MuseScore

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MuseScore is one of the only open source tools I’ve seen for notating and engraving musical scores, and I avoided it for quite a long time. While I like the intentions and philosophies behind open source software, and even donate to open source projects from time to time, I seldom find myself enjoying the actual implementation. MuseScore is different. It’s not a perfect piece of software, but I’m surprised at the level of quality it brings to the table. In fact, I’ve been splitting time between Noteflight and MuseScore as my go-to notation editors for some time now.

What MuseScore lacks in polish, it makes up for in sheer features and value. Are you looking to write a four-part hymn with shape-notes? MuseScore can do that. Want to write for choir and full orchestra? MuseScore can handle that too. MuseScore’s depth is staggering. I’ve been using it for weeks, and I’m yet to discover and explore all of its features. In fact, I’m yet to find any feature I would regularly use in Sibelius that I can’t find in MuseScore. Between it and other lower-cost notation editors like Finale PrintMusic and Sibelius First, MuseScore definitely has a richer set of features.

Starting and Composing

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MuseScore uses a standard wizard for creating scores. As with other notation suites, you can set the title, composer, instruments, key signature, time signature, pick-ups, and other basic elements to get your score started quickly. It’s little different than what you might see opening up Sibelius First or Finale PrintMusic.

Once you’ve started a document, editing elements is a mixture of mouse input, keyboard shortcuts, and drag-and drop. Entering notes visually is familiar — select a rhythm from the toolbar, and then click where you want it to go. You can use your keyboard to select rhythmic units and pitch placements, or you can hook up a MIDI keyboard. When changing time signatures, bar lines, key signatures, or other such elements, you can select what you want from the palette and drag it into your score. Once an element is in your score, you can tweak it’s position and layout as needed.

Editing document styles

Editing document styles

Customizing page layouts and document styles can be accomplished through dialogue boxes, but this is where I ran into a problem. Frequently, I’d change something stylistic — the lyric font, for example — and the change would refuse to apply to the open document. I’d have to open a new document and paste my current work into it to see how my score would look with the new styles. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it required a needless workaround. Despite that annoyance, I found working in MuseScore’s notation editor very pleasant and efficient.

Utility and Extensibility

Visually, there’s a certain Spartan utility about the application. Some of the toolbar icons look a little off, and the palettes could perhaps use some more padding when collapsed to avoid visual clutter. It’s definitely a case of function before form, but the function is good enough to overlook some UI issues. While the interface does lack a certain amount of refinement, it holds up well against more expensive alternatives. In fact, I found MuseScore’s toolbars and palettes more user-friendly than those in Finale, NoteAbility Pro, or Encore.

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MuseScore supports a fair number of community developed extensions. These extensions include support for ABC note entry, saxophone fingerings, Aiken shape-notes (Huzzah!), and others useful actions. I was rather surprised to see MuseScore’s plug-in support as extensions usually only reside in the more expensive music notation suites. While the list of extensions is nowhere near as large as those for commercial alternatives, I found MuseScore’s selection perfectly fine.

Sharing Your Scores

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You can export your scores as PDFs, MusicXML, MIDI files, and even Lilypond(!) format. Beyond that, you can upload your sheet music to MuseScore’s own sharing service. You can do this via the website or right inside the application (once you create and link an account). There’s no limit to the number of scores you can upload, but you can only see the five most recent while using a free account. There’s a paid tier that allows for unlimited visible scores, removes ads, gives you detailed statistics on how your scores are doing, and allows your works to be spotlighted.

Bugs and Oddities

As much as there is to like about MuseScore, I did run into problems.

  • The application has the same “infinite canvas” quirk I’ve seen in other open source software like OpenOffice Impress (and commercial software like Adobe Illustrator for that matter). In other words, the application doesn’t seem to know the size of the document in the window and will therefore let you scroll it right off the screen.
  • Of the applications I’ve tried, this one has had the most frequent crashes. Crashes are still rare, but there were enough to disrupt my workflow.
  • Sound quality is definitely MIDI all the way. Of course, it’s hard to hold this against a free tool since sound sampling is time-consuming and expensive.
  • I ran into a problem with applying text styles to an open document. I’d choose to apply the modified styles, but no changes would happen until I opened a new document.
  • Like many other low-cost and free notation tools, MuseScore’s support for standard OS X technologies is lacking.

