A Buyer’s Guide to Notation Software To Suit Your Compositional Needs | Strings Magazine (2023)

A Buyer’s Guide to Notation Software To Suit Your Compositional Needs | Strings Magazine (1)Dorico 4, Photo: Kostis Sohorits, Courtesy of Steinberg

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By Laurel Thomsen | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Whether you’re looking to capture your musical ideas with something other than paper and pencil, need to create scores and extract parts for a class or ensemble, or you’re a professional composer with advanced engraving and typesetting concerns, an array of music notation programs and apps exists to meet your needs at various price points. After polling my colleagues and various social media groups, combing forums, and filling up my devices with trial versions, I have a few findings to share about MuseScore 3, LilyPond, Sibelius, Finale, Dorico 4, Notion 6, MusicJOT 2.1, and StaffPad.

Music notation software for composition:

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  • MuseScore 3
  • LilyPond
  • Sibelius and Finale
  • Dorico 4
  • Notion 6
  • MusicJOT 2.1 and StaffPad

MuseScore 3

If you’ve ever searched for pop-tune arrangements online, you’ve likely stumbled upon MuseScore. However, before it became known as a resource for sheet music, MuseScore was an open-source notation program and remains a popular choice among musicians. Most users won’t exhaust its capabilities. While some find the interface a bit clunky, it’s especially impressive for a free program. You do reach its limits when you want to use more obscure notations, like diamond-shaped noteheads, or if you need to create publishing-house-quality scores with perfect note spacing, gorgeous slurs, and a highly customizable layout.

Like most programs, MuseScore offers click-and-drag note entry and key command entry, as well as entry using an attached MIDI keyboard. It also boasts a vibrant online community, and many users appreciate the ability to post and share their arrangements and scores. MuseScore is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and its online handbook is extensive.


LilyPond, also free, is an interesting outlier. Notation is entered via text document rather than dragging notes from a graphical toolbar onto a staff. In this way, it operates more like a programming language and has one of the steeper learning curves. However, LilyPond claims to be “devoted to producing the highest-quality sheet music possible,” and once fluent in its language, users can create perhaps the most elegant-looking sheet music of all the programs reviewed here. Beyond the basics, it offers advanced typesetting features like cross-staff stems; ancient notation types, such as those used for Gregorian chant; and modern music notations. LilyPond can create a wide variety of scores and extracted parts—from solo works to full symphony and opera scores—as well as lead sheets, vocal music, sample exercises intended for educational purposes, tablature, and even Schenkerian analysis.

Available for Windows, Mac, and Unix/Linux, LilyPond is an intriguing option for users who have the time and energy to study its online manual, and especially those who already use coding languages.

Sibelius and Finale

Sibelius and Finale, launched in 1998 and 1988, respectively, are the industry leaders among notation programs and the differences between them largely boil down to personal preference and pricing options. Both offer click-and-drag note entry, computer keypad entry, and entry using an attached MIDI keyboard. Both are robust enough for professional composers and transcribers yet are simple enough that newcomers can create a basic part without having to digest the entire manual.

Unfortunately, the playback quality of both is uninspiring. Thankfully, an additional plug-in, such as NotePerformer, can easily solve this problem for composers and musicians who want to hear more realistic renditions of their creations—a feature that can be particularly helpful when writing parts for instruments a user doesn’t personally play.

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While both offer free trials and versions at different price points, Sibelius operates on a subscription model, ranging from the free yet basic Sibelius First, to the more advanced $9.99/month Sibelius, to the professional level $19.99/month Sibelius Ultimate. For those who prefer to own the program for life, a $599 perpetual license for the Ultimate version is also available. Sibelius runs on both desktop and iPhone/iPad and is available for both Mac and Windows.

Meanwhile, Finale offers a free 30-day trial, but not a stripped down free version. Its cheaper version, Print Music ($119.95) is unfortunately no longer available for Mac, only Windows. Its pro version is available for both Mac and Windows, and at $600, is comparable to Sibelius’ perpetual license. Finale does offer a range of considerable discounts for students, academic and theological users, or those upgrading from Print Music or one of their previous, discontinued notation programs.

Dorico 4

With a growing following of passionate converts from Sibelius and Finale, Dorico is becoming a formidable rival. Now on version 4, it offers the same note entry methods as Sibelius and Finale, but its fans report a more intuitive flow that saves considerable time once you learn how to use it. Users also appreciate its engraving capabilities, with default spacing that is inherently pleasing, plus a wide variety of custom engraving elements.

