Pen and paper should almost always be the point at which composers start their journey, in my opinion. But, it is important to move to notation software once one feels comfortable enough with basic music notation elements.
Here is a list of the best music notation software for beginners.
This list covers beginner composers only, but you might also like my review of the best music notation software for all composers.
Best music notation software for beginners
- What should beginners look for in music notation software?
- Paid or free?
- Music notation software not recommended for beginners
- A middle ground
- In conclusion
What should beginners look for in music notation software?
- Ease of use
- Full functionality
- Dedicated support
- Decent playback
Beginners need software that is intuitive, and simple when entering notes and markings. For example, Dorico offers a great way to quickly input notes, markings, and layouts in general. I would recommend Dorico for beginners (more on this) instead of Finale, which has a really steep learning curve.
While simple notation programs such as Finale Notepad allow you to input music for free, they often lack functionality that will allow to to fully explore music composition beyond paper. For example, they may not allow for large ensembles or mid-piece changes (such as key changes, time signature changes, etc.). They also may require you to purchase expensive upgrades to get different sounds or features. It also may be hard to get a polished product out of them–i.e. the formatting may be difficult to manipulate. In order to get your music performed, it needs to be formatted properly so it can be read well. Keeping all of these in mind, you therefore need full functionality.
There are three ways in which support works for the best programs:
- There is a detailed, user-friendly manual and an online text- and video-based help library.
- There is a dedicated team of software developers and customer support specialists ready to help or answer questions.
- There is a community of users who know what they are doing, are willing to help, and post problems that are similar to yours–you shouldn’t be the first one needing a workaround for optimizing staves, for example.
I am very vocal on this blog about not trusting the playback–and this is completely true! The full story is, though, you need an approximation of what you will hear in real life when you are beginning. It makes the compositional learning curve a bit easier than having to hammer out everything on a piano. (But, never make the sound of playback your gold standard in judging your work, regardless of the program you use.)
There are some great free and low-priced options out there. MuseScore and Noteflight are great examples of stellar programming being done to make music notation accessible. However, you really have to be careful. There are lots of really cheap (both in price and in quality) options out there. I stick to my list in this article because these programs are trusted in the field by many teachers and beginner composers.
Recommended music notation software for beginners
(The most recommended software programs are nearer to the top.)
It is no surprise that I am a huge Dorico fan. This is a fully functional, industry-standard software that can produce amazing results very easily.
The main reason I am recommending Dorico in this section is the ease of note and marking input. The input system is a bit different from other programs, but once you get used to it, it is a very powerful and intuitive method of entering notes. Markings are a breeze to put in, with things automatically aligning at or close to engraving standards.
In addition, it is incredibly easy to format your music via the Engrave and Print functions. The use of Flows allows you to make multi-movement compositions print-ready with so much more ease than anything I have encountered before.
Dorico is still being upgraded by its software developers, so there are more features to come. In all, this software is incredibly easy to use, which makes it ideal for those getting used to software notation.
Examples of work
Here is a video of a piece I wrote in Dorico, and am still working on. It is the first scene of my opera.
Here is the score to this scene.
Here is a fully engraved version of the first act (both scenes I and II).
I am trying to focus on free and almost-free programs (Dorico excepted due to its innovation in the field). MuseScore is a program that fulfills the requirements of all 4 qualifications listed above while being free of charge for beginners and (currently) $49.00 per year for a “Pro” version:
- Ease of use
- Full functionality
- Dedicated support
- Decent playback
From what I hear, the community at MuseScore is top-notch, and after reading some of their documentation I am certainly impressed. It seems to be a mix between Finale and Dorico, fusing different modes of creation with standard practices in music notation software.
Here is a great example of notation and playback from a user-generated input of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Here is an actual major (professional) edition of music created with MuseScore:
The above link documents a major achievement–in other words, you can go pro with MuseScore even though it is a free/low-price program (which usually isn’t the case in that price range).
Like MuseScore, Noteflight offers a free and premium version for $49 per year. Noteflight is geared more towards music education, however. It boasts a “Learn” feature that allows educators to assess their students and aid them in their compositional journey. Noteflight has been used by both my colleagues in their classrooms, and by some of my students, which has greatly aided their development as composers.
Like MuseScore, it offers a large community and a boatload of documentation and support.
Music notation software not recommended for beginners
I love Finale, and I consider myself a “power user” of it. However, it is not well-suited for beginner composers, even though it is an industry standard. Once you get used to music notation software, this is indeed a program worth your time. It is incredibly fully featured, and allows you to create just about anything you want. However, it is not as easy to learn as other programs. Consider it a visual editor for music–it is like drawing on paper, but with a series of menus and tools. (So, it is more like figuring out a series of menus and clicks; you have complete control but have to figure out how to do things first, which isn’t quite intuitive.)
A middle ground
Sibelius is a great way to get into music notation at the professional level of software, but isn’t quite as revolutionary as the main three reviewed here. It is by far easier to use than Finale, and is used widely in professional circles.
The new pricing structure, in my opinion, makes it hard to fulfill the requirements beginners really need. Yes, they are offering (or will offer) a beginner, an intermediate, and a “pro” level tool. But, I believe that beginner composers should have access to pro tools, especially if it is brand-name Sibelius. That is, after all, point number 2 in my list of necessary qualities: full functionality. Unlike MuseScore or Noteflight, which offer pro features at nominal pricing, Sibelius really jacks up the price for the pro subscription.
So, I would recommend Sibelius if its pricing restructure made it more sensible for composers looking to really “get going”.
There are some great options out there. While there are many free programs, most low-price ones are dismal. The programs showcased here in the top three (Dorico, MuseScore and Noteflight) are the best bang for your buck, while giving you an easy learning curve and the tools you need to step on the gas pedal hard and start composing on a computer.
If you liked this post but want some more reading, check out my previous post Best Music Notation Software, which covers notation software at the professional level.
Still… don’t forget how important pen and paper are!