Best Music Notation Software


Music notation software is a competitive business.

There are two main figures, Finale and Sibelius, and there are quite a few emerging/less-prominent programs, such as Dorico, Noteflight, MuseScore, and Lilypond.   There are even tablet/mobile device apps.

(Find more in-depth articles on music composition here.)

List of topics:

Need help choosing the best software for you?  Check out this list of the best music notation software!

The two big ones: Finale and Sibelius

Finale: Full price | Education pricing | Upgrade pricing

Sibelius: Pricing page | Sibelius First (fewer features, lower cost): Pricing page

Finale website

Sibelius website

Finale has been my go-to software for years.  Over time, it has increasingly become easier to use.  It has so many possibilities, but its interface makes it like a “Photoshop for music”.  I use that term because it is incredibly powerful, but it takes a lot clicks and configuring to get exactly what you want.  It features a so-so default set of sounds, but if you have your own set of samples you can get things to sound quite nice with its Human Playback feature.

The newest version of Finale also includes ReWire technology, allowing you to compose alongside your DAW (digital audio workstation) such as Logic or ProTools.  This is extremely useful for those who use Finale for film scoring.

Whether you are an engraver, professional composer, student, or your average user, chances are Finale can suit your needs, even if with a bit of legwork.

There is a common meme on Facebook that we Finale users run into.  When we ask for a solution to a Finale problem, we get the response “Use Sibelius” from Sibelius users.  Humor aside, this is a very true statement: Sibelius is easier to use and can do things just as well as Finale in most cases.  It was discontinued for a period of time, but has been picked up again by its company, Avid, and is undergoing some changes.

Sibelius features ReWire too, for all you DAW users.

Many people that I know switched from Finale to Sibelius years ago because it was just easier to get things done in Sibelius.  Others, like me, have stuck around with Finale because of the incremental improvements to its user experience.

Dorico

Dorico: Full price | Education pricing | Crossgrade pricing

Dorico website

As many of you know, I am currently learning the new software program Dorico.  Built by many of the programmers who were “instrumental” (haha) in making Sibelius a great program, Dorico makes things easy to input, and easy to present professionally.  It does this by breaking each step of the compositional process out into separate areas, from writing, to engraving, to playback.  You can switch between these areas at any time.

Featuring an “AI” (artificial intelligence)-like set of amazingly precise default formatting, it makes the process of engraving much easier.

But, it is always being constantly updated.  This is good in that it has many new features in each (free) update, but is a drawback because some flexibility and promised-but-awesome features are still being developed.  The main reason for this is that Dorico is re-built from the ground up, with brand-new coding at its core.  So, unlike upgrades that build features onto software (like most notation programs), Dorico has its features coded fresh, from the ground up, in a new system.

Dorico is not my go-to software yet, but I really think its responsiveness to the needs of composers and engravers nowadays will make it “the” program to use in the future, once every feature is complete.

Noteflight

Noteflight: Pricing page

Noteflight website

Noteflight is an online music notation software.  It is great for students and educators, because it allows for sharing of scores online, is very affordable compared to other programs, and doesn’t require a really powerful computer (because it is online).  It also allows for music educators to interface with Google Classroom and other LMSs (learning management systems).

My colleagues and I use this for beginning composers, who really need to get a good-quality experience for their skill level, and who really shouldn’t be making an investment into Finale or Sibelius until they need to.  It offers a really important introduction to notation software for these students, and also allows them to create high-quality scores.  It also has a large online community for learning from fellow Noteflight users.

Other programs worth mentioning

MuseScore (website here) is a popular, completely free, program that is user-developed (i.e. programmers and users helped create and continually add improvements to this program).  There is no trial, demo, or full version–there is only the free, complete, version.  I have heard good reviews about it, and it is referenced much in Facebook groups on engraving and composition.  I admit that I have not tried it myself, because I am working on mastering Finale, and hopefully Dorico.

Another completely free program is LilyPond (website here).  Like MuseScore, it is developed by programmers and musicians who use the software and continually improve it.  A huge difference between LilyPond and the rest of the notation software mentioned here is that LilyPond is not graphical; it is text-based.  This means that you do not click notes into LilyPond, you do not drag things, or otherwise work with the “picture” of the score.  Instead, you type code into a text file, and by doing this you are programming the layout of a piece, instead of drawing or sculpting it.  This is great for those who know how to program, want to learn some programming, or want even more control over what they are doing.  This is powerful, but not everyone is into coding.  I have heard that the learning curve is not that bad for this program, fortunately.

