic alignment of notes in a multi-staff
score will always be handled automatically, and seldom needs any
attention from the user.
Notation programs always understand the conventional use
of accidentals—that an accidental remains in effect until the next bar
line. If you’re entering the music from a MIDI keyboard, the key
signature will be used to interpret your MIDI data and display
accidentals as needed. There will be times, however, when you’ll want a
flat and the software chooses a sharp (or vice versa). The software will
provide a way for you to switch from one type of accidental to the
other. Accidentals can also be entered by hand if needed. The better
programs will let you put parentheses around courtesy accidentals.
Sometimes, you need to display two independent parts (or
even more) on a single staff. The software needs to be able to point the
stems of the first part up and the stems of the second part down. Note
heads may need to be offset slightly to the left or right by dragging
them, so as to avoid collisions between parts. When the second part
starts or stops in the middle of a measure, its rests (which will
automatically be inserted by the software) need to be hidden. The
ability to hide other sorts of graphic objects is surprisingly useful,
and is found in many programs.
The program will attempt to find the best spacing of notes
and measures, so that each line or system of music is spaced out in a
readable way. But you’ll sometimes find that you need to change the
spacing of the measures, by cramming more measures onto one line or by
breaking a crowded line so that one of its measures is moved up or down
to the following line. When you do this, the software will automatically
respace the symbols in the new lines so that the lines end at the right
border, as usual. To open up a crowded measure, you may need to move a
bar line left or right. Some programs let you drag bar lines to respace
individual measures; some don’t.
Individual symbols sometimes need to be moved left or
right to prevent graphic collisions. Collisions can occur with
accidentals in thick chord voicings, adjacent to clef changes, and so
on. The better programs allow repositioning of symbols.
Cross-staff beams are needed in music from the time of
Bach onward. Cross-bar-line beaming appeared a bit later, in the 19th
century. Notion does not support these types of beaming, but all of the
programs will group beamed notes around rests.
In orchestral scores, cue parts using small note heads
need to be added to specific instrument parts at specific spots, but
hidden in the score, because the conductor doesn’t need to see them.
| Fig. 8. An expression object in Finale can be moved by dragging it with
the Selection Tool. Notice the anchor point on the staff, to the left of
the first note in the bar. The vertical and horizontal dotted lines
make it easier to align this object with others on the page.|
Text of various kinds needs to be positioned. Some text
needs to attach to an object in a specific measure so that if the
left/right position of the measure changes, the text will move with it
(see Figure 8
). Other text, such as the title on the
first page and the instrument names in the left margin of a score, needs
to stay in position even when measures move. Some text, such as
rehearsal letters, should appear only once or twice in a score, but will
need to be duplicated into individual parts when they’re prepared for
This laundry list by no means exhausts the topic of graphic object positioning and customizing, but let’s move on.
Next: The Sound Library, Playback, and Wrap-Up
The Sound Library
All of the leading commercial notation programs install
with large libraries of sampled instruments—usually the orchestral
instruments and a smaller but useful selection of pop instruments. These
libraries are typically not included in a demo download, so
they’re harder to evaluate prior to purchase. However, the manufacturer
may have audio demo files on their website.
Naturally, the manufacturer would like to convince you
that you can produce recordings polished enough for commercial release
using their notation software. The reality is not quite so rosy. The
software will do a basic interpretation of your score, but you’ll
probably find that important musical nuances can’t be adjusted. For
instance, the program will be able to respond to basic dynamic markings (ff, f, mf, mp,
and so on) by adjusting the loudness of a sampled instrument’s output,
but this is a relatively coarse type of control. MIDI velocity data is
more fine-grained, but you probably won’t be able to edit individual
note velocities. Legato phrasing is a problem with sampled orchestral
sounds, so the good-sounding demo tracks you’ll hear online will
probably lean toward detached notes, not toward smooth lines.
Sibelius ships with a massive 34.3GB of sounds. Notion’s
sound library is 7.7GB, Finale’s is about 2.4GB, and SmartScore’s is
1.5GB. Both Finale and SmartScore use Garritan Personal Orchestra, so
the SmartScore library is actually a subset of the Finale library.
MuseScore makes do with SoundFonts.
Song sheet music often includes repeats with first and
second endings, as do ragtime and classical music composed before 1850
or so. If you want to hear realtime output of your score, you may need
it to respond intelligently to repeat signs and second endings. Notion
has a unique realtime conducting feature, which is terrific if you’re
guiding a worship ensemble in performance through a piece you’ve notated
and want some parts to be played by the computer while others are
played by live musicians.
