Let’s talk notation software!
If you have students who are interested in composition, you might have wondered about the best software to use to help them create professional-looking scores of their musical creations. Or, maybe you have wondered if there is an easy, inexpensive program that you can use yourself to create sheet music for your students?
With all of the choices available, how do you pick the best notation software for you and your students? Read on for my thoughts about a few of the most popular notation software products on the market today and the pros and cons of each one.
What is the best way to help beginners notate their compositions? Well, call me old-fashioned, but I always have my beginners master notation with pencil and paper before I introduce notation software.
Why is this important? Notation software is designed to help the composer by “auto-correcting” common mistakes; for example, making sure that the correct number of beats are placed in each measure, stems are drawn in the correct direction, accidentals are placed in the correct place, etc. I think it is important for students to learn the “grammar” of music theory without relying on notation software to correct their mistakes. Notating compositions on staff paper, just like ol’ Bach and Beethoven used to do, is a great way for students to get hands-on music theory practice. (If you are looking for staff paper, I like Susan Paradis’s free staff paper variety pack, which includes an assortment of staff sizes, found HERE.)
Once my students have several handwritten compositions under their belts, we learn how to use notation software to create professional-looking scores.
A quick note about a question I often see asked: is there software that will notate a student’s composition automatically as it is played on a digital piano? Well, yes--kind of. Any of the software that I will be discussing below has the ability to create notation from MIDI input--meaning, if you connect your digital piano via MIDI cable to your computer, the software will notate what is played.
However, this feature is very much like using the talk-to-text feature on your computer. Can you read a story into your computer and have it translate your words into text? Sure--but if you’ve ever tried this, you’ve probably found that you will still need to spell-check, add punctuation, and correct words that the computer misheard. The same is true for using MIDI input with notation software--you will most likely find that there will be quite a bit of "cleaning up" to do in order to make sure that your score is accurate and notated correctly. Once your students know their musical grammar and how to use their chosen notation software, they may even find it much easier and faster to notate their pieces directly into the computer instead of using the MIDI input of a digital piano. However, the capability is there with any of these programs if that is an option you would like to explore.
Now, on to the software! Here are several software programs that I have had personal experience with, and what I find to be the pros and cons of each one:
- The basic version is free and easy to use--great for students!
- Noteflight is web-based, so students won’t need to download any software and there won’t be issues with compatibility with different operating systems. This also makes it very easy for students to work from any computer without needing to carry their files around--students just log into their Noteflight account and go to work.
- There is an active online community that encourages students to ask questions and share their compositions with one another.
- The free version is limited to 10 scores--after that, students will need to upgrade to a subscription plan.
- Because Noteflight is web-based, students will need an internet connection to use it.
- Musescore is completely free, open-source software.
- Musescore has a ton of features--rivaling what you will find in the more expensive software programs listed below.
- Lots of features = a steep learning curve. This software is best for students who are tech-savvy and are comfortable watching tutorial videos and researching answers to questions they might have.
- Although Musescore has many loyal followers, it is still not as commonly used (in my experience) by professionals in the music industry as the two big names listed below.
Finale (www.finalemusic.com) and Sibelius (www.avid.com/sibelius)
The “Coke” and “Pepsi” of the composition world, Finale and Sibelius are the two programs that are still considered by most to be the industry standards of notation software.
- Just about every composer and every publishing company I’ve ever worked with uses one (or both) of these two programs. So, if your student is planning on pursuing music composition professionally one day, it would be helpful to be familiar with these programs.
- There are free, entry level versions of each program with limited features: Finale Notepad (Windows only) and Sibelius First.
- The full versions of these programs are expensive--anywhere from $300 to $600 depending on the features you want. (However, Sibelius does offer a monthly subscription alternative.)
- There is a steep learning curve--so be prepared to read the manual and do your research to figure things out!
These programs are just the tip of the iceberg. There are others that I’ve heard good things about, but never tried myself--Dorico (which has many composers singing it praises), Lilypond (which uses a more text-based approach to notation), and Notion (which can be used on the iPad) are a few other examples. It has never been easier to create professional-looking scores--so don’t be afraid to pick a software program and start exploring!
What do you think? Do you use notation software with your students? Have you tried any of these programs? What are your favorites? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!