If this was commercial software, these glitches would be deal-breakers, but it’s a different story with an open source tool.

MuseScore 2.0

While working on this post, I began downloading the nightly builds of MuseScore to see what was coming in version 2.0, and I have to say I’m impressed so far. Many of the quirks I was experiencing in version 1.3 are gone. The interface is more refined, and, up until I transitioned to the OS X Yosemite Public Beta, it was actually more stable than the official release. MuseScore 2.0 feels more like a Mac application in contrast to version 1.3, which feels like a Linux application sporting a Mac-like skin.

Playback has also seen some nice improvements in MuseScore 2.0. Last time I was able to launch the app, orchestral instruments and choral voices were still MIDI-riffic, but the piano playback was dramatically better. Unfortunately, I can’t get current nightly builds to launch on Yosemite, so that’s halted my ability to capture new screenshots or gather further impressions. Suffice to say that when MuseScore 2.0 comes out, it will be significant step forward.

UPDATE: There is a known issue that can prevent a nightly build from launching correctly on the Mac, and, thanks to some helpful folks in the MuseScore community, I discovered that I’ve been incorrectly implementing the fix. Now MuseScore 2.0 is running fine, and I’ll share some impressions in a future post.

Closing Remarks

I enjoy using MuseScore. I can work quickly in the application, and it gets out of the way of my scoring. It’s simple enough to have little learning curve for anyone familiar with notation software, but it still has a robust feature set that makes it comparable to more expensive solutions. The application has some rough edges, to be sure. Those quirks and bugs keep MuseScore from being my full-time solution for creating choral arrangements, but I find myself working in it more and more (especially when the nightly builds were launching correctly).

While MuseScore is freely available, I’m a firm advocate of financially supporting independent software developers. If you’d like to support MuseScore, the simplest way is to make a donation. Beyond donations, they monetize their efforts in a couple of other ways. You can purchase the MuseScore Songbook app from Apple’s App Store or Google Play, and, if you find you like MuseScore’s sharing features, you can purchase a pro account for $7 USD a month (or $50 USD/year).

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More to Come

Sorry about the lack of updates on the music software overviews. Not only has work been very busy this last month, but I’ve also been helping with some family health issues. This means I’ve been out of the office a lot, which then means I’m working at the weird times I might usually update this blog (when not distracted by exercise, video games, or shiny objects).

I’ve started an overview of MuseScore. Hopefully, the next iteration won’t be released before I get done writing about the current one!

MusicEase

An open orchestral score.

An open orchestral score.

If NoteAbility Pro went to one extreme with its overly busy and cluttered interface, MusicEase goes to the other. Its interface is extremely minimal, and it approaches music notation differently from any of the other apps I’ve tried. I have to admit to some frustration at first, but things got better when I figured out how the program thinks. It’s an editor that doesn’t feature a great deal of customization, but it also means that you can create and edit scores with only a basic knowledge of music theory and notation.

From the site:

MusicEase possesses a large amount of music copyist knowledge. It automatically positions music-notational elements correctly for a large number of common music-notational tasks. This allows users to create good looking printed music without having been explicitly trained in the correct way to notate music.

First Impressions

A new document

A new document

I had that same feeling of, “What am I looking at?” the first time I launched MusicEase that I did when launching Noteability Pro. This time, the feeling was for opposite reasons. MusicEase launches with no palettes, a sparse toolbar, and a partial treble staff. That’s it. There’s no setup wizard and no template selector. MusicEase just wants you to get started. Unfortunately, when I clicked on the music staff, nothing happened. That gave me pause. In fact, I almost skipped reviewing this software entirely.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that MusicEase expected keyboard inputs, so I just started playing around, hitting random keys and seeing what happened. Some keys had expected results — the  key placing an a on the staff, for instance. Other things were more opaque — tapping 9 to input sixteenth notes for some reason. I kept closing it and coming back, and each time I was able to get more done. One time I might get a melody notated. Another time I might figure out how to add a slur or add a second voice. MusicEase also includes pretty extensive documentation and tutorials, and I spent a great deal of time with those. Eventually, my head began to wrap around what I was doing.