Notable features that users enjoy seem to center around saving time, from how the software instinctively adds additional measures when entering notes using keypad or MIDI entry to its sophisticated treatment of divisi sections and extracted parts, from how it automatically rewrites the timing in subsequent measures after lengthening a note mid-composition to how it populates chords entered for one chordal instrument throughout the rest of the rhythm section. While playback quality is better than Sibelius and Finale, the additional NotePerformer plug-in is also available.

Dorico offers a free trial version, as well as the basic but free Dorico SE, the advancing level Dorico Elements for $99.99, and the professional level Dorico Pro for $579.99. All versions are available for both Mac and Windows. For iPad they offer the free Dorico app with similar functions to the Dorico SE as well as in-app upgrades with a subscription purchase.

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Notion 6

While it has yet to build a Dorico-level fanbase, Notion 6 is also gaining notice among musicians. Besides the click-and-drag, keypad, and MIDI entry methods supported by most contenders, Notion also offers an interactive fretboard, keyboard, and drum pad, and handwriting recognition when used with a tablet or a computer with an attached tablet or desktop extension app.

While Sibelius, Finale, or Dorico may be better suited for composers and transcribers looking for robust engraving capabilities, recent Notion updates make it easy to alter a score’s appearance. Its Sequencer Overlay also creates a visual of both the MIDI output and notation, allowing users to more precisely notate and edit the rhythms they intend.


With a clear focus on making it as simple as possible for musicians and songwriters to get their ideas down, Notion helps to fuel inspiration further by offering among the best playback sounds, with samples ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra to bass virtuoso Victor Wooten. Projects created in Notion also seamlessly integrate across devices, allowing musicians to create and edit their work on the go, as inspiration strikes them. Notion further integrates with other programs offered by its developer, PreSonus, such as Studio One, its multi-track recording software.

Notion 6 is available for Mac and Windows devices, as either a $14.95/month membership that is bundled with a number of other software programs from the developer, or for $149.95 when sold separately.

MusicJOT 2.1 and StaffPad

Designed for tablet use, both MusicJOT 2.1 and StaffPad make it easy to write out sheet music, literally. Draw notes, articulations, accidentals, and dynamics just as you would with pen and paper, and watch these programs render your work into legible sheet music with impressive accuracy.

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MusicJOT—a companion project of Mona Lisa Sound, the Hampton Rock String Quartet’s sheet music company—is currently only available for iPad, while StaffPad is available for both iPads using Apple Pencils and Windows 10 tablets that support active pen and touch. While neither have the engraving power of the heavyweights, the goal is to help users get ideas down quickly and easily. Thankfully, for those who need more editing power, either app can export projects as MusicXML files for later editing in programs such as Sibelius or Finale.

Made for musicians by musicians, MusicJOT is able to recognize an impressive array of notes and elements using your finger or a stylus, and is fully equipped for Apple Pencil. Once notation is entered, editing possibilities—from transposition to improving layout—are often simply a matter of dragging the elements and staves around. Fretted instrumentalists will appreciate the program’s ability to include fretboard diagrams for an array of instruments and even user-created chord alternatives. With their onboard reference manual, video tutorials, and recent updates increasing customization and ease of use, it’s exciting to see handwriting recognition transition from a futuristic idea to a worthwhile investment of time and energy for musicians and composers hoping to more easily “jot” down their ideas.

While StaffPad is more expensive ($89.99 versus $49.99 for MusicJOT), the program’s impressive core playback library of over 55 instruments, plus its partnership with sample library developers, including Cinesamples, Orchestral Tools, and Spitfire Audio, stands out. The results sound truly world class. StaffPad also allows users to record their own version of a part and add the audio file to the project as a visual audio staff that can be edited to fit the notation.

It’s important to identify your unique needs and goals when weighing notation-software options. For musicians and songwriters, a complex, expensive program may be overkill if the most important factor is how easy it will be to enter notes and hear how they sound. For teachers and music directors arranging for a class or ensemble, it may be how accurate and easy it will be to enter notation using a MIDI keyboard. For professional composers, engravers, and transcribers, it may be the quality of the typesetting and whether a program will be able to keep up as they explore modern sounds and the scoring needs of unique ensembles. And for some, one size may not fit all—many users report needing different programs for the various stages in their workflow, from sketching out an initial inspiration to publishing a finished score.

