Notational Alternatives: Beyond Finale and Sibelius

“Finale or Sibelius?” is a question that composers love to ask other composers. It’s often taken as a given that if you write music professionally, you’re already using one of these popular notation software packages. This may be about to change—with the news of Sibelius’s development team being unceremoniously dumped by Avid and subsequently scooped up by Steinberg, we may have a third variable to add to that equation. ThinkMusic, another newcomer, promises an iPad app in the near future, but has already generated controversy for seeming to use Sibelius in its video mockup.

In the meantime, there are a variety of other, lesser-known options for notation software already lurking out there. None of them may have the same clout with professionals as Sibelius and Finale—yet—but many are gaining ground. Whether they present robust alternatives for creating notation (MuseScore, LilyPond), or alternative ways of thinking about and deploying notation (Abjad, JMSL, INScore), each has its own advantages and its own dedicated following.

MuseScore: Open Source Upstart

MuseScore started out in 2002 as a spinoff of MusE, an open source sequencer created by German developer and musician Werner Schweer. Until 2007, however, MuseScore was an obscure piece of software only available on Linux. In 2008, Thomas Bonte and Nicolas Froment began to work on bringing the software to a wider audience. Now, over 5000 people download MuseScore every day. Bonte credits the software’s newfound success to its extremely dedicated developers and early adopters. Its open source community now boasts more than 250 contributors adding to the project. This includes making the software available in new languages, fixing bugs, writing documentation, creating video tutorials, and so on.

While Bonte admits that MuseScore is not yet as feature-complete as Sibelius or Finale, he highlights the price tag: MuseScore is completely free, while the others can run as much as $600. Bonte also points out that when compared to the others, MuseScore is a fairly young piece of software. He anticipates that in a few years, “Musescore will have 80% of other notation software’s feature set on board.”

Another long-term advantage is MuseScore’s open source status, says Bonte:

Anyone can look into the code, change it and distribute it further. This is not possible with proprietary software like Sibelius, Finale, and Score. Given the recent uproar in the Sibelius community about Avid closing the London office, it seems now more than ever appropriate to say that choosing free and open source software is the right thing to do. What happened with Sibelius may happen with any other proprietary software, but cannot happen with MuseScore or LilyPond. The source code is available to everyone; no one can take it away.

This openness made MuseScore the notation software of choice for the Open Goldberg Variations, a project to create a new, quality edition of J.S. Bach’s beloved work that would be freely available in the public domain. This time, the venerable work had a very modern path to publication: the project was crowdfunded through Kickstarter and remained open for peer review on before being made available for download. The Open Goldberg Variations can be found on the IMSLP / Petrucci Project website, though anyone is welcome to host or share it.

Screenshot of Open Goldberg Variations iPad app

Screenshot of Open Goldberg Variations iPad app is MuseScore’s latest initiative. Launched in the fall of 2011, is an online sheet music sharing platform, and the only thing that MuseScore charges for. Bonte compares the business model of the site to Flickr or SoundCloud—subscribers pay a fee ($49 per year) for more storage and features, essentially. Bonte says this revenue stream allows them to continue to develop MuseScore full time, while maintaining the open source status of the software itself.

LilyPond and Abjad: A Marriage of Composition and Code

Jan Nieuwenhuizen and Han-Wen Nienhuys are the creators of LilyPond, another open source music notation package. The project that would eventually become LilyPond had its genesis in 1992, when Nieuwenhuizen was playing the viola in the Eindhovens Jongeren Ensemble, a youth orchestra conducted by Jan van der Peet. According to Nieuwenhuizen, the players struggled to read from computer printouts so much that they soon switched back to handwritten parts. That got him thinking: “Fully automated music typesetting done right—how hard could that be?”

As it turns out, it was not terribly easy. Using the typesetting system TeX as a foundation, Nieuwenhuizen began working on the problem with Nienhuys, a French horn player in the orchestra and math student at the Eindhoven University of Technology. But it wasn’t until four years later, in 1996, that LilyPond finally emerged after four flawed prototypes. Despite being plagued by difficulties, however, they found that they couldn’t leave the problem alone. “We never realized how hard it was to produce beautifully typeset music automatically until it was too late and we were hooked,” Nieuwenhuizen admits.

