By Laurel Thomsen | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Whether you’re looking to capture your musical ideas with something other than paper and pencil, need to create scores and extract parts for a class or ensemble, or you’re a professional composer with advanced engraving and typesetting concerns, an array of music notation programs and apps exists to meet your needs at various price points. After polling my colleagues and various social media groups, combing forums, and filling up my devices with trial versions, I have a few findings to share about MuseScore 3, LilyPond, Sibelius, Finale, Dorico 4, Notion 6, MusicJOT 2.1, and StaffPad.
Music notation software for composition:
If you’ve ever searched for pop-tune arrangements online, you’ve likely stumbled upon MuseScore. However, before it became known as a resource for sheet music, MuseScore was an open-source notation program and remains a popular choice among musicians. Most users won’t exhaust its capabilities. While some find the interface a bit clunky, it’s especially impressive for a free program. You do reach its limits when you want to use more obscure notations, like diamond-shaped noteheads, or if you need to create publishing-house-quality scores with perfect note spacing, gorgeous slurs, and a highly customizable layout.
Like most programs, MuseScore offers click-and-drag note entry and key command entry, as well as entry using an attached MIDI keyboard. It also boasts a vibrant online community, and many users appreciate the ability to post and share their arrangements and scores. MuseScore is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and its online handbook is extensive.
LilyPond, also free, is an interesting outlier. Notation is entered via text document rather than dragging notes from a graphical toolbar onto a staff. In this way, it operates more like a programming language and has one of the steeper learning curves. However, LilyPond claims to be “devoted to producing the highest-quality sheet music possible,” and once fluent in its language, users can create perhaps the most elegant-looking sheet music of all the programs reviewed here. Beyond the basics, it offers advanced typesetting features like cross-staff stems; ancient notation types, such as those used for Gregorian chant; and modern music notations. LilyPond can create a wide variety of scores and extracted parts—from solo works to full symphony and opera scores—as well as lead sheets, vocal music, sample exercises intended for educational purposes, tablature, and even Schenkerian analysis.
Available for Windows, Mac, and Unix/Linux, LilyPond is an intriguing option for users who have the time and energy to study its online manual, and especially those who already use coding languages.
Sibelius and Finale
Sibelius and Finale, launched in 1998 and 1988, respectively, are the industry leaders among notation programs and the differences between them largely boil down to personal preference and pricing options. Both offer click-and-drag note entry, computer keypad entry, and entry using an attached MIDI keyboard. Both are robust enough for professional composers and transcribers yet are simple enough that newcomers can create a basic part without having to digest the entire manual.
Unfortunately, the playback quality of both is uninspiring. Thankfully, an additional plug-in, such as NotePerformer, can easily solve this problem for composers and musicians who want to hear more realistic renditions of their creations—a feature that can be particularly helpful when writing parts for instruments a user doesn’t personally play.
While both offer free trials and versions at different price points, Sibelius operates on a subscription model, ranging from the free yet basic Sibelius First, to the more advanced $9.99/month Sibelius, to the professional level $19.99/month Sibelius Ultimate. For those who prefer to own the program for life, a $599 perpetual license for the Ultimate version is also available. Sibelius runs on both desktop and iPhone/iPad and is available for both Mac and Windows.
Meanwhile, Finale offers a free 30-day trial, but not a stripped down free version. Its cheaper version, Print Music ($119.95) is unfortunately no longer available for Mac, only Windows. Its pro version is available for both Mac and Windows, and at $600, is comparable to Sibelius’ perpetual license. Finale does offer a range of considerable discounts for students, academic and theological users, or those upgrading from Print Music or one of their previous, discontinued notation programs.
With a growing following of passionate converts from Sibelius and Finale, Dorico is becoming a formidable rival. Now on version 4, it offers the same note entry methods as Sibelius and Finale, but its fans report a more intuitive flow that saves considerable time once you learn how to use it. Users also appreciate its engraving capabilities, with default spacing that is inherently pleasing, plus a wide variety of custom engraving elements.