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What notation software do composers use? ›

But some of the best programs for writing music include Notion 6 (Windows / Mac / iOS), MuseScore 2 (Windows / Mac), Sibelius First (Windows / Mac), Finale PrintMusic (Windows), MagicScore Maestro 8 (Windows), and QuickScore Elite Level II (Windows / Mac).

What notation software does Hal Leonard use? ›

Noteflight® - 5-Year Subscription (Retail Box) - NOTEFLIGHT | Hal Leonard Online.

What is the industry standard notation software? ›

Sibelius has been the industry standard music writing software for decades and there's one good reason for that.

What is notation software used for? ›

“Notation programs have many helpful tools for creating scores and parts such as adjusting the look of the printed page, adding text, lyrics, chord symbols, changing the size and shape of the music, creating guitar tab, scanning in printed music and much more.”

What tool does a student use to practice writing music notations? ›

Noteflight and Sibelius are just two of many music composition and notation programs that are available to you and your students. Here is a list of additional software you might consider introducing to your students. Many of these programs have costs associated with them, but a few have free versions.

Who created the notation system? ›

The founder of what is now considered the standard music staff was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033.

Is there a music notation app? ›

Musicnotes is a sheet music app for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. It offers a vast repo of sheet music for you to dig into. Indeed, it claims to be the largest such collection anywhere on the web.

How do you write music notation? ›

Find that first note on your instrument or piano. Once you are certain that is the right note, write it down. To do this, write the right pitch, right below the rhythm (so write the pitch on the staff, and give it the same rhythm as written above the staff). Do this for all pitches, in sequence.

How hard is it to learn music notation? ›

It is actually very simple and the notes can be broken down into easy-to-learn pieces. Musical composition isn't just a form of art, its also based in science. Writing a composition requires precision and detail of its form. Science teaches us that sound vibration, and that frequency tells us what sound it is.

What is basic music notation? ›

In music theory, musical notation is a series of symbols and markings that inform musicians how to perform a composition. It can take a number of forms: Standard notation on 5-line musical staves. Lead sheets with a melody written on a 5-line staff and chords written using a letter-and-number-based notation.

How does a standard Modelling language contribute to software development? ›

A modelling language allows the developer to make useful connections between those different models. In software development, a modelling language is often based on diagrams and their construction, meaning and use.

How can I compose music for free? ›

The 9 best free music composition software programs
  1. Tracktion Waveform Free. Tracktion is an award-winning freeware program that can easily be compared to many paid DAWs in terms of functionality and intuitiveness. ...
  2. GarageBand. ...
  3. Ohm Studio. ...
  4. Audacity. ...
  5. Pro Tools First. ...
  6. Cubase LE. ...
  7. Cakewalk by BandLab. ...
  8. PreSonus Studio One 5 Prime.
14 Dec 2021

What is notation example? ›

Notation is a system of signs or symbols that represent words, numbers, phrases, etc. Notation is often designed for a specific purpose and is very helpful in communicating words, numbers, and other things in an efficient manner. A good example of notation is musical notation.

What are the types of notations? ›

There are two types of notation: Pure Notation. Mixed Notation.

What notation means? ›

no·​ta·​tion nō-ˈtā-shən. : annotation, note. : the act, process, method, or an instance of representing by a system or set of marks, signs, figures, or characters. : a system of characters, symbols, or abbreviated expressions used in an art or science or in mathematics or logic to express technical facts or quantities.

What software do professional songwriters use? ›

And if you want the best songwriting tools to help make those next amazing pieces of music, Ableton, or even a free program like Garageband (included in all Apple computers) might be the way to go. Also, one of the most popular digital audio workspaces has forever been Logic, as well as ProTools.

What music app do most artists use? ›

What are the best music making apps?
  • Garage Band.
  • iMachine 2.
  • Korg Gadget 2.
  • FL Studio Mobile.
  • Akai iMPC Pro.
  • Animoog.
  • Model 15 Moog Modular Synthesizer.
  • The Metronome by Soundbrenner.
16 Mar 2022

What is the most common notation type used to learn to play the guitar? ›

Tablature 101

Tablature, or tab, is a notation method used by stringed instruments to learn a song quickly. For guitar, it consists of six horizontal lines, which represents the strings of the guitar.

