Best Free Music Notation Software

 
Introduction

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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Discussion

MuseScoreMuseScore 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 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 enablLilypond screenshote 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.

 

Other freeware to be reviewed:

 
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Quick Selection Guide

MuseScore
5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Notes are entered on a virtual note sheet, easy and fast note entry with mouse, keyboard or MIDI; unlimited number of staves, integrated sequencer and FluidSynth software synthesizer, save as PDF or MIDI file, and more.
http://www.musescore.org/
1.3
38.7 MB --> Win32.exe
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Linux, Windows 8, 7, Vista, or XP, Mac OS X 10.6+

v1.3 released 27 February, 2013

Lilypond
5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Excellent text-based music language, produces beautiful sheet music, has various third-party GUI's
Text-based editing can be awkward
http://lilypond.org/
2.16.2-1
24.5MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Open source freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Mac OS X 10.4+; Windows 2000, XP, Vista, Windows 7 and 8; Linux

Stable v2.16.2 released January 4, 2013
Unstable v2.17.29 released October 20, 2013

 
Editor

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.

Tags

notate, write, compose, music, notation, symbol

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Comments

by Stafford Otter on 10. August 2013 - 0:34  (110029)

Hey, all. I recently became editor of this page, and I'm planning to test all that software listed above. This page is going to be sparse for a little while, but if you have any unanswered comments, feel free to speak up and I'll answer them as soon as I have the answers.

by Littleladyk on 28. March 2013 - 3:23  (106590)

Hey all!

Ive read through these comments and yes there are a few more I can try but straight off what I need is software that I can load MP3/4s into and it will score it out for me- chords, lyrics and melody. I have some 30 plus songs with lyrics all originals and my notation skills are rather slow.

Can anyone help, does this even exist??? Thanks :)

by kiplorenzo on 7. March 2014 - 21:50  (114877)

LittleLadyK,

I do know that audacity has the capability to take MP3's and convert them to notes/timings. You will need the VAMP Plugins that go with it as it is what changes the songs. The Vamp Plugins (search Google) are the Queen Mary Version. There is instructions on how to copy the files into the correct directory structure so that audacity automatically loads them

thx

Kip

by Stafford Otter on 9. August 2013 - 23:43  (110028)

Littleladyk, not a lot of software for converting MP3's to notation (or even MIDI or chords) has been developed. At one point, I tried several programs that do that. If you are still looking for such programs, you can let me know, and I'll specifically address the topic on this page. In the meantime, I recommend searching for the sheet music online.

by Leeee (not verified) on 9. September 2012 - 2:12  (98976)

What about Musink? It creates PDFs, outputs MIDI etc but is so much faster to write with than what you've listed here! http://musink.net

by Mauro 58 (not verified) on 5. September 2012 - 4:18  (98786)

I am an Italian music teacher: I used MuseScore in the past with poor results. A good free software, but nothing more.
Two absolutely "to-do" things for the developers:
1) this software is not compatible with General MIDI protocol. Everytime I load a GM file, the drum channel sounds like a washing machine...
2) a MIDI OUT function is missing. There is not a way to connect an external keyboard and/or voice expander.
I think it is not so difficult to insert a GM protocol in the program: in this way, everything would be solved easily... or not?

by Marcuus (not verified) on 8. November 2012 - 8:51  (102030)

Try Musink, Mauro (musink.net). It will play through any GM device, including through VSTs (http://wiki.musink.net/doku.php/midi%3Bplayback#virtual_instruments).

by Ailianos (not verified) on 21. September 2012 - 21:54  (99571)

They (musescore) are in the middle of developing an amazing new version that'll take the place of the 1.2v. I downloaded the nightly build and really, it seemed it wasn't the same software anymore, they're adding a plethora of new options and features, and they're also redesigning. Two problems though: impossible to save as pdf with the test-version :( quite understandable of course. And we don't know when they'll be releasing it. But i assure you it's going to be something.

by Bruce_Fraser on 21. April 2012 - 3:08  (92344)

Finale NotePad is once again FREE!