MIDI sequencers allow precise editing of performance data,
including note start times, in ways that are not possible in notation
software. None of the programs covered this month has anything like
full-featured MIDI editing. On the other side of the coin, some of the
more established DAWs, such as Steinberg Cubase, Apple Logic Pro, and
MOTU Digital Performer, provide great MIDI data editing and also do
basic notation, but their notation features are not up to the standard
of a dedicated notation program.
Everyone has their own taste in what type of user
interface they prefer, which is why downloading a demo version of a
program and spending a couple of weeks with it is highly recommended. My
own opinion, admittedly somewhat subjective, is that the Sibelius
interface is easier to use than any other that I’ve seen. Rather than
requiring a variety of tools, Sibelius lets you click on a graphic
object and then edit it, without having to choose a tool.
Let’s suppose a note is on the wrong line or space—a
common problem. In Sibelius, Notion, and MuseScore, you simply click on
the note and drag it up or down. In SmartScore, it’s almost that easy;
you just have to hold shift to make the drag handles appear. The same
operation in Finale requires selecting the correct tool, clicking on the
note, and then using the computer’s up or down arrow keys—easy enough
to learn, but not quite as intuitive.
Multiply that simple task by about a hundred, and you’ll
begin to understand just how complex a notation program’s user interface
The quality of the documentation and the availability of
online tutorials are also worth investigating, because both will ease
your entry into the user interface. Finale and Sibelius both have online
tutorial videos. Finale’s main user manual is online-only, but its
Quick Reference Guide is installed with the program. The other programs
all have installed manuals.
For many musicians, notation software may not be a
necessity—you don’t need it until you need it, so to speak. When you do
need it, you’ll find it’s very different from any other type of software
you’ve ever used. Fortunately, most keyboard players are both smart and
computer-savvy. Once you take the plunge, you’ll probably find that
preparing printed scores is—well, it’s never going to be fun, unless you
have very peculiar ideas of fun. But you’ll be able to produce work
that you can be proud of, and that others will admire.
Next: Supplemental Info on Scanning and MusicXML
What Is MusicXML?
The MusicXML file format is a way of transferring a
notated score from one notation program to another. Finale, Sibelius,
and Notion all import and export MusicXML files (although Notion imports
them imperfectly). SmartScore will export MusicXML files, but not
import them, making it a good choice if you want to scan printed sheet
music and then edit it in Finale. A number of sequencers will also
import MusicXML. I tried exporting a full orchestra score from Sibelius
and importing it into Steinberg Cubase 7, and found that the note data
was successfully imported, but Cubase’s notation facilities weren’t up
to the job of displaying the score or parts correctly—as would be the
case with many DAWs.
Lots of musicians would love to be able to scan printed
sheet music and turn the graphic image into an editable notation file.
You might want to do this in order to make a clean copy of old,
out-of-print sheet music, or so you can transpose a song to a different
This month I looked at two scanning programs, SmartScore
X2 Pro and PhotoScore Ultimate 7. (The latter is distributed by Avid, so
it’s part of the Sibelius family.) The results were . . . pretty good,
but far from perfect, even with simple source material. The more complex
a score is, or the more poorly printed, the more confused the scanning
software will be. Plan on doing extensive hand editing after you scan
The SmartScore manual advises that if you get poor results from the recognition process, “If the source document is poorly printed or is faded and weak, try locating a better print copy of the music.”
This is sensible advice—except that it’s likely to be hard to put into
practice. The more common situation is that you’re trying to scan this
old, cruddy sheet music because it’s out of print and it’s all you have.
(Scanning sheet music that’s not out of print is a violation of
copyright, even if the music itself is in the public domain.)
Avid claims that PhotoScore can scan and recognize
handwritten music, but in my experiments this didn’t work reliably.
Attempting to write as clearly as I could, using a black pen (and why
would anyone use pen rather than pencil?), I got at least 15 errors in
the first two measures of the first prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. In
the next two measures, written in pencil in a more natural handwriting
style, PhotoScore identified the pitches of 18 notes correctly (out of
36), but only three of those notes (all of them half-notes) had the
correct rhythm values. Will you be able to feed your old handwritten
scores into a scanner and get usable results? Not a chance. Fixing the
errors would take longer than re-entering the piece using step entry
from a MIDI keyboard.