What language is used in musical notation? ›

The language itself is musical

Italian is often called a naturally musical language – so there's something fitting in the fact that it's this language that's used for musical directions.

What was the first attempt at notation called? ›

The earliest known example of a complete notated musical composition (a song complete with lyrics) used a method of notation developed by the ancient Greeks. This piece of music is called the Seikilos Epitaph, it is carved on a tombstone in Turkey, and it most probably dates from the 1st century AD.

Who introduced the modern notation? ›

Thomas Harriot will remain one of the most influential mathematicians. The symbolism of Harriot's mathematics has shaped modern notation in a great way.

Why is it important to learn the music notation symbol How is it related to the skill of reading notes? ›

Composers use a range of signs and symbols to show how they want their music to be played. This was essential in times before music could be recorded and replayed, but it is still important today.

Is there a music notation app for Android? ›

StaffPad is an award-winning music composition app, designed for pen and touch, and built for composers. StaffPad lets you write music notation in your own handwriting; record and import audio; edit with the convenience of touch, and hear your composition played back with breathtakingly realistic sounds.

Is there an app that can judge your singing? ›

Vocal Judge will analyze and evaluate the audio data to let you know how good (or bad) you are. For a little fun with your friends or an ego boost you can upgrade to unlock the ability to manipulate results. Then you can decide how good or bad the performance is and the app will show an appropriate result card.

Does MuseScore cost money? ›

Using MuseScore.org/ notation software will always be free of charge and without any limits—that's a promise. The musescore.com website and MuseScore mobile app can also be used for free but with limited functionality.

How do you type music notation in Word? ›

First, place your insertion point in the location in your document where you want to insert a music symbol. On the 'Insert tab' on the Ribbon, click the 'Symbol' button and then choose 'More Symbols' from the drop-down menu. In the Symbol window, open the 'Font' drop-down menu and choose the 'MS UI Gothic' font.”

What is the importance in learning music notation? ›

By learning how to read music notation, students discover ideas from other composers for their compositions. They'll experiment and find combinations of notes that sound good to them. Students can hand write these ideas into their own music manuscript book and work on turning them into a full composition.

How many notations are there in music? ›

Western music typically uses 12 notes – C, D, E, F, G, A and B, plus five flats and equivalent sharps in between, which are: C sharp/D flat (they're the same note, just named differently depending on what key signature is being used), D sharp/E flat, F sharp/G flat, G sharp/A flat and A sharp/B flat.

What is the fastest way to memorize music notes? ›

10 Tips for Memorizing Music
  1. #1. Start small. This might go without saying, but building your memory is a process. ...
  2. #2. Use sight reading tips. ...
  3. #3. Play it through. ...
  4. #4. Use your other senses. ...
  5. #5. Visualize the music. ...
  6. #6. Watch your hands. ...
  7. #7. Write it down. ...
  8. #8. Hum, solfege, or hear the piece.
20 Jul 2017

How do I notate music fast? ›

Conclusion: How to Write Songs Faster
  1. Don't wait for inspiration to hit.
  2. Write to a prompt.
  3. Finish the song. Even if it's bad.
  4. Write the skeleton first.
  5. Use tried and true chord progressions.
  6. Write using small templates in your DAW.
  7. Write for a predetermined amount of time.
24 Jul 2020

What is the correct order of music notation? ›

The musical alphabet is, in ascending order by pitch, A, B, C, D, E, F and G. After G, the cycle repeats going back to A. Each line and space on the staff represents a different pitch.

What are the three kinds of notations? ›

There are mainly three asymptotic notations: Big-O notation. Omega notation. Theta notation.

Where do I start when composing? ›

Build a strong foundation first (with musical notation and basic music theory) and then proceed to learning harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration. Don't start too many books and courses at the same time. Pick a method and stick to it to the end.

How do I start making digital music? ›

You need to use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to make electronic music. The most popular DAWs are Ableton Live, FL Studio, and Logic Pro (OSX only). There are others, but my recommendation to new producers is to pick one of these three.

What is the purpose of modeling in software design? ›

Modeling is widely used in science and engineering to provide abstractions of a system at some level of precision and detail. The model is then analyzed in order to obtain a better understanding of the system being developed.

