Choosing Music Notation Software

Following is a discussion of important features to look for when choosing music notation software.

Speed and ease of symbol entry

Music notation software packages offer a variety of note entry options.

Real-time entry from a MIDI keyboard can be the quickest way to enter music, but is often not as accurate as step-time entry. When using real-time entry it is useful to have the input automatically quantized to the minimum durations you will be entering. It is often useful to be able to tap your own beat to avoid the tyranny of the metronome when doing real-time recording. Make sure that your notation software allows easy editing of a real-time recording for inevitable inaccuracies.

When using step-time entry, whether using a MIDI keyboard or mouse, it is important that changing note durations can be done with a single keystroke or mouse click. The ability for the software to automatically set durations based on the start times of succeeding notes can be a huge time-saver as well.

Using the mouse to enter notes freely on the staff is perhaps the simplest way to enter notes, but requires the notation software to provide accurate and comfortable visual and aural feedback on the exact time and pitch of note placement. If you are not able to quickly and accurately place notes on the staff, you will have to erase or move your notes, which will slow you down.

Entering any musical symbol onto the staff should be quick and easy. Some symbols, like clefs, time signatures and barlines, have a default vertical spacing. Your software should automatically enter these symbols at their correct positions. It should be easy to anchor articulations to notes, so that when moving the notes, the articulations automatically go with them. Ties should be generated automatically and it should be possible to enter slurs between notes that automatically anchor correctly to the notes they are spanning. Deleting, editing and moving musical symbols should be as simple and easy as it is for notes. Entering guitar grids and chord names should be quick, intuitive and simple. Ideally, it should be possible to generate these automatically. 

Music notation software should distinguish between text for lyrics, expressions, titles and instructions. Lyric text should automatically center on notes. It is very useful to be able to enter a complete lyric line without lifting your hands from the keyboard. Moving from one note position to the next should be possible with a keystroke (as well as the mouse, of course). Lyrics for a single verse should always automatically be entered at the same vertical position, although it is important to be able to change the vertical spacing of a single lyric sometimes to avoid overlapping especially high or low notes. Entering hyphens between syllables should be automatic, also simply using a keystroke. The font, size and vertical position and spacing of lyrics should be easily set and changed as necessary. Expression text should use an appropriate sized italic font. You should not have to choose these every time you want to enter an expression. The format, size and position of regular text for instructions should be easy to control. The ability to easily enter headers, footers, copyright, and composition title are very important. You should be able to easily control the position of these elements on the page.


Editing should be easy and should be possible at all times during the music creation process. Choosing blocks of music, elements of music separated in time and space, and individual musical elements should be possible. Applying edits should be quick, simple and should always present themselves to the user in a similar way, so that it is not necessary to learn the mechanics of each different edit operation. Editing operations should include cutting, copying, pasting, changing pitch and duration, and changing enharmonic spelling, but ideally should go beyond this, offering such things as voice separation, changing note heads and articulations, and generation of harmony and rhythms, for example.

Music spacing and formatting

Pleasing-looking music notation uses sophisticated spacing algorithms to space music instead of simply using the durations of the notes to set spacing. For example, the space allotted a quarter note should be a little more than that allotted a sixteenth, but in general not four times as much. Lyrics need to be spaced carefully as well, so that in tight musical spacing they do not overlap. Spacing should also automatically adjust for notes with accidentals. The number of staves per page should be easily set and changed. Because the density of music is variable, the number of bars per line should also be variable, as should the positioning of barlines within a line. Your music notation software should give you easy control over these elements, and ideally should give you the ability to have them automatically set for you. It is important that you be able to change the spacing you choose at any time.

Make sure your music notation software allows you to enter key signature, time signature clef changes and octava markings anywhere in your score. Entering a time signature change at the beginning or in the middle of a piece should automatically cause a repositioning of all barlines following the time signature change. Entering a key signature change should automatically change the display of notes and accidentals up to the next key signature changes. Changing a clef or putting in an octava marking should automatically change the display of notes following the new clef or octava marking.

You should be able to easily set and change the display transposition of music for transposing instruments, such as clarinets, French horns or trumpets. Once again, setting or changing the transposition for an instrument part should automatically change the display of notes in that part.

