Music notation software, like all other software, needs to be functional, practical, and also pleasing-to-use. The specialized function and complexity of music notation often contributes to the cost of notation programs. If you are like me, though, you like free stuff, especially if it works.
Music notation software is designed to create printable sheet music for you. The alternative to using notation software is writing music by hand, which is demanded in certain situations, but is slightly less practical. A good notation program should allow you to create any kind of music notation you need. A notation program is exceptionally well-made if it automates tasks such as spacing out notes or inserting repeats, without preventing you from modifying anything that doesn’t fit your need. You should have the freedom to design your sheet music however you like it.
There are many free music notation programs on the web, with some better than others. In addition, getting accustomed to the user interface of an individual program usually takes at least 30 minutes. Hopefully, these reviews will help you make informed decisions in your search for a notation program that’s a good match for you.
MuseScore is an excellent notation editor that is compatible with Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, and FreeBSD. It is capable of creating the notes, symbols, and lines that you’ll need for almost any kind of score, from lead sheets to orchestral scores.
MuseScore’s interface is very well laid out, and it even provides a “Getting Started” sheet music file that walks you through basic note editing. You’ll notice that nearly every visible element on your sheet music can be right-clicked for more options, including a “help” option, which searches the online handbook for relevant pages. While I was able to find some elements that didn’t yield help articles this way (try searching for help on “staff text”), this is still an extremely convenient feature, and you can also find answers on the MuseScore forums.
MuseScore has a strong set of features. It can play back your music, using either its own soundfont file or another that you specify. It can open MIDI, musicXML, and a few proprietary save formats. It can also export to a variety of files, including MIDI, musicXML, audio, PDF, and PNG. In addition, the Musescore site hosts a small library of plugins, which automate certain tasks. I only have a small complaint about the note selection function, which is a little difficult to use. Overall, Musescore is a great choice for any kind of job.
Lilypond takes a unique approach to rendering notation by having you type out the music in a kind of programming language, which Lilypond converts into a PDF or MIDI. Though learning it is daunting, the Lilypond language is built to be logical, comprehensive, and beginner-friendly. The Lilypond website provides excellent tutorials and documentation that enable you to start notating music with a brief knowledge of the language. The basic parts of the Lilypond syntax are measure divisions, note pitches, and note durations, but you will also find that a wide variety of features such as dynamic marks, staves, instrument-specific notation, and page format, are included. In addition to the language’s functionality, the sheet music looks nice and just about every detail is adjustable.
Lilypond by itself will likely be useful solely for converting handwritten sheet music to a printable format. I found that being unable to see the music as I typed it made it difficult to understand what I was typing, which made composing from scratch difficult. If you spend enough time with Lilypond, though, reading the textual music might come to feel natural. There are also other ways to use Lilypond, listed on Easier Editing page. Frescobaldi displays the compiled PDF as you edit the Lilypond text. Denemo, another program recommended on the Lilypond website, lets you edit the notation graphically while using Lilypond behind the scenes to create the final PDF. If you love the style of Lilypond’s sheet music but cannot work with text, there is likely some program that can turn your music into Lilypond sheet music.
Lilypond is compatible with Mac OSX, Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD. Frescobaldi is compatible with Windows and Linux. On Mac OSX, Frescobaldi requires some hands-on setup. Denemo is compatible with Mac OSX, Windows, and Linux.
Finale Notepad provides simple functionality that should suit most of your musical notation needs. Although the features of Finale Notepad are sparser than those of MuseScore and Lilypond, its main appeal is its ease of use. Due to its well-organized interface and excellent set of online tutorials, you can easily start notating immediately upon running the program.
Finale Notepad can import and export Finale Notation Files, MIDI, and Music XML. Imported MIDI data can be quantized.
Finale Notepad enables you to enter notes by typing, by clicking, or by playing them one by one on a MIDI instrument. Notepad provides several sets of standard objects (articulations, dynamic marks, etc.), which are applied to notes and can be repositioned as necessary. Notepad is not as flexible as MuseScore concerning less common articulations and instrumentation. Its biggest limitations are lack of chord notation, guitar chord charts, and advanced lyric-editing tools. But, it does retain the stability and shine of its cousins in the MakeMusic product line, with a competitive feature set for an easy-to-learn, free program.
Musink Lite is my pick for software to watch in the future. Its unique feature is its “tuplet” system of notation, by which the program organizes notes in each measure. Basically, when you hover the mouse over a measure, the program momentarily shows the outlines of the notes that will fit time-wise into that measure. You insert notes by clicking on the positions where you need them, and Musink inserts rests to fill in the rest of the measure. While the concept is similar to what other notation programs do, Musink tells you explicitly where you are allowed to place notes and reduces the number of clicks or keypresses required to obtain the right note duration and location. Musink Lite’s other features are still limited, but the developer is actively working on the program.