It ceased being free with the 2009 edition. But as of the 2012 edition, it is once again free. All that is required is to register when installing the program. It will give you a free serial number, which you enter into the program, and that's it.

by Treeofwoe (not verified) on 21. September 2012 - 3:33  (99533)

I'm so glad someone brought up Finale Notepad. As mentioned by the original poster, the 2012 version is free.

by peacerv (not verified) on 15. April 2012 - 2:29  (92114)

I like Muscore. But I am having a problem with its continuous increase of memory over time. I find that after a time of note entry into an orchestra score, that I must save-exit-restart muscore. Otherwise, my 2gig-memory laptop starts having problems. I would like to recommend an improvement of memory management in the program.

by Sandra (not verified) on 2. May 2012 - 19:15  (92917)

Is that 2gigs your RAM or your HD?

by natsing2006 on 2. October 2012 - 5:03  (100090)

Usually when someone mentions memory, they mean RAM, or Random Access Memory. I'm not sure many operating systems could run on 2gigs of hard drive space.

by Big Mack (not verified) on 11. April 2012 - 6:32  (91890)

LYRICS???

Songs contain lyrics, too, ya know. I am a SONG writer, not a score writer... How about adding lyrical capabilities to the score writing, since I did not see any discussion of this mandatory feature?

Thanks.

by Sandra (not verified) on 2. May 2012 - 19:04  (92915)

You can add lyrics - simply follow these instructions: http://musescore.org/en/handbook/lyrics

by Sandra (not verified) on 28. February 2012 - 19:15  (89656)

After reading all these comments I can't help but add one of my own here.

First - a little background: I have always scored my music the old fashioned way - that is, with real staff paper and a pencil with a durned good erasor, my instrument(s) and armed with the musical knowledge I learned in school.

In school they actually taught us how to read notes and write a measure or two, so I guess I'm the spoiled one.

Now, it's been a little over 20 years since I last scored a song - so this past weekend I needed to do a re-score of one of my pieces and thought I'd see what software is out there and whether it might make my job easier. I found several, one of those was MuseScore - which I used with amazing ease and really like.

I had an entire 153 measure song with vocals and 4 instruments (guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar and violin) scored in three days time, where it would normally have taken at least 2 weeks to finish by hand. (I'm usually kind of slow that way.)

I did not use a midi keyboard to aid in my scoring, but I'll tell you my experience - I used my mouse and entered one note at a time, but I saved some time by copying and pasting some of the measures.

Someone stated that this program doesn't do individual 8th notes if there are more than one in a sequence - that it turns the 8th notes into 16th notes - I've found that while it does group the notes, they are still 8th notes. 8th notes that are grouped like that have one bar - 16th notes have 2.

Someone else made a remark about the timing - I found that the program strictly adheres to the time signature that you assign to your score and does not deviate. If you play your song too fast or slow, it's going to score accordingly, so it is best for you to work out your time and playing - if you need a metronome to help you keep your time as you play on your midi keyboard, you can always purchase one, but the program itself doesn't need one. I would not suggest using a midi keyboard to score your music, though, unless you're an exceptional musician, and even then I'd say that's risky.

It is always best for budding musicians or songwriters out there to know your music - this will help you score your songs - if you rely solely on a program and you have no knowledge whatsoever of the different notes or any timing, you're going to find it difficult to use this program, which I found to be simple and so easy that I just couldn't believe it.

Invest in yourself - learn how to "speak" the language of music and rhythm and you'll find this program is extremely easy and versatile. This is a very user friendly program and you can use it with your mouse, your keyboard or a midi keyboard - but you have to know at least the basics about music - timing, what the notes are, etc - in order to understand the program better. I found this program does a lot of things for me that I didn't expect - my calling it a breeze is really an understatement.

I can tell that many of you posting here have very little, if any, musical knowledge. I would encourage you to learn about music - learn about what the names of the notes are and what their times are - learn what they look like when grouped together and when separate and where the are placed in the staves - do a search for "how to read a musical score" or "how to read sheet music" and study up.

I could not find a thing wrong with this program, but again, that's probably because I know how to write music manually so that helped me tremendously in the use of this program. It certainly simplified my job - this program has a lot of bells and whistles that can make it a great learning tool. I'm going to be putting it on my 9 year old's computer because it will greatly aid her in learning to score her own songs.

