Music Software

Software for Music Notation

For many years, I’ve occasionally needed to generate printed music notation.  This has been for a variety of reasons including arranging music for piano, piano accordion, or choir, or re-printing old copies of music that are no longer available and where my originals are literally falling to pieces.  Finding satisfactory software has never been easy.   I remember using a few shareware programs in the days of DOS.  These programs worked well within their limited capabilities, but they were extremely limited.  Some of these have continued in development.  Noteworthy Composer is one that I played with many years ago which I see is still available.

For a considerable time when I was using Linux and Mac OS X, I became quite adept at using the open source LilyPond.  LilyPond is not for the faint-hearted as it is a scripting language — no graphics, just text. The output is first rate but it does take some effort to learn, and I found that often between versions (and updates for LilyPond were, and still are, released fairly rapidly), there were often changes to the syntax which meant running a provided utility to upgrade the existing input files.  If I didn’t use LilyPond for some time, then the update might need to be done by hand, and also I found that I had to at least partially relearn the program.  There are some graphical front-ends for LilyPond and also some nice environments for doing the development of notation.  I would recommend reading the essay on the LilyPond Web site which gives fascinating insight into music engraving.

As the LilyPond essay makes clear, music engraving is more complex than word processing because of the inherent two dimensional nature of musical notation.  One of the biggest problems with music notation, particularly when the music is more than very simple lead sheets, is that the articulations, expression and technique instructions, and any lyrics, not to mention the notes themselves can easily collide without some sophisticated algorithms for placement.

Recently, I’ve taken another look at the software available for music notation.  The two “big” programs are Finale and Sibelius, both of which are available for WIndows and Mac OS X.  Trials are available for both but these are expensive programs.  Finale 2011 is $600 and Sibelius 7 is £460.  In both cases academic discounts are available that make the prices much more palatable, but I do not quality for these.  Both Finale and Sibelius have cheaper versions with reduced functionality.

In the case of Finale there is a whole suite of programs from the free Finale Reader (which is only for printing and playing a file that you might have received in Finale format), through Finale NotePad, Finale SongWriter and Finale PrintMusic.  (There is also Finale Allegro but that doesn’t seem to have been updated for modern operating systems.) I have tried NotePad in the past and it really is only for the simplest music, but SongWirter and PrintMusic are both fairly capable.  Finale have a very open policy about upgrades so that you can buy without regret in that if you want one of the more expensive members of the Finale Family, there is an upgrade price that means you won’t have wasted money by buying a lower product first. For the things I needed to do, Finale Songwriter was almost good enough and Finale PrintMusic certainly was able to do the job.

Sibelius only has one reduced version for general use (there is a Student version but that I think is specifically tied to use by education establishments in conjunction with full academic versions).  This reduced version is Sibelius First.  Avid, who now own Sibelius, indicate that there is an upgrade discount for upgrading to the full version of Sibelius, but there is no explicit information on their Web site.  Avid also control the forums for discussion of Sibelius a little more than MakeMusic (Finale publisher) does for FInale.

I downloaded the trials for Finale PrintMusic, Finale SongWriter and Sibelius First.  In all cases I went through the tutorials that are included in their documentation.  I think this is pretty much essential with these types of programs.   While you can do a lot just by clicking around with a mouse, one really needs to learn the keystrokes in order to be able to enter and annotate music with any speed.  If it was going to take me an hour to notate a page of music then I would be as quick using LilyPond (for free!).

Finale PrintMusic ($120) essentially did what I needed.  However, the disadvantage is that the output required a lot of tinkering to get it to look right.  The only limitation that hampered me was that I couldn’t change a clef in the middle of a bar (measure).  I also found that adding some articulations to notes was fairly time consuming in the number of key strokes needed (and scrolling of lists).  However, I was pretty much inclined to go ahead and buy Finale PrintMusic.  PrintMusic and most of the FInale products import and export MusicXML which is the preferred way to exchange music between notation programs.  Overall PrintMusic seems to have a somewhat old-fashioned interface.

Sibelius First (£120) also did what I needed.  There are some more obvious limitations in Sibelius First over its full price big version.  I noted a strong negative review on Amazon pointing out the limitations.  The most obvious one is the lack of being able to do double dotted notation.  Having said that, none of the music I need to notate seems to have any double dotted rhythms, and so for the moment that is not a restriction, and one can always get around it in a rather clumsy way by using tied notes.  There are some articulations missing that may also be a little restricting, but I haven’t had a direct need for them in my sample tests.  Sibelius First does not do export of Music XML making it much more difficult to get stuff out of Sibelius First.  in general, the number of key strokes required to do things in Sibelius First was less than in Finale Print Music and so input was generally a little quicker. The biggest plus of Sibelius First is the “magnetic layout” which automatically moves objects to avoid collisions.  While this was not at all perfect it meant that the time to do adjustments to get the music looking right was much reduced over Finale PrintMusic (where I gave up before doing all of the tweaks).  A disadvantage of this is that occasionally the notation can move around under one in a somewhat disconcerting way.  Manual tweaking is not so easy (which is a limitation of Sibelius First — I believe that Sibelius 7 has user modifiable rules and also the ability to turn off magnetic layout for individual items).  The other problem I noticed was that it was rather easy to accidentally move an object when intending to scroll the “paper”, or to mistype and have something unexpected happen, as many keystrokes are defined as keyboard shortcuts.  LIke Finale PrintMusic there is considerable documentation, and the Sibelius First user guide is both detailed and thorough while having a light hearted touch which is a pleasure in reading documentation, and as I said before, I believe that for these types of applications one really has to read the documentation to get the best out of them.

I also took a look at a graphical open source program, MuseScore.  This is remarkably good and a worthy contender with the big programs.  It is highly capable and has none of the restrictions of the reduced Finale and Sibelius versions.  There is a lot less documentation available for MuseScore than for the commercial programs and I found that some things didn’t seem to work quite as the documentation indicated.   Again, manual layout tweaks would be necessary to produce good output.  I also tripped over some inconsistencies which I couldn’t explain.  I found that MuseScore was fairly slow to input music and lacked some of the finesse of the commercial programs.

Another application of a similar nature is Notion 3.  I have not tried this, but I believe from the description and from other comments that it is probably more suited to those who are looking for a system to perform music which also provides notation.  I was more concerned with the notation as the primary objective, although all of these systems can drive MIDI devices (and take input from them) and have built in synthesisers.  Notion 3 is much cheaper than the full price offerings from Finale and Sibelius, but more expensive than their limited functionality versions.

What are my conclusions?

I think that for someone who is making money from music, or is able to get an academic discount, then they can really choose the big programs and the choice is probably one of what is used by colleagues, school or personal preference.   However, if the full versions reflect the reduced versions, I suspect that Sibelius 7 wins on getting good looking copy quickly.

For those of us who have to pay full price for software, then if cost is the prime consideration, then MuseScore is clearly a winner.  However Finale Songwriter is only $50 which makes it pretty affordable considering what it can do.

For a little more money the choice is really between Finale PrintMusic and Sibelius First (although the latter is about 60% more expensive in the UK at the current exchange rate).  I believe at this level the choice is between PrintMusic which can probably notate almost everything that I would ever need to do but take longer to get decent output, or Sibelius First where I suspect I will hit a limitation at some point — although not in my current test — but where the output requires very little tweaking to get a good result.  The “no regrets” upgrade path with Finale PrintMusic is attractive.

For what it is worth, I’ve bought a copy of Sibelius First having decided that getting good looking output quickly is worth the extra money.  If and when I hit limitations in Sibelius First, I hope that an upgrade path will be possible, or else I’ll be using MuseScore.