Since those humble beginnings, LilyPond has matured into a full-fledged community project, with over 50 authors contributing to the latest stable release for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. This includes one full-time developer, David Kastrup, who makes a living—“just barely,” says Nieuwenhuizen—from donations to the project, which Nieuwenhuizen sees as a major milestone.

Because LilyPond is primarily a typesetting and engraving program rather than a compositional tool, its user paradigm differs somewhat from programs like Finale/Sibelius/MuseScore. Similar to Score, the most common engraving program until Finale came along, musical notation is initially entered as text characters, separating out the step of encoding the notation from the act of graphically displaying the notation, while ensuring a consistent layout. Nieuwenhuizen admits that this can be scary or intimidating at first to composers unused to working this way, but contends that in itself, LilyPond is “quite intuitive and easy to use.” He also foresees more community development of graphical front ends, web-based services, and tablet apps that will make LilyPond even more accessible to those just starting out with the software.

This community may be LilyPond’s greatest asset, with a significant amount of overlap between users of the software and those tinkering with the software itself. This new generation of composers who code is extending LilyPond’s functionality into unforeseen territory. For example, Victor Adán, Josiah Oberholtzer, and Trevor Bača are the lead architects of Abjad, which allows composers to write code that acts on notation in LilyPond in “iterative and incremental” ways. In other words, instead of creating notation directly, composers write code that Abjad then translates into a format that LilyPond can interpret to generate notation. As a result, instead of just manipulating individual notes and objects, Abjad can manipulate higher-level structures—like changing the dynamic level of every instance of a particular note, to give one basic example. Abjad uses the Python programming language, known for its readability and flexibility, as its foundation.

Excerpt of Trevor Bača's Čáry created in LilyPond

Excerpt of Trevor Bača’s Čáry created in LilyPond
(click to enlarge)

Writing music with Abjad presents a departure from the traditional compositional process. For Bača, it occupies a position “somewhere between the notation packages like Finale, Sibelius, and Score, and the composition environments like OpenMusic and PWGL.” He describes the process of working with Abjad as a “two-part loop,” alternating between writing code to model parts of a score and considering the notation as visualized in LilyPond. This iterative process of continual revision blurs the boundaries between programmatic and musical thinking, as well as between composition and pre-composition.

The creators of Abjad have also worked closely with practicing composers in the course of development. One of these, Jeffrey Treviño, is already well versed in the musical uses of technology; in the course of writing Being Pollen, a work for percussion and electronics based on the poetry of Alice Notley, he estimates that he used nine different pieces of software. With Abjad he had a specific application in mind—he hoped it would help him notate the rhythms of Notley reciting her poem. He describes part of the process here:

I used Max/MSP to tap along to her recitation and make a text file of millisecond counts for when each syllable occurred. I tightened these up in Audacity to line up precisely, and then I exported the numbers again. I wanted to use these numbers to make a notation in Abjad, but Abjad didn’t have a quantizer… We ended up looking up some research together, especially Paul Nauert’s writing on Q-Grids quantization, and Josiah ended up making the quantizer for Abjad.

In this case, Treviño’s needs as a composer had a direct impact on the development of Abjad, and this in turn allowed Treviño to accomplish something musical that would have otherwise been impossible, or at least far more difficult. Treviño draws an analogy between this model of collaborative composing and high-level chess:

Remember when it was a big deal that Deep Blue beat [Grandmaster Garry] Kasparov in 1997? No one mentions that they did a tournament after this where people could use computers to assist them. When Kasparov had a computer, he beat Deep Blue—but most intriguingly, an amateur aided by a computer, not Kasparov, won the whole tournament. So, I’m a lot better at writing twenty-part counterpoint that doesn’t break any rules if a computer can help me. But the skill set it takes to get the computer to know the rules is a very different skill set than the skill set we teach students in counterpoint classes. That’s all to say—I think it’s best to think about all this as totally redefining the important skills of the creative act, so that formerly conventional amateur/master relationships might be turned on their heads. Rather than expanding or enabling skills that matter currently, this proposes a totally new set of competencies and approaches to the task.

(N.B.: Your author independently thought of this analogy, so it must be a good one.)