Conclusion

There are so many other notation programs out there.  Many are designed for very specific uses.  Some are best used for film/media scoring.  Others are built into DAWs (digital audio workstations).  Some are built for mobile devices.  In the end, choose the program that works best for you. Here are some tips:

  • Use trial and demo versions of programs before you buy them.
  • See if you can get an education, upgrade, or crossgrade discount when you finally decide to buy a program.
  • Talk with your teacher to ensure you are using software that they can help you with, or that they think is appropriate for you.
  • If you are not studying with a teacher, ask questions on forums and do your “homework” on a program before you buy it.
  • Factor into your decision whether you prefer no paymentsubscription-based payments, or a one-time paymentNo-payment versions can be really powerful, but sometimes lack features or have a harder learning curve.  Subscription-based payments can be annoying to renew, but one-time payments may still require you to buy new versions eventually if you upgrade your operating system or need new features.

As always, let me know in the comments below if you have any questions.  I look forward to answering them!

Happy composing,

Dan

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19 thoughts on “Best Music Notation Software

  1. quinnmason96

    I love love love Sibelius, and I’ve been using it professionally since 2011.

    Then Avid happened in 2012.

    I recently had to update to a new plan since my old one expired. Big mistake. I missed a billing period and Avid straight up LOCKED ME OUT OF THE SOFTWARE. I had work to do and couldn’t do it. I ended up having to go back two versions, which saved me because even though the plan expired I had permanent access to the software.

    Avid literally ‘took my creativity hostage’ because of missing one small payment. It was weird and infuriating.

    Finale users, consider yourselves lucky in the aspect that once you pay for the software, you get regular free updates forever. Once you buy Sibelius, you have to also buy a plan that you have renew regularly in order to get updates that may not happen for years. True story.

    Just keep that in mind just in case you wanted to drop money on Sibelius.

    1. Thank you for this comment! I’m so sorry to hear this. I really don’t like subscription-based payments on anything (e.g. Netflix) because I don’t like draining/charging my bank account more than once, but I never imagined your experience would happen to such great software as Sibelius. Hopefully Avid can fix that asap!

    2. Tony

      Hi, Avid still offers an option to own Sibelius outright, without paying a monthly subscription. Many people upgrade their owned versions every two to three years to get access to new features and improvements. For someone who’s never owned Sibelius before, the cost of the subscription vs. buying outright evens out in roughly this time frame.

      The monthly subscription fee is currently less than $20/mo. (with an annual commitment). The cost to buy outright is about $600, which translates to 2.5 years of monthly subscription payments.

      For those on older versions of Sibelius, the cost to upgrade is currently about $300 (includes access to all updates for a year), or $400 for access to updates for the next three years. This latter option is the most cost-effective compared to the subscription option.

      Still, it is a matter of preference. For those who prefer to stick with the same version for a long time and do not care about new features, there’s the option to buy outright. The benefit of the subscription is that one always has access to the latest features as they are being released. For these folks, it’s worth the investment, which isn’t that much more than buying the software outright and paying the upgrade fee every three years.

      To parallel Dan’s Netflix analogy: you can decide whether you prefer to access Netflix for the next three years by paying a set fee up front, but with the ability to see only the movies that were part of the library at the time you purchased your access. Or, you can pay monthly and watch all new movies being added to the service as they become available. Again, it’s a matter of preference.

      Disclaimer: I work at Avid (not on the Sibelius team). I apologize for the bad experience you had with your Sibelius subscription. The system is automated, so when payment fails for some reason, it has to be sorted out to enable access again. I hope you are still enjoying the latest features of the software.

    3. Steven

      I own Sibelius and Finale. I love Finale, and am glad I own Both, but I find Sibeliusless intuitive and am having a hard time getting used to it.

      At the same time, at the moment Finale is slow, jumpy to scroll around the notation (see below), and crashes a lot.

      I wish I could figure out Sibelius. Every time I use it, I get confused as to when it automatically puts the rests into the notation when I choose the rest on the keypad screen. I want to choose it and THEN notate it. But it automatically notates it and sometimes in the wrong location. It drives me nuts. it’s just not intuitive to me. Can you change this setting?

      So I have been using Finale. Also the sounds are better… which makes no sense because I think they both use the same exact sounds…Garriton Aria… (am I doing something wrong?)

      If I am doing something wrong in either examples, and anyone can help, I would love to hear from you…or anyone… maybe with your help I can try a program that will not be as choppy or crash, and get it to sound better.

