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.
AVID Sibelius 7
$350 academic/church $139 crossgrade
SmartScore X2 Pro
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.
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 filled.
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 them.
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 input.
Most notation software will handle triplets during data entry. Not all programs will do complex “tuplets” with odd values, however.
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 needed.
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 own.)
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 music looks.
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 printing.
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 can be.
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 key.
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 pages.
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.