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Do you prefer sheet music to a piano roll?
Are you writing scores for an orchestra or ensemble?
Here are the best music notation apps and programs on the market.
We are living in a very exciting time for music notation software. These powerful programs, also known as scorewriters and engraving software, allow musicians to format music notation and prepare sheet music.
Though there is a wide variety of notation programs available, each product allows users to do essentially the same thing: add notes, rests, accidentals, and other music notation symbols to staves to generate sheet music.
That said, many offer some sophisticated features that may or may not justify a heftier price tag.
Many of them interface neatly with a MIDI keyboard, digital audio workstations (DAWs), and virtual studio technology (VST) plugins, allowing music producers from a wide variety of backgrounds to streamline their workflows.
This article will examine the best music notation software options and compare them based on their features and cost.
Using this article as a guide, you should develop a clearer idea of which music notation software will best suit your specific needs.
There is no substitute for a test drive, however, so consider checking out any trial or “lite” versions before you buy anything.
With its integrated Annotate feature, multi-touch gestures, Surface Pro 3 pen support, and more, Sibelius | Ultimate lets you unleash your creativity in brand new ways, whether you're composing for film, television, multimedia, live performance, or in the classroom.
Sibelius is the closest thing to what we might call an industry standard when it comes to professional music notation software, though this may not be the case for much longer. There have been a number of new and improved (and less expensive) competitors making a splash in the market, but that doesn’t mean Sibelius is a poor choice either.
It is fairly easy to use, though like the rest of the programs on offer it has its own workflow quirks and keyboard shortcuts.
Further, there is inevitably a bit of a learning curve when it comes to understanding how notation works if you are new to this kind of software or just music notation in general.
Users have a great deal of control over layout when crafting sheet music, though this was not always the case in previous versions of Sibelius.
Sibelius Cloud Sharing allows users to upload scores to the cloud and access them anywhere or embed them as graphical files or audio files in webpages.
When users make changes to a score they can push those changes to the cloud version as well. Sibelius First users are limited to ten scores, and these scores are limited to the features on offer with Sibelius First, but it is a pretty cool feature nonetheless.
Sibelius Ultimate offers users the option to compose for a massive range of instruments, including some from outside of the standard western classical, jazz, and folk varieties.
Though Sibelius offers users full control with the layout in their final score, it also offers a helping hand to keep things neat with the Auto Optimize feature. This automatically adjusts the spacing of staves and other layout items to prevent collisions.
Sibelius Ultimate is available as a $199 annual subscription (education pricing: $99), $27.99 billed monthly (edu: $9.99), or $599 for a perpetual license (edu: $299).
There are additional features that can be bundled with the perpetual license, including PhotoScore, NotateMe Ultimate (bundled together for an additional $150), and AudioScore Ultimate (also an additional $150).
Though the perpetual license will free users from monthly or yearly bills, and will thus prove the most cost-effective option for non-educational pricing users after three years, it is important to point out that the perpetual license only entitles users to a free upgrade to subsequent versions only within a year of purchase.
As a result, some users may find it in their best interests to explore the lower tiers of Sibelius or one of its competitors to save money without losing out on the key features they need for their composition practice.
Bring musical inspirations to life with the blazingly fast and intuitive Notion™ 6 music composition and performance environment. Compose when and how you want and even enter music with your own handwriting.
On-the-go composers can start a Mac or PC project, then pick it up on a tablet or smartphone later on.
Notion also offers handwriting recognition, which has the potential to cut down on the amount of time required to bring a project to life for newcomers who have not yet learned the keyboard shortcuts that are integral to efficient workflow.
Notion 6 costs $149.95, making it the least expensive of the heavyweight music writing programs. It is $49.95 to upgrade from a previous version.
Alternatively, users can purchase Notion 6 as part of the PreSonus Sphere membership, which is $14.95 monthly or $164.95 yearly and includes Studio One Professional, 30 GB of cloud storage, over 100 content libraries, and a handful of other products and services.
Much like Dorico with Cubase, Notion features strong interoperability with StudioOne. This along with the general VST support built into Notion allows it to boast a capacity for incredibly lifelike, almost human playback. The days of 8-bit sounding orchestras are clearly behind us!
The libraries that come with Notion include orchestral and Steinway samples recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, guitar samples performed by Neil Zaza, bass samples by Victor Wooten, and drum samples by Roy “Futureman” Wooten.
A relative newcomer to the engraving software scene is Steinberg’s Dorico. The price of the software is just a little cheaper than Sibelius, but the features are roughly comparable.
Dorico stands out with its built-in MIDI editor and the quality of the playback, thanks to VST support. For musicians who are more comfortable with a DAW, this ability to choose between workflows could be a game-changer.
Though Sibelius offers 36 GB of synthesized and sampled instruments in its built-in sound library, it will not be able to compete with the playback one might generate with a built-in MIDI editor with velocity and expression control in addition to VST instrument and effects support.
In essence, Dorico is providing half of a DAW and engraving software wrapped into one program. That said, this might be more of a nuisance than an effective solution for you if you never had a problem keeping your DAW and your notation software separate.
For most DAW users, the idea of generating an audio track from notation software is laughable, considering how much more control we have in DAWs.