      I would love to have another choice in notation programs

  2. Hello,
    if it is allowed, one clarification concerning Lilypond:
    You wrote:
    Instead, you type code into a text file, and by doing this you are programming the layout of a piece, instead of drawing or sculpting it.

    You code by writing the names and duration of the notes e.g. c4 e g c. And the program will automatically produce the score.

    Hajo

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  4. Pingback: Best Music Notation Software for Beginners – Composer's Toolbox

  5. Steven

    Finale is the best program out there in my opinion for music notation, BUT…

    It does not run with monitors higher than 1080 on PC according to the minimum requirements on the site, and the program constantly crashes with Mac if you try.

    Here is where the issues start. All iMacs MUST run at ultra high resolution and you can’t change that. You can only scale the resolution which is a virtual change.

    I have lost hours of work due to a crash, and I’m not the only one. The program comes with auto save set to OFF. So be sure to turn it on.

    Also, I tried to make a ticket to contact them through the appropriate channels on their site and the site had me in s runaround. I spent over an hour trying to contact them and I can not. I emailed them off my personal email and got a machine with the same runaround link.

    I LOVE this program SO much,but I can’t use it without it crashing

    1. Hi Steven, Thanks for the comment! Hopefully there will be a patch released soon, but until then, I wish you the best in your writing. My old laptop’s “Command” and “S” keys are worn down because of my incessant saving in Finale haha. Best, Dan

      1. Steven

        I wanted to let you know that if you have an Apple, there is a low resolution mode outside the display settings (it doesn’t lower the resolution of the monitor but it does it virtually and it really helps!). I still have crashing and scrolling problems around the notation but there are much less.

        Here is how to do it:

        Find the program in the finder and right click on it. Choose ‘get info’. A box will come up. With many choices. Down the box is a checkbox for ‘open in low resolution mode’. Click it.

        Then RESTART your computer. That is very important.

        The Finale program will be significantly less choppy… though it still will not be perfect…

        Best of luck Dan,
        Steven

  6. Anthony

    Have you tried the amazing music scanning/recognition app PlayScore? Very accurate and exports MusicXML that imports straight into any score writer.

  7. I have tried Finale. Don’t like it. It’s awkward and the sounds are not very good. I have been using Sibelius, probably the best for notating music and getting the parts correct for real musicians, but the sound set is not very good. I have not had much success trying to use third party sounds.
    Enter, Notion 6 by Presonus. The methods for editing are a little different, but not too hard to get used to. The native sounds are much better, but the software makes it very easy to bring in your own favourites. In fact you can add a synth part or just a special sound effect just as easy as writing music for a flute. The mixer is laid out better than in Sibelius. I haven’t tried any of the others, except Musescore, which seems ok but probably needs more development. In the end everyone has their own way of writing music, and each software package offers something for each individual. I don’t know if you’ve tried Notion(BTW I have no personal stake in the Presonus or its associated companies), you may want to try it if you haven’t. It’s much cheaper than Sibelius.

    1. Hi Dave, Thank you for the comment! I have been seeing Notion pop up more and more as I search for other “leads” on music notation software, so it’s good to hear from an actual user using it. It sounds very much worth the time invested in learning it. Best, Dan

    2. quinnmason96

      Hi Dave,

      Have you tried this?: http://www.noteperformer.com/

      Super cheap and lightweight sounds for Sibelius. I’ve mocked up several of my compositions with this software and I always get positive comments, some ranging in the “it sounds real!” zone. This is the bee’s knees if you use Sibelius for a living.

    3. Finale and Sibelius both use the Aria sounds from Native instruments. It may be possible that you were using the midi sounds instead of Aria when you tried Finale. That being said, Finale does have some issues. The program does not work well in normal resolution mode and will crash, and the way they handle rests drive me nuts sometimes… though, I can’t seem to get used to Sibelius either.

      To me they both have their pluses and minuses. With Sibelius it is not hard to put a new instrument in your score, but mapping the sound to that instrument does not always work properly and you have to take time to fix it. It always works with Finale.

      To be honest, have tried as many notation programs as I could that were out there including the ones on iPad and they all have pluses and minuses. None are perfect.

  8. Marie

    I am very happy with Musescore, but cannot find the answer to this question: do any of these music notation software playback a chord symbol? Seems like Finale does, but they don’t mention it on there website. Thank you for any help

    1. Hi Marie, I know Finale does, and I assume Sibelius does too. I have encountered a few snags getting advanced chords to play back correctly in Finale, but there is likely a better way to do so than mine (I haven’t invested much time in chord playback in Finale).

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