Video of Jeffrey Treviño’s “Being Pollen” performed by Bonnie Whiting Smith (composed with help of Abjad/LilyPond)

JMSL and INScore: Notation in Motion

Nick Didkovsky, the primary developer of the Java Music Specification Language, is a guitarist, composer, and programmer who leads the avant-rock octet Doctor Nerve and teaches computer music classes at NYU. But for many years Didkovsky’s parallel interests in music and computers remained independent, never intersecting. What finally inspired him to combine them was an article by Douglas Hofstadter in Scientific American about game theory and a particular kind of lottery called the Luring Lottery, in which the collective desire to win is inversely proportional to the amount of the prize. Didkovsky says, “[The Luring Lottery] is a beautiful and simple idea that binds people together in a simultaneously competitive and cooperative relationship… I wanted to realize that structure musically and thought computers might need to be involved.”

He turned to Pauline Oliveros for help, and she directed him to Larry Polansky. Polansky, together with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom, had created the Hierarchical Music Specification Language (HMSL), a programming language offering a suite of musical tools that turned out to be perfect for Didkovsky’s task. Today HMSL might be most easily compared to other audio programming languages like Max/MSP and SuperCollider, but in an era when these languages were in their infancy, what appealed to Didkovsky about HMSL was its open-endedness: “You can basically do anything… no two HMSL pieces sound even remotely the same because you’re not starting on a level high enough to influence musical tastes. It’s a very non-stylistically biased environment for musical experimentation. And so I think it’s kind of deliberate that it’s kind of a tough environment to work in, or at least it just doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles.”

For the next ten years, Didkovsky continued to develop music software with HMSL on the Commodore Amiga for Doctor Nerve as well as other ensembles like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Meridian Arts Ensemble. When the Amiga platform began showing its age, Didkovsky and Burk had the idea to rebuild HMSL in Java, which could be run on multiple platforms, and in 1997 Java Music Specification Language was born.

The most significant change to JMSL since those days is the addition of a music notation package. With his commitment to traditional instruments, it made sense to Didkovsky to use JMSL to drive a notation environment—and the result was, in his words, a “huge catalyst” creatively. In addition to the many pieces Didkovsky has written using JMSL since then, it has also become a tool used by composers all over the world:

One of my former students, Peter McCullough… developed an extensive suite of personal tools that did very unusual things to scored music, designing both generative and mutator routines that populate the score with notes and transform them once they are present… [progressive metal guitarist and record producer] Colin Marston wrote a series of notated pieces that are impossible for a human being to play—superhuman, intensely noisy pieces performed at high tempo that just rip by and throw glorious shrieking noise in your face, while the staff notation is populated by thick clusters of notes flashing by.

Didkovsky is quick to note that, while traditional staff notation is an important feature of JMSL, it represents only part of what the software can do. Many of the applications of JMSL have little to do with standard music notation—for example, the Online Rhythmicon, a software realization of the instrument Leon Theremin built for Henry Cowell, or Didkovsky’s MandelMusic, a sonic realization of the Mandelbrot set.

Nonetheless, JMSL’s notation capabilities may end up being its most widely used feature, especially with the advent of MaxScore. Didkovsky collaborated with composer Georg Hajdu to create MaxScore, which allows JMSL’s scoring package to communicate with the more popular audio programming environment Max/MSP. Currently, most of Didkovsky’s development energies are directed towards improving MaxScore.

MaxScore Mockup

MaxScore Mockup
(click to enlarge)

INScore, created by Dominique Fober, is a similar synthesis of ideas from notation software and audio programming, though Fober is quick to stress that it is neither a typical score editor nor a programming language. Fober is a musician with a scientific background who found himself doing more and more research related to musical pedagogy. He now works for Grame, a French national center for music creation, where he conducts research related to music notation and representation.

INScore follows from Fober’s experiments based on the idea that, by providing immediate feedback to the performer, musical instruments act as a “mirror” that facilitates learning. Fober wanted to design a musical score that could act as a similar sort of mirror of musical performance, in the form of graphic signals informed by the audio that could augment traditional musical notation. Fober refers to this approach as an “augmented music score.”

“There is a significant gap between interactive music and the static way it is usually notated,” says Fober. Even with live electroacoustic music, performers generally read from paper scores that give an approximation of the electronic events. There are tools like Antescofo that allow computers to follow a score, and tools for the graphical representation of electronic music, like Acousmograph and EAnalysis, but INScore’s approach is different. “[With INScore] the idea was to let the composer freely use any kind of graphic representation—not just symbolic notation but images, text, and video as well—to express his or her thoughts in a form suitable for performance.”