Notable features that users enjoy seem to center around saving time, from how the software instinctively adds additional measures when entering notes using keypad or MIDI entry to its sophisticated treatment of divisi sections and extracted parts, from how it automatically rewrites the timing in subsequent measures after lengthening a note mid-composition to how it populates chords entered for one chordal instrument throughout the rest of the rhythm section. While playback quality is better than Sibelius and Finale, the additional NotePerformer plug-in is also available.
Dorico offers a free trial version, as well as the basic but free Dorico SE, the advancing level Dorico Elements for $99.99, and the professional level Dorico Pro for $579.99. All versions are available for both Mac and Windows. For iPad they offer the free Dorico app with similar functions to the Dorico SE as well as in-app upgrades with a subscription purchase.
While it has yet to build a Dorico-level fanbase, Notion 6 is also gaining notice among musicians. Besides the click-and-drag, keypad, and MIDI entry methods supported by most contenders, Notion also offers an interactive fretboard, keyboard, and drum pad, and handwriting recognition when used with a tablet or a computer with an attached tablet or desktop extension app.
While Sibelius, Finale, or Dorico may be better suited for composers and transcribers looking for robust engraving capabilities, recent Notion updates make it easy to alter a score’s appearance. Its Sequencer Overlay also creates a visual of both the MIDI output and notation, allowing users to more precisely notate and edit the rhythms they intend.
With a clear focus on making it as simple as possible for musicians and songwriters to get their ideas down, Notion helps to fuel inspiration further by offering among the best playback sounds, with samples ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra to bass virtuoso Victor Wooten. Projects created in Notion also seamlessly integrate across devices, allowing musicians to create and edit their work on the go, as inspiration strikes them. Notion further integrates with other programs offered by its developer, PreSonus, such as Studio One, its multi-track recording software.
Notion 6 is available for Mac and Windows devices, as either a $14.95/month membership that is bundled with a number of other software programs from the developer, or for $149.95 when sold separately.
MusicJOT 2.1 and StaffPad
Designed for tablet use, both MusicJOT 2.1 and StaffPad make it easy to write out sheet music, literally. Draw notes, articulations, accidentals, and dynamics just as you would with pen and paper, and watch these programs render your work into legible sheet music with impressive accuracy.
MusicJOT—a companion project of Mona Lisa Sound, the Hampton Rock String Quartet’s sheet music company—is currently only available for iPad, while StaffPad is available for both iPads using Apple Pencils and Windows 10 tablets that support active pen and touch. While neither have the engraving power of the heavyweights, the goal is to help users get ideas down quickly and easily. Thankfully, for those who need more editing power, either app can export projects as MusicXML files for later editing in programs such as Sibelius or Finale.
Made for musicians by musicians, MusicJOT is able to recognize an impressive array of notes and elements using your finger or a stylus, and is fully equipped for Apple Pencil. Once notation is entered, editing possibilities—from transposition to improving layout—are often simply a matter of dragging the elements and staves around. Fretted instrumentalists will appreciate the program’s ability to include fretboard diagrams for an array of instruments and even user-created chord alternatives. With their onboard reference manual, video tutorials, and recent updates increasing customization and ease of use, it’s exciting to see handwriting recognition transition from a futuristic idea to a worthwhile investment of time and energy for musicians and composers hoping to more easily “jot” down their ideas.
While StaffPad is more expensive ($89.99 versus $49.99 for MusicJOT), the program’s impressive core playback library of over 55 instruments, plus its partnership with sample library developers, including Cinesamples, Orchestral Tools, and Spitfire Audio, stands out. The results sound truly world class. StaffPad also allows users to record their own version of a part and add the audio file to the project as a visual audio staff that can be edited to fit the notation.
It’s important to identify your unique needs and goals when weighing notation-software options. For musicians and songwriters, a complex, expensive program may be overkill if the most important factor is how easy it will be to enter notes and hear how they sound. For teachers and music directors arranging for a class or ensemble, it may be how accurate and easy it will be to enter notation using a MIDI keyboard. For professional composers, engravers, and transcribers, it may be the quality of the typesetting and whether a program will be able to keep up as they explore modern sounds and the scoring needs of unique ensembles. And for some, one size may not fit all—many users report needing different programs for the various stages in their workflow, from sketching out an initial inspiration to publishing a finished score.