Music notation software, like all other software, needs to be well-written, functional, and practical. The specialized function and complexity of music notation often contributes to the cost of notation programs. If you are like me, though, you like free stuff, especially if it works.
Music notation software is designed to create printable sheet music for you. The alternative to using notation software is writing music by hand, which does work, but is slightly less practical. A quality notation program should allow you to create any kind of music notation you need. A notation program is exceptionally well-made if it automates tasks such as spacing out notes or inserting repeats, without preventing you from modifying anything that doesn't fit your need. Above all else, you should have the freedom to design your sheet music however you like it.
There are many free music notation programs on the web, with some better than others. In addition, getting accustomed to the user interface of an individual program usually takes at least 30 minutes. Hopefully, these reviews will help you make informed decisions in your search for a notation program that's a good match for you.
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MuseScore is an excellent notation editor that is compatible with Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, and FreeBSD. It is capable of creating the notes, symbols, and lines that you'll need for almost any kind of score, from lead sheets to orchestral scores.
MuseScore's WYSIWYG interface does what you want for the most part, although like most other music programs, it does have a learning curve. Don't worry though, because you can find the answers to most of your questions either in the MuseScore handbook or on the MuseScore forums. After about an hour using the program, you'll likely have mastered note entry, note editing, and adding various articulations.
MuseScore has a strong set of features. It can play back your music, using either its own soundfont file or another that you specify. It can open MIDI, musicXML, and several proprietary save formats. It can also export to a variety of files, including MIDI, musicXML, WAVE audio, and PDF. In addition, the Musescore site hosts a small library of plugins, which automate certain tasks. The one feature it lacks is a rectangle selection tool, which I have seen in other notation programs, but this is a minute complaint. Overall, Musescore is a great choice for any kind of job.
Lilypond takes a unique approach to rendering notation by having you type out the music in a kind of programming language, which Lilypond converts into a PDF or MIDI. Though learning it is daunting, the Lilypond language is built to be logical, comprehensive, and beginner-friendly. The Lilypond website provides excellent tutorials and documentation that enable you to start notating music with a brief knowledge of the language. The basic parts of the Lilypond syntax are measure divisions, note pitches, and note durations, but you will also find that a wide variety of features such as dynamic marks, staves, instrument-specific notation, and page format, are included. In addition to the language's functionality, the sheet music looks nice and just about every detail is adjustable.
Lilypond by itself will likely be useful solely for converting handwritten sheet music to a printable format. I found that being unable to see the music as I typed it made it difficult to understand what I was typing, which made composing from scratch difficult. If you spend enough time with Lilypond, though, reading the textual music might come to feel natural. There are also other ways to use Lilypond, listed on Lilypond.org's Easier Editing page. Frescobaldi displays the compiled PDF as you edit the Lilypond text. Denemo, another program recommended on the Lilypond website, lets you edit the notation graphically while using Lilypond behind the scenes to create the final PDF. If you love the style of Lilypond's sheet music but cannot work with text, there is likely some program that can turn your music into Lilypond sheet music.
Lilypond is compatible with Mac OSX, Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD. Frescobaldi is compatible with Windows and Linux. On Mac OSX, Frescobaldi requires some hands-on setup. Denemo is compatible with Mac OSX, Windows, and Linux.
Finale Notepad provides simple functionality that should suit most of your musical notation needs. Although the features of Finale Notepad are sparser than those of MuseScore and Lilypond, its main appeal is its ease of use. Due to its well-organized interface and excellent set of online tutorials, you can easily start notating immediately upon running the program.
Finale Notepad can import and export Finale Notation Files, MIDI, and Music XML. Imported MIDI data can be quantized.
Finale Notepad enables you to enter notes by typing, by clicking, or by playing them one by one on a MIDI instrument. Notepad provides several sets of standard objects (articulations, dynamic marks, etc.), which are applied to notes and can be repositioned as necessary. Notepad is not as flexible as MuseScore concerning less common articulations and instrumentation. Its biggest limitations are lack of chord notation, guitar chord charts, and advanced lyric-editing tools. But, it does retain the stability and shine of its cousins in the MakeMusic product line, with a competitive feature set for an easy-to-learn, free program.
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This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Stafford Otter. Registered members can contact the editor with any comments or questions they might have by clicking here.
notate, write, compose, music, notation, symbol