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Best music notation software: online, offline, apps and everything else

By Tim Topham | iPads / iPhones

Oct 23

best music notation software

When it comes to publishing print-ready music online, musicians and teachers are completely spoilt for choice these days.

I still remember when handwriting scores on paper was about the only way to produce written music unless you were in the music publishing industry; there were zero options for print music creation on your computer. Now, thanks to technology, the landscape is completely different.

In this post, I’ve created a summary of some of the best music notation software options for music teachers who want to produce written scores on their computers/iPads. You might be composing your own music or creating an arrangement for a student.

Whatever you’re doing, it’s easier and cheaper than ever before and with the advent of on-screen hand-written notation, the task has become far less onerous. Where once you needed weeks to learn how a complex software package worked, now you can achieve the same outcome with very little time investment.

Please note that while I’ve divided the software into sections depending on how the applications are generally accessed, there is sometimes crossover, eg. a downloaded software program also has an online application subscription. Others might be online as well as in app form.

Downloaded Notation Software

This category involves software that you purchase and download to your computer and is led by:

  • Sibelius, the current industry leader (around $AU15 per month education subscription, basic level)
  • Finale (around $US350 education price, with free options)
  • MuseScore (completely free)

The advantages of downloading software is that you don’t need an internet connection while you work and most offer comprehensive support. The downside is that you generally have a larger up-front costs and you have to keep downloading upgrades (and sometimes buying them) as they are released. They also tend to be quite complex to get your head around, especially if you’re new to technology.

Sibelius is probably my favourite here. It’s the industry standard and will be able to do everything you need, no matter how obscure. It’s used by professionals worldwide and is highly respected. MuseScore is great place to start if you’d like a free option.

Forte

A more recent entrant which I’d encourage you to explore if you’re looking for a software-based application is Forte 6 which I’ve been testing and found to be easy to use and fully-functional…and at a very reasonable price point. They offer a free trial and then a variety of editions depending on your needs, starting at around $US25.

Here’s a quick video about Forte:

Online (HTML) Software

This type of software can be accessed from any computer, laptop or tablet with an internet browser. All your work is completed and stored online and you never have to download any software. The advantages of this is that you don’t need to download (or purchase) updates, many of these applications are based on a “freemium” model meaning that you can do many basic things for free without spending a cent, subscriptions are generally inexpensive and they tend to be improved and upgraded more regularly than downloaded software.

Another advantage is that some of them offer a team-based/collaborative approach to notating (if you want) so that classrooms teachers can have multiple students working on the same project at the same time or individuals can collaborate across the globe more easily than when sharing, for example, Sibelius files. Disadvantages are that you need an internet connection and some may prefer the up-front cost rather than a subscription service.

In my opinion, the best one in this category is:

  • Noteflight (now owned by Hal Leonard) – free with upgrade option at $US49 per year. The free version allows you to do quite a bit, so worth checking out.
  • I also have just found out about ScoreCloud.com which allows you to enter music from a MIDI keyboard, microphone or via a companion app. I haven’t tested it yet, but it looks like a promising idea for quick notations via microphone. Great for vocalists and other instrumentalists.

There is also Scorio and Flat.io that has an option to compose music collaboratively via Google Hangouts. All of these require you to create an account before you can do anything, but that’s not surprising given that most of them offer a basic level of free access.

I like Noteflight because it just works beautifully, you can explore and create music without spending any money and it has great export options. I’ve been able to creat 1-page references or worksheets in minutes for my students (or for blog articles!) without paying any money.

Handwriting Software/Apps for Tablets

This is the newest category of notation software and is growing rapidly as new tablets are developed with better screens and more accurate handwriting recognition. The big advantages here are speed of notation. Given that you can simple handwrite your music, once you get to know the interface, shortcuts and how to do things, this is a really fast way of notating.

The downside is that as far as apps go, they may seem quite expensive, even though in the big scheme of things, they’re actually pretty cheap given the amount of technology in them. Others may also find the interface frustrating at first, however I’d recommend you stick with it as I have a feeling these are going to only get better in the future.

There are a couple of leaders at the moment:

  • Touch Notation from Kawai – I only found this recently and really like it and it’s only $18. Read a review here and see video below.
  • NotateMe for iOS (apple devices) – $US63. See video just below.
  • StaffPad (mainly for tablets like Surface Pro) – $US85 – there’s a great write-up about this app on the Sibelius Blog. This is the best app for people on Surface and looks to be one of the best on the market at the moment (although also most expensive!).

Here’s a quick video about Touch Notation:

Here’s StaffPad:

And here’s my demonstration of NotateMe from a couple of years ago, to give you a feeling about how these apps work (sorry my hand gets in the way a bit):

I’m not a big fan of the interface of NotateMe, which seems outdated and clunky, however the technology itself (like with all these apps) is nothing short of magical! Touch Notation by Kawai is my current favourite.

iOS Apps (non-handwriting)

If you’re looking to use your iPad for notation but don’t want handwriting recognition, then I’d check out Notion for iPad which is just $13 until the end of October 2015! This is great if you’re just getting started with using the iPad for notation and are happy entering the notes either by touch or via an on-screen keyboard.

Another great advantage of this app is that with a Camera Connection Kit, you can play music into the app from your digital piano. I’ve tested this before and it’s pretty good for software at this price point, however if you’re going to want to do more of this kind of note entry, I’d look to Sibelius or Finale.

What’s your favourite notation software?

I hope that’s been a useful summary.

Leave a comment below with your favourite software or app for notation – would be great to hear what you like to use.

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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