What are the benefits of modeling in software development? ›

Some commonly mentioned benefits are:
  • It improves the productivity of the development team.
  • It reduces the number of defects in the final code.
  • It improves the understandability of the system (which btw, eases the integration of new team members)
  • It increases the decomposition and modularization of the system.
17 Apr 2009

What is the purpose of developing and using modeling methods? ›

Engineering makes use of models and simulations to analyze existing systems so as to see where flaws might occur or to test possible solutions to a new problem. Engineers also call on models of various sorts to test proposed systems and to recognize the strengths and limitations of their designs.

What is the easiest music notation software? ›

The easiest music notation software for beginners is probably MuseScore 2 (Windows / Mac) or Noteflight (online only). They have the basics so you can get a handle for music writing programs. Once you get comfortable with those, you can venture into the programs with more functionality and features.

What is the easiest software to make music? ›

  1. Apple GarageBand. Logic's little brother and the best beginner DAW overall. ...
  2. Ableton Live 11 Intro. ...
  3. Image Line FL Studio Fruity Edition. ...
  4. Steinberg Cubase Elements 11. ...
  5. Bitwig Studio 16-track. ...
  6. Presonus Studio One 5 Artist. ...
  7. Cockos Reaper 6. ...
  8. Acoustica Mixcraft 9 Recording Studio.
19 Oct 2022

Can I pay someone to make a song for me? ›

Pricing the services of professional songwriters is not easy as with many creative professions. You can expect a much more straightforward pricing if you hire a freelancer. A lyricist will charge you per word starting from as little as $30 per song and going up to $500-600 and upwards depending on experience and skill.

What software does Hans Zimmer use? ›

Hans Zimmer doesn't use one, but two DAWs or “Digital Audio Workstations,” each with its own set of benefits to ensure that he has the best workflow possible. The two DAWs he uses are Steinberg Cubase and Pro Tools.

What DAW do most composers use? ›

The DAWs that fall into this category above are: FL Studio, Ableton Live and Studio One. FL and Live in particular are inspired and inspiring pieces of software, which many film composers use. However, to score to picture properly you'll need to be working in a piece of software that comprehensively supports video.

Is MuseScore used professionally? ›

MuseScore describes itself as a non-professional music notation software.

What software do most authors use? ›

The 10 Best Pieces of Book Writing Software
  1. Scrivener (Word Processor) ...
  2. Google Docs (Word Processing) ...
  3. Google Sheets OR Microsoft Excel (Spreadsheet) ...
  4. Atticus (Book Formatting/Word Processing) ...
  5. Vellum (Book Formatting/Word Processing) ...
  6. ProWritingAid (Grammar/Spell Check) ...
  7. Publisher Rocket (Book Marketing App)

What platform do most authors use to write? ›

Google Docs is by far the most common and widely used writing software, and this list of free book writing software tools wouldn't be complete without mentioning it. Google Docs is a word processing tool that comes with your Google account. If you have a Gmail account then you already have access to Google Docs.

How much does a Hans Zimmer score cost? ›

John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman have net worths ranging from $75 million to $120 million and get paid scoring fees as high as $2 million per picture. But, for what it's worth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income for film composers is a little over $50,000 a year.

Why do composers use Cubase? ›

Cubase offers one of the fastest and easiest-to-use MIDI editors available, which is why composers love it so much for its MIDI functionality. In contrast to the majority of other DAWs, you can even edit numerous MIDI sections at once. The Logical Editor, a standout MIDI function exclusive to Cubase, is another.

What DAW did Billie Eilish use? ›

As for the DAWs used, Billie prefers using Apple's Logic Pro X as her digital audio workstation software for producing music. Logix Pro X is another big hitter in the pop music production industry. Coincidentally, these are also the two that Finneas also likes to use.

Does Kanye West use a DAW? ›

Today in the 21st Century it's just more convenient to also use digital tools and not only analog hardware to produce music. So after Kanye West creates his beats with his analog gear he is using the Digital Audio Workstation called Pro Tools for the processing.

Is MuseScore 100% free? ›

MuseScore is 100% free. MuseScore runs on all major platforms—Windows, macOS, Linux.

Why do I need to pay for MuseScore? ›

MuseScore subscription allows you to view scores ad-free, download, and print them. In addition, you help guarantee the continued existence and quality of our open-source software with your monthly or annual support.


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