Montreal-based composer Sandeep Bhagwati used INScore for an entire concert of works entitled “Alien Lands” in February 2011. Meanwhile, British composer Richard Hoadley has written Calder’s Violin for violin and computer, premiered in October 2011. Calder’s Violin uses INScore to dynamically generate the violinist’s score in the course of the performance. INScore is not solely aimed at composers, however, and it has also been used for pedagogy, for sound installations, and to model analytic scores of electroacoustic music.

Videos of Richard Hoadley’s “Calder’s Violin” (created with INScore)

The Future of Notation?

Despite the vast differences in all of these notation software packages, one thing that they have in common is that each offers something, small or large, that Sibelius and Finale don’t. If you’re looking for something easily accessible and free, MuseScore and LilyPond are well worth checking out. If you’re interested in algorithmic or interactive notation and are willing to deal with a somewhat sharper learning curve, Abjad, JMSL, and INScore are capable of remarkable things. Not to mention the many options I haven’t discussed—BACH Automated Composers Helper, Heinrich Taube’s Common Music and FOMUS, IRCAM’s OpenMusic, and the Sibelius Institute in Helsinki’s PWGL. With all of these tools at our disposal, chances are we might not be hearing “Finale or Sibelius?” for much longer.

38 thoughts on “Notational Alternatives: Beyond Finale and Sibelius

  1. Byron C Mayes

    I’m liking Notion right now. Not as feature-rich (or feature-bloated, depending on your point of view) as the big two, but covers pretty much all of the necessities with a very clean and — dare I say it — intuitive interface. Plus it shares data with an iPad version so I can take my work with me without lugging about a laptop.

  2. Daniel Wolf

    In addition to Finale (2012), Sibelius (only through 6 — I don’t care for the “ribbon” in 7), and MuseScore, I keep several other notation programs on my machines. First is Graphire Music Studio, a fantastic program when graphics are more important than sound, sadly orphaned at too early a stage, but still able to do some things more easily than other programs (the last version is available from .) Second is Harmony Assistant, which has an interesting working surface with the capicity to introduce very flexible rules of ones own for either notation or playback. The third is Mus2, developed for maqam-based musics, but with a native microtonal capacity that I find very useful and easy to work with. Other programs I have used in the last five years include Turandot (a nice interface and good out-of-the-box standard notational output), Lime (which made non-alligned measures and a small set of microtonal accidentals easily), and Berlioz (another orphan, a program which emulated the traditional stages of music engraving and produces beautiful scores in a distinctively French engraving style.) And, when all else fails, I either write directly in Postscript (a language that is surprisingly easy to learn) or just haul out pen, ink and paper.

    1. Geoff Hudson

      Graphire Music Press is a fabulous typesetting program–orphaned too early, but still my go-to choice for typesetting. Elegant and flexible.

  3. Tim Jones

    I’ve just started experimenting with Score Cleaner. It is mainly focused at notating what you play automatically. Then you can take the “Snippets” and move them to another program like Finale. It works quite well.

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This mess of score programs is overall unsatisfactory. They do a lot of competent work (I’m a Finale user) but overall they just don’t have the features any given composer might need. Basic features have improved, but many are decades behind where they could be. Graphics are primitive. Touch (for drawing graphics) is nonexistent. Automatic interpretation of tablet input (meaning Wacom-style tablets) is missing. Only Graphire’s and Score’s music fonts are really good. Proper sequencing is improving, but plug-ins (from granulators through generative algorithms, etc.) are not available except in studio packages. Customization of programs’ elements is insufficient in terms of time and capability. The integration of Max/AudioMulch programs is absent. Basic features present in one program are absent in another, and the exchange of documents fails so one can’t swap a document into another program to use needed features. The workflows are tedious. Revision schemes are terrible.

    Sure, those of us who are fluent in notational software can make it purr. But notation software really remains where other applications were in the 1990s.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      You make some great points here that I’m not particularly inclined to argue with, but maybe you missed the part of the article about both JMSL and INScore being integrated with Max?

      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        No, I didn’t. The serious problem is that they aren’t integrated with the engraving-style programs. If you need both sound and print (as I do), moving across a dozen applications just isn’t helpful because a score has to be entered twice (or at least imported where possible) and cleaned up for publication — including screen captures, etc.

        Also, electroacoustic pieces from earlier days are being worked up in print versions. Likewise, print scores are being reworked to be interactive (such as demo pieces on YouTube). No one application, not even the highest-powered and priciest professional ones, can do even close to this.