It should be possible to automatically change the staff for a part to a 6-line guitar tablature or a single or 5-line drum staff without changing the notes.

The ability to create score reductions require that your music notation software be able to eliminate the display of resting parts. This is useful for larger scores with parts that contain long periods of rest.


Parts will not be formatted the same as the full score. Generally they will be much tighter. It is important to be able to choose appropriate page turns for each part. It is therefore very useful that your music notation software be able to format each part separately. It is preferable that it be possible to do this automatically. Your music notation software should also allow you to consolidate rests in parts. Once again, you want this to be automatic, but under your control, and you want to be able to change how rests are consolidated at any time.

Printed Output

A high-quality music font and the use of vector graphics is necessary for high-quality printout from all printers. Your music notation software should include a TrueType or equivalent music font and use vector graphics, not bitmap graphics, for stems, beams, staff lines and barlines.

Your music notation software should be able to print to any printer supported by your computer’s operating system at the highest resolution this printer is capable of. Large format printers capable of printing on heavy paper stock should be supported, since ideally larger, heavier pages are easier to view, require less page turns and stand up better on music stands. Margins should be adjustable. The staff size should be adjustable, to allow larger, easier to read scores, or smaller, more compact score reductions. Ideally the weight of the lines used in the printout should be adjustable as well.

Exporting Scores

It is useful to be able to exchange music created in your music notation software with other music creation and publishing tools, word processing, graphics and publishing software as well as being able to publish your music directly to the desktop, world wide web or a CD.

Scores can be exported as graphic files, which can be imported into word processing, publishing and graphics programs such as Microsoft Word, Adobe PageMaker and Adobe Photoshop. Some useful graphic file formats are TIFF, BMP, EPS and Enhanced Metafiles. TIFF and BMP files are bitmap formats, while EPS and Enhanced Metafiles are vector formats.

Scores can be exported as PDF files. These files are ideal for printing, reading and incorporation in websites, but they are not easily edited, although software does exist for this purpose.

Scores can be exported as music files, to be shared with other music creation and publishing tools as MIDI, NIFF and MusicXML files. MIDI files are files containing only information important to playback, i.e. notes and parameters controlling the playback of notes. NIFF and MusicXML files are files designed for the interchange of music notation information. NIFF or MusicXML files will contain formatting information important to music notation software missing from MIDI files.

Scores can be exported as sound files, such as MP3 or Wave files. These can be played by a variety of players, and can be easily compiled onto CDs.

Importing Scores

It is important that your music notation software be able to import scores created by a wide variety of music creation tools, such as sequencers, music scanning programs and other music notation software. For this purpose, importing MIDI, NIFF and/or MusicXML files is very useful.


Your music notation software should let you easily view your entire composition and make changes as you watch. It is useful to be able to check an instrument part for notes that are out of the range of the instrument you are writing for. It is very useful to be able to play the score from any point and watch as it plays. This way you can hear and see where notes are incorrectly entered, or where parts are muddy or unclear, allowing you to change the orchestration or rearrange the chords in one or more parts.


Your music notation software should support playback on any musical device you have attached to your computer, whether this is be a sound card, virtual instruments, an external synthesizer or a sample player. If you have several playback devices on your computer, it is desirable that your software be able to access any or all of them at the same time. You should be able to easily set the sounds played by your music hardware so that they correspond to the instruments for which you are writing.


It is useful for your music notation software to be extendible. This can be done by the addition of software plugins available from a variety of manufacturers in addition to the manufacturer of your chosen software. Plugins let you extend the functionality of your software in many ways - high-quality virtual instruments can be added, which don't depend on your sound card or MIDI setup; audio effects such as reverb or delay can enhance the output; and MIDI effects can be used to do anything from change pitch to completely harmonize an arrangement. A plugin architecture that is not proprietary and is widely adopted is preferable to one that is proprietary or limited to a single computer platform - this helps ensure you will not be tied to a single or limited range of manufacturers. Of the currently available plugin architectures, VST is perhaps the richest and most widely-adopted. 

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