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.
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The two big ones: Finale and Sibelius
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.
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: Pricing page
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.
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 payment, subscription-based payments, or a one-time payment. No-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!
Other tools for composers:
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