        The present requirement for multiple applications and multiple (and rudimentary, and often broken) imports really points to the need for something better than a bucket of this-and-that — “beyond” Finale and Sibelius shouldn’t mean just different software for different musical approaches but rather software that incorporates the features of all of them in a comprehensive (and extensible) way.

        1. Isaac Schankler

          OK, thanks for clarifying. It’s true that the path between sound and print is still very muddled, especially when it comes to electroacoustic music. I do think LilyPond/Abjad is a potentially powerful link here — recently I heard a work by Ben Hackbarth where the same code was used to generate both the electronic audio and the notation. But right now that requires a lot of custom wrangling that not everyone has the time, skills, or inclination to deal with.

          I have my doubts about a “one stop shopping” approach as well though. Something that integrated the functionality of all these programs might just become incredibly bloated and awkward. There’s something to be said for having particular tools for particular tasks. The broken import thing is a huge mess, though, and makes me wish for a more full-featured common notation format (MusicXML seems inadequate for engraving).

          In my wildest imaginings the new project by the old Sibelius team now at Steinberg will address some of these concerns. It is amazing to me that even now there’s still no consistent notation program/DAW integration. (The vaguely promised Sibelius/Pro Tools integration never really got far off the ground, did it?)

          1. Peter McCulloch

            JMSL reads and writes MusicXML, providing interchange with a number of notation packages, Finale and Sibelius included.

            Additionally, it exports to Lilypond so you can quickly have your scores printing beautifully.

            IMHO MusicXML is unwieldy and particularly less attractive now that it is owned by Finale.

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    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      I’m assuming you left the smiley off, since playback in Inkscape and Gimp is limited to the shouting of the user.

      Seriously, thanks for opening up this side of the discussion. The body of programs (and hand tools) needed for full notation with playback is actually quite large — beyond the notation program — and includes Inkscape/Gimp.

      Certainly Inkscape/Gimp or their commercial relatives Illustrator/Photoshop are needed to create graphics and design graphical notation, but they are one step above hand-engraving tools in terms of time and effort. Less toxic, perhaps, and replicable, but nearly useless for the copyist’s kit of tools that include part extraction, playback, and sharing the files with the composer. Their most important current use is to create content to be embedded in the notation files.

      Software packages such as Fontographer or Font Creator are essential to fix, expand or create fonts. My free text font “Opera Lyrics Smooth” gets a steady stream of messages on how it’s being used in scores, book covers, Facebook memes, etc., and I’ve needed to repair and customize the broken fonts that shipped with Finale and Graphire.

      A PDF creator is increasingly built in to notation programs, but for more advanced adjustments, booklet creation, print-ready files, etc., a full-scale version like Acrobat Pro comes into play. (So far for me at least the OSS versions seem to produce broken files.)

      At least one of many excellent DAWs is needed to massage the audio output (I use Sonar and Adobe Audition) and the programs associated with notated electroacoustics such as Max and AudioMulch make that possible (for example, I used AudioMulch for a piece for organ and live interactive playback).

      Beyond that, a glance at Notations 21 shows how much physical tools from pen and ink or brushes and paint through calipers and scissors still matter.

  6. David

    Just a quick note to plug the ‘bach’ external for max/msp. It’s a great tool to get notation working in dialogue w/max. Excited to check out maxscore now, curious how they’re different, if someone may know please comment.

    1. Georg Hajdu

      If I may chime in as the co-author of MaxScore. Bach and MaxScore have different philosophies and have their strengths in different areas. While Bach is tightly integrated into the Max environment via its C externals, MaxScore, being a Java external, is somewhat piggy-backing on Max which doesn’t diminish its potential though. Bach with its countless modules and reliance on their llll data structure is best suited for algorithmic composition, whereas MaxScore is more geared towards music notation, be it traditional, microtonal or graphical. There is even an editor which sports a number of floating palettes and a drawing environment. There are countless possibilities to expand the editor’s functionality for instance by creating Scorepions—Max patches that act like plug-ins—or by designing virtual keyboards to enter music in non-standard temperament. There is an example of a piece by Easley Blackwood in 23TET in the MaxScore installer.

      I’d say that MaxScore has a gentler learning curve as most messages are immediately comprehensive and one doesn’t have to wrestle with the LISP-like syntax. We are currently working on a modular environment similar to Cycling ’74′s Vizzie ( which will include a new version of Macaque—a partial track (think spectralism) to music notation tool. Good thinks are coming once development will finally drop Max 5 support.