This is a rather impressive and incredible program, and that it's free is a real jaw dropper. I'll recommend it to anyone - especially beginners.

by THX-1138 on 30. January 2014 - 1:02  (114071)

Thank you... any good software or info about easily learning "Church" modes would be helpful in guitar playing/composing... listen to ""Louie, Louie" and "Elenore Rigby". Thank you for suggesting learning to read (been playing piano since 6 and guitar since 10... now quite old!

by Stafford Otter on 30. January 2014 - 16:18  (114087)

Music education software is outside the realm of this article and of my expertise, so unfortunately, I cannot recommend any programs to you. The best place to seek that advice is on the Gizmo's Freeware Forums at:
www.techsupportalert.com/freeware-forum/i-want-freeware-program-that/

by MidnightCowboy on 29. February 2012 - 3:49  (89673)

Hi Sandra. This article is currently in need of an editor. In view of your obvious talent and writing ability, fancy taking it on? :)

by Sandra (not verified) on 2. May 2012 - 18:39  (92914)

Wow - what a nice compliment, thanks! I'll be happy to help in any way I can.

(I'm sorry for taking so long to respond, I actually didn't see this post until today!)

by Sandra (not verified) on 2. May 2012 - 19:16  (92918)

PS - send me an email with any instructions or rules - do you have my email address?

by MidnightCowboy on 3. May 2012 - 4:39  (92944)

Hi Sandra. Thank you for responding. As everyone needs to come through the same process,please register first and then follow the information on this page:

http://www.techsupportalert.com/become-a-reviewer.htm

The link to the application form is listed under item 3 towards the bottom of the page. I will then intercept this when it comes through and take it up with you from there.

by William George Dunbar (not verified) on 20. January 2012 - 15:14  (87480)

I have a new Yamaha PSR S650 (this is not a cheap model!) and connected it to my laptop computer using a USB cable and downloaded the Yamaha MIDI driver software. The computer recognises the keyboard.

But, MuseScore does not!

The MuseScore handbook says:

MIDI keyboard
You can also insert pitches using a MIDI keyboard in MuseScore version
0.9.6 or later.
1. Connect your MIDI keyboard to the computer and switch your keyboard
on
2. Start MuseScore
3. Create a new score
4. Click to select the rest in measure 1 to indicate where you want note
entry to begin
5. Press N to begin note entry mode
6. Select a note duration such as 5 for quarter notes (crotchets), as
described above
7. Press a note on your MIDI keyboard, and notice that the pitch is added
to your score.

I phoned Yamaha and disussed it with a technician who had not heard of MuseScore (he has experience with the Sibelius software) and he said that he would have expected the Yamaha to be listed somewhere in the programme, but I could not find it.

If anyone can suggest how to resolve the problem, then reply to this comment.

by Sandra (not verified) on 29. February 2012 - 17:38  (89709)

Did you select the "Enable MIDI input" option in MuseScore's toolbar?

by natsing2006 on 2. October 2012 - 5:13  (100091)

I agree. Also, do you have the latest version? You shouldn't need to go searching through the options to find it. I have a Yamaha Keyboard, and I can very easily use it for note entry in MuseScore. My only complaint is that there is no Midi out. ALso, if using Midi cables: do you have them inserted correctly AND THE RIGHT WAY AROUND? That might help a bit, as Midi cables can sometimes be labeled from the keyboard's perspective or the computer's perspective. :)

by Dr. Tune (not verified) on 19. January 2012 - 6:47  (87388)

I'm looking for a music notation program that does the following: I play a series of notes on my keyboard. I record these notes on my digital recording devise (Zoom) I download the sound file mp3 onto my MAC,
then I place the file into the music notation program and the notes are documented into the measure chosen as I have played them.

by Jim Van Damme (not verified) on 28. January 2012 - 0:10  (87912)

Record them as MIDI commands, not mp3 (sound). If your keyboard has a MIDI output and your computer has a MIDI input converter, use that. Or if you can record the notes on a flash drive and stick them in your computer, you can import them then cut and paste into a notation program.

by putsky (not verified) on 22. December 2011 - 20:25  (85743)

I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Buttonbeats" - it's sure to satisfy some of you folks out there.

by Merbine (not verified) on 10. December 2011 - 23:48  (84782)

I just downloaded MuseScore only to realize that it does not do realtime recording or transcription. In other words, unless i am missing something, it does not have a metronome and does not place your notes in measures with the time value you play them with --all notes will be the same quarter note, or whatever, until the measure is filled, and then it moves to the next, etc. Guess i was spoiled by Cakewalk and Cubase and Sonar, but was hopping there was a shareware out there that did real time recording and sequencing, at least.

by Canadian Tech Guy (not verified) on 21. January 2012 - 15:47  (87543)

Hmm... I have had no trouble putting different note durations in the same measure. Is the "N" (for note) selected when you are inputing your notes? I just tested it, and it worked fine for me.

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