Really, this is a question for the individual user and their preferred workflow, but it will be interesting to watch Dorico’s development over the next few years and to see how close Steinberg gets to wrapping Dorico and Cubase into one piece of software.
MakeMusic Finale 26 notation software makes it easy to generate publisher-grade music notation that plays back with world-class sounds. Featuring over 500 premium Garritan instruments and Human Playback, your music becomes a life-like performance.
Finale, by MakeMusic, was my first engraving software and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it, but it is not as easy to use as Sibelius.
For many years, Finale offered more customization in terms of layout than Sibelius, but at this point, it is possible to do just about anything in Sibelius that can be done in Finale.
In some cases, one just has to spend a little more time finding the way around the internal logic that normally makes Sibelius so easy to use.
For example, Sibelius does not offer users the ability to create a key signature outside of the standard major and minor keys in the new score dialog, but it is possible to create a special key signature as a symbol and place it where the key signature would normally go.
In Finale, this is a simpler process, as is the process of dragging and dropping text and making other major layout changes, but the ease of these layout changes in Finale comes with the potential to make huge mistakes since there are fewer guardrails. So this will really depend on how you like to work.
Noteflight is an entirely cloud-based music notation app. For composers using machines with severely limited storage or memory, the cloud-based approach can provide an easy-to-use alternative to the heavier duty programs.
The tradeoff with a cloud-based platform at this point is a significantly smaller feature set compared to the likes of Sibelius and the other hard drive-based approaches.
The fact that a user’s scores are saved in the cloud, however, can be really helpful for collaboration and for selling one’s arrangements and original scores.
Noteflight Basic is free and allows users to save up to 10 scores with a limited set of Noteflight features. Noteflight Premium is a $7.95 monthly subscription or an annual subscription of $49. Lifetime membership is $299.
Premium users can create, view, and print unlimited scores and parts, as well as utilize the full Noteflight sample library for playback. Noteflight also offers a simplified version of the audio mixer available with other notation software packages used to customize playback.
Noteflight Learn is available for school settings. It interfaces well with Google Classroom and other learning management systems, making it a useful tool for teachers.
For an additional $3 per student, SoundCheck is a feature that will record a student’s performance of a score and give them feedback on intonation and rhythmic accuracy. Another $3 per student will buy them access to a relatively large cloud-based score library.
The drawback with any cloud-based platform of course is also the key reason why they work so well: you need constant internet access. Without stable internet, Noteflight is a worthless investment.
Though most professional musicians and even hobbyists will find Noteflight’s feature set severely limiting, it does serve its purpose well as a learning tool and a means of facilitating collaboration.
Whether you're a beginner or a professional composer, Flat's user-friendly music composition software gives you all the tools that you need to make your own sheet music. You can write, listen, share and discover music scores right in your web browser on any device.
The feature set in a cloud-based platform will not have the breadth of a program that lives in a hard drive, but it can be accessed from any device and can interface with more powerful programs through import and export functions making use of MIDI or MusicXML data.
The sheet music users can generate using Flat may not be as sophisticated as the output of Finale or Sibelius, but Flat for Docs is a feature that allows users to put music notation directly into Google Docs, which is a really impressive innovation. For music teachers, this can prove to be an invaluable tool.
Much like Noteflight, Flat has a free version that allows users to save 15 scores and utilize a slightly reduced feature set. Flat is cheaper than Noteflight in the monthly ($6.99) and annual ($49) subscriptions and offers a significantly cheaper lifetime subscription at $149.
While Flat does not offer the infrastructure to buy and sell scores, it does offer an extensive educational infrastructure and smooth interfacing with Learning Management Systems.
It is also a Progressive Web App (PWA), which means that users can open a score, edit it, and even print it without having an Internet connection.
Changes are simply synchronized to Flat when a user can get back online. This addresses the primary drawback of a cloud-based platform – constant internet access.
This, along with the cheaper price for essentially the same functionality, makes Flat my personal favorite for web-based music notation apps.
Looking To The Future…
It is anybody’s guess what our notation software will look like ten years from now, as developers continue to push the envelope in merging the features of DAWs and notation software.
Steinway and PreSonus seem to be leading the way in this process with the interoperability of Notion with Studio One and the feature exchange between Dorico and Cubase.
Will AVID join the ranks by making steps towards integrating Sibelius and Pro Tools? What would happen to Finale in that scenario? Only time will tell.
Another interesting question is in regards to cloud-based music notation apps: is there a limit to how well these platforms can perform? There are many new arrivals to the scene and most already feature pretty much everything we need from notation / engraving software.
Ten years ago, a cloud-based DAW was unthinkable, yet we are seeing rudimentary DAWs like BandLab and Soundtrap emerge in the cloud now.
It is hard to imagine a Sibelius equivalent living outside of a hard drive, but will a few years of development in cloud-based technologies make this fantasy a reality?
Choosing the best music notation software for you will require thinking carefully about your personal needs as a composer, the features available in each piece of music notation software, and the price of each piece of software.
The good news for anybody reluctant to sink hundreds of dollars into music writing software is that many developers offer free trials or lower-priced tiers to give you a feel for the product before taking the plunge. By now you should have a good idea of where to start, and the next move is checking out these programs for yourself.