  7. Paul H. Muller

    Perhaps as important as the features and capabilities of notation software is the business model by which it is purveyed. The problem with Sibelius was that ultimately the company could not survive by selling the program once – it required more and more upgrades as an on-going revenue stream. In order to keep all that high-powered programming help busy, too many versions appeared. Another failure of capitalism in the arts.

    Whatever emerges as the standard will have to be open source or at least self-sustaining.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      As this comments section makes clear, there are just way too many notation options to make writing a comprehensive article about all of them possible. Instead I tried to focus on the few that were most interesting to me. Part of this is personal preference, but as I was writing a few ad hoc criteria did emerge:

      1) Is it something that has potential to change the landscape of computer notation, either through wide adoption or through new ways of thinking about notation?
      2) Is it something I would consider using for a professional project?
      3) Is it free?

      In the case of MuseScore, LilyPond, Abjad, JMSL, and INScore, the answer to all of these questions was an unequivocal yes.

      I am glad, though, that the comments here have become a repository for other options that I neglected, and I hope that it helps people make discoveries that aid them in their projects!

      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        After reading Michael’s note, I tried NoteFlight. It’s a bit Sibelius-y in look, rudimentary in features, a little too small for my eyes, and definitely mouse-oriented (I use the computer keyboard as much as possible).

        Its one very interesting feature is that, like Google Docs, the score can be worked on by anyone with permission, in what looks like real time. Rather than a collaborative performance system, it’s a collaborative scoring system. For teaching this is interesting, but for getting something like a film score done in no time with several collaborators (composers and orchestrators) this could be a very handy supplement to other software. It works with various formats including Midi and Music XML, so the results are no necessarily bound to NoteFlight.

        I took only about an hour with it, but the main interest for me would be that last-minute collaborative scoring project.

        1. Joe Berkovitz

          Thanks very much for the mention. I wanted to follow up by pointing out that Noteflight supports a very rich set of keyboard shortcuts (and also MIDI) for notation entry, as we recognize that the mouse is far from the quickest way to get notation into the program. We have quite a few users for whom Noteflight is their primary notation tool, not just a collaborative add-on.

    2. Robinson McClellan

      Notefight also works on the iPad and iPhone, much like what that ThinkMusic video showed except it’s actually available and works well. It’s fantastic for eduction (the activity template feature is wonderful) as well as collaboration.

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  9. George Guerrette

    I’m surprised that Logic Pro wasn’t included. I’ve been using it since its days on the old Atari platform when it was known as Notator. I have done everything with it from lead sheets to full orchestral scores and parts. I can’t offer any opinion as to how it stacks up against Sibelius et al because I’ve never used a dedicated notation program. Perhaps that’s a meaningful endorsement in itself??

    I would surmise that there are Sibelius users who may already use Logic for its more known sequencer/DAW role. I suggest checking it out for Notation…costs nothing to do so if you already own it.

  10. Frédéric Chiasson

    I remember being a community member of Lilypond. I was first enthusiast about using a free open source software for music notation that could go very far in complicated engraving. I even helped them make a French glossary of musical terms. (You still can see my name in the credits, I think.)

    Unfortunately, I became quickly disappointed with the usage of Lilypond. Using code to make a score, like LaTeX to make a document, is seductive in theory. In practice, you lose a LOT of time to tweak your code and find THE function to be able to nudge your text a space higher. I remember wrestling with the code for months, then transcribe my 5 minute piece back in Sibelius in one hour!

    Open source notation software is sure a good thing, but programmers should listen more to non-programmers to make a software that musicians would want to use.

    1. Noeck

      The usage of LilyPond became much easier in the last years. For example tweaking of slurs. In addition, the frontend Frescobaldi makes life much easier.

  11. Paul Hirsh

    I personally miss Encore, which allowed me to write a guitar suite with the notes and fingerings exactly where I wanted them without telling me what I was or wasn’t allowed. Of course playback was a mess but for score engraving I have not been able to get the same graphic result in Sibelius.

    1. Court

      Paul, you’re right. Igor was free. I don’t know what happened but the website was abandoned and there was just nobody home. I tried to find if they’d moved to somewhere else, and tried to find the developers, but no go. It’s a real shame, because it was one of the best, IMO. It was a couple of computers ago, so I’ve lost it, unfortunately. You’ve prompted me to look aggain – perhaps there’s still a dusty old website with it available.

