The best music writing programs are user-friendly and include comprehensive notation, editing, and input/output features. Most are easy enough for beginners, with enough bells and whistles to give experienced composers the tools need.
Look for these helpful features:
- Real-time and step-time note entry
- Percussion notation
- Guitar tabulation and guitar chord entry
- A virtual keyboard
- General MIDI instrument selection
- Ability to enter multiple lyric lines
- MIDI import/export, MusicXML import/export
- A metronome for real-time note entry
Until recently, capturing a musical composition or score on paper was a laborious task. It used to mean sitting down with a blank piece of staff paper, a few pencils, and a large eraser, knowing that you’d be doing a lot of erasing. Can you even imagine what Mozart must have done if he made a mistake while composing one of his 600 original pieces some 400 years ago.
When it comes to the tools available for composing and transcribing, to say it’s a lot easier nowadays is a grand understatement. First introduced some 20 years ago, music notation software has blossomed into a powerful, user-friendly tool that probably would’ve enabled Mozart to double his output. Using a MIDI keyboard attached to your computer, you can capture your music in real time and commit it to paper. Some programs will even transcribe the music as you sing or play a “real” instrument. Some software will even allow you to transcribe music from MP3s and CDs.
Check for software compatibility with various music file types and MIDI devices. You should be able to export your creations as score, images, and MIDI files, plus print them. The software should provide editing tools that are capable of easily deleting, inserting, and changing notes within the score and revising imported files. Also, look for a program with tutorials and keyword searching capabilities for easy learning. With the outstanding features of today’s notation software, you may even find it’s fun to commit your arrangements to paper or transcribe songs.
This top-of-the-line program from MakeMusic, Inc., is for those who want intricate control over every aspect of the score, and the ability to automate many workflows. It allows input from keyboard/mouse, MIDI device, scanning, Music XML files, and even through a mic for brass and woodwind instruments. Scores can be printed or exported to MIDI, MusicXML, graphic, and pdf files. The free SongBook app allows viewing, printing, and playback from iPad. Finale has a built-in tutorial, Setup Wizard, and QuickStart videos to get you started. Its ScoreManager lets you quickly change or add a staff. Other less costly versions include Finale Academic, Finale PrintMusic with less advanced features, and Finale SongWriter, designed specifically for singer/songwriters.
Another feature-rich professional program, Avid’s Sibelius lets you finesse every detail of a score. It allows input with a MIDI device, mouse, keyboard, onscreen keyboard or guitar, MIDI or Music XML files, plus scanning sheet music with the included program PhotoScore Lite or transcribing recorded music with the included program AudioScore Lite. Music can be printed or exported as pdf and graphic files, MIDI, or shared on social media sites. The Scorch app allows viewing, transposing, and playback on iPad. Sibelius has a host of advanced editing features including Magnetic Layout, Dynamic Parts, advanced typography features, and a professional sound library. For teachers there are 1,700 educational worksheets included. Sibelius Academic is available for a reduced cost to teachers and students.
ScoreCloud, from DoReMIR Music Research AB, accurately interprets and transcribes performances into scores while you play. This user-friendly notation program covers all the typical needs of most teachers. Create music notation with ScoreCloud Studio using any MIDI device, keyboard, or mouse, or capture your inspiration with the ScoreCloud Express iPhone and iPad app. You can collaborate and share music via the ScoreCloud platform. ScoreCloud creates instant notation that requires less editing. There is a built-in reference manual and video tutorial. The software is free to use for up to about 30 songs in the advanced basic version, while premium versions will include more capacity and functionality.
Another low-cost solution, Progression from PreSonus Audio Electronics, is designed for songwriters for small bands—guitar, bass, and drums. It features real instrument samples from musicians Neil Zaza (guitar), Victor Wooten (bass), and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (drums). You can input through MIDI device, mouse, interactive drum pad, fretboard, and keyboard. Scores can be printed, and exported as pdf, MusicXML, or MIDI file. It features a simple to use entry palette and shortcuts with a full tutorial. With the Progression or Notion apps you can work on scores with an iPad. Also available is Notion, with samples of the London Symphony Orchestra and higher-level composing options.
–If you like this article you might enjoy our article on Recording Music at Home.