  12. David Toub

    I’ve been using Finale since the early 90′s (version 3.2) and at one time, it was an extremely elegant piece of software. Since then, it’s had its ups and downs, but it’s rare that it doesn’t have a clear way to deal with a notation challenge. I’ve been a beta tester for years and can say that the output quality is quite good, the UX has gradually been simplified (many fewer palettes to jump through than in the 90′s) and there remains solid support from its developers.

    That said, every composer should find what works for him or her. If paper and pencil still does it, then great. If software x or y, that’s fine too. But I’d be concerned about some of the smaller companies (some with 1-2 developers) who are supporting some of the lesser-used applications. Unless they support MusicXML, you’re probably hosed if the company goes away and the app stops working in a later OS upgrade. Some of the UIs are also reminiscent of the 90′s. That’s not necessarily bad, but it suggests that some of these apps lack polish.

  13. Matt

    Hi Isaac.
    If you’re looking at free ‘alternative’ music notation/composition software, have a look at Musink (it’s free). You might find it interesting. It works fundamentally differently to these apps… I find it’s faster than even pen and paper.

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  16. Emilio Le Roux

    Great article!

    Of course there are several tools that didn’t made it here, but I think Notion deserves at least a couple lines. It’s a very pretty piece of software, at a great price, which gives a very realistic feedback of your writing and generates very beautiful engravings with little effort. It sports a new way of entering music, flexible and friendly, instead of keep beeping at the user like Finale. At the very least it deserves a try.

    I’m a student of contemporary music, and (sadly, I’d say) I’m forced to use Finale for my contemporary scores. Finale is, in my sincere opinion, a disgusting application, with an irrational distribution of (not very well tought) tools all over the place. Sometimes I feel that each tool was designed by a different person, so we have a tool for selecting notes, another to erase them, and a different one to move their pitches…

    So, if you really want something done in Finale, you have to think what would be the less straightforward way to doing it and there you will find the solution. And forget about mouse button conventions!

    That said, if you get used to it’s “logic” -if any-, it’s the only application -besides inkscape, illustrator or corel- that allows you to accomplish virtually any task in the score. (You can check this trying to reproduce a Penderecki score on any program).

    And… Finale is EXPENSIVE. Too expensive for a program so badly designed.

    So, my current workflow is like this: I use Notion as a composing tool, so I can focus on the music and produce a beautiful score. Then, only when the piece is finished -or almost- I export it via MusicXML to Finale, where I can hide measures, feathered beams, prepare parts perfectly, or add or tweak any elements I need to.

    About graphic apps: as it was said, Finale could be as well replaced by Inkscape (because it’s free) or, better, CorelDraw (because of its multipage editing). Why not?

    The answer is: because of parts. Imagine building a full orchestral work and having to manually create parts for all the instruments – and worse, changing something in the middle of the score and parts once it’s already finished.

    I’m really waiting for Steingberg.

  17. Dan Swirsky

    I just released Sonja™, a new iPad app that lets anyone read and write music, no formal music knowledge required. Sonja™ uses a simplified music notation system where a user first creates “untimed” notes by tapping the screen and dragging the created note to the desired pitch. The duration of the notes are then set during playback, where the untimed notes scroll past a cursor. The user sets the strike time and duration of an untimed note by tapping the screen to indicate when the note to be played and for how long. Sonja™ compositions may be exported as MIDI files.

    With Sonja™ you can:
    - Create and notate your own music
    - Import and edit MIDI files
    - Import and edit audio files
    - Record your own audio files of instrumental accompaniments or singing

    Sonja™ is now available on the app store at

  18. Peter McCulloch

    Left out of this also is PWGL and ENP (its Expressive Notation Package). Very steep learning curve, but not only can it notate the mentioned Penderecki score, it can also do playback. (It’s a full-fledged Lisp environment, so it’s frightening just how much is possible)

    Notation is more than good enough for working, there are fantastic tools for new music, algorithmic composition, etc., and it can export to MusicXML if needed. There are some remarkable examples of ENP controlling the playback of a physically modeled guitar from the early 2000s that absolutely crush anything I’ve seen from any other notational software. And it’s free. Not for the timid but extraordinarily powerful.


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