Usability & Features

The first major usability hurdle (at least, if you are used to more traditional notation software) comes in MusicEase’s total reliance on the keyboard for input. Here are some examples:

  • k = Key Signature
  • m = Meter (Time Signature)
  • r = Insert Rest
  • Alt-R = Insert Low Rest

This list goes on and on. Typing a letter that corresponds with a given pitch will make it appear on the score. Holding down the Shift key will make is an octave higher. Alt-Shift will make it an octave lower. Different numbers correspond with different note values. 1 is a whole note. 2 is a half note, and so forth. Your mouse is basically useless except to set where the cursor is if you want to modify one specific note or chord. Neither does the software accept MIDI input. This is QWERTY notation all the way.

MusicEase supports pretty much anything you would expect to see in standard notation and also supports tablature, guitar rhythmic notation, and handbell symbols. Bowing symbols seem to be absent, however. Also, for some reason, scores are limited to 40 pages — not that I’ve written anything 40 pages long; I just find it an odd constraint. You can also import and export MIDI and MusicXML files.

Output Quality

Since MusicEase is limited to MIDI playback, sound quality will be passable at best. Engraving output is pretty good, but I’ve seen better in other notation software. Still, if all you are doing is quickly arranging some music for a school band or orchestra or preparing a piece for congregational singing, Music Ease’s print quality is just fine, and, unlike other notation software, it’s hard to mess up.

An output example

An output example

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Here’s the thing about MusicEase: it works. Once you wrap your head around notating through keyboard shortcuts, you can start composing fairly quickly. The trick is to lay aside what you already know about most composition programs, dive into the documentation, and go through the tutorials. I’m probably not going to make it part of my toolset, but I appreciate what MusicEase is trying to accomplish. If you’ve been frustrated with other notation software, you might want to give Music Ease a try.

MusicEase product page – Visit to learn more about MusicEase, download a trial version, or purchase the application.

MusicEase come in two flavors, a standard edition that costs $80 and a professional edition that costs $250. The professional version offers shape note notation, more note heads, more rhythms, more pages, grace notes, and other features.

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NoteAbility Pro

The splash screen

The splash screen

For better or worse, NoteAbility Pro is an application that wears all of its features on its sleeve. Here’s how Keith Hamel, professor at the University of British Columbia and NoteAbility Pro’s creator, describes it:

…It is easily the most sophisticated music notation software available on any platform. NoteAbility combines both musical intelligence and graphical flexibility in a direct and intuitive graphical user interface. Notate anything from simple melodies to complex avant garde orchestral music, play the score on your MIDI synthesizer or using Quicktime Musical Instruments and print a publishable copy of your score on any OS-X compatible printer.

It’s a notation app that does about anything you’d want, and all of that functionality is front and center when you launch it.

First Impressions

A blank document

A blank document

My initial reaction upon launching NoteAbility Pro was, “What on Earth am I looking at?” When you create a new score, NoteAbility Pro presents a wizard filled to the brim with options. They are good options, mind you, but it took a good thirty seconds for me to even discover how to get out of this box and into a score. Starting up a new score was a whole new adventure.

I understand the desire to minimize the effort behind discoverability when writing an app for non-technical individuals. You just want to sit down and get to work, not memorize dozens of keyboard commands and learn a new interface. NoteAbility Pro takes this to an extreme, however. Everything is front and center, and every feature is treated with equal importance in the interface. I find it completely overwhelming, but I also have to tell myself that this software is written by a professional composer and that it fits his workflow.

As far as I can tell, NoteAbility Pro is an OS X-only app, but, like the other applications I’ve looked at so far, it takes no advantage of recent OS X features.

Usability & Features

This is one feature-packed piece of software. That this is a tool written by a composer for his own needs and workflow really shows in how much minutia is displayed front-and-center. NoteAbility Pro gives you fine control over exactly how your score is going to look, from note spacing to beam thickness. Every inch of the layout is customizable,and every customization is one or two clicks away. (Except, surprisingly, shape notes.) The drawback is a very distracting and cluttered interface that may take some time time to decipher.

Another open score

An open score

You can view your score as single pages or in a multi-page view, but there doesn’t seem to be a scrolling view like Sibelius, Encore, and Finale offer. Notes can be input traditionally or as graphic items, allowing for a number of modern notation possibilities. You can also notate a number of alternative ways, even including gesture recognition. Scores can play back as standard MIDI files, and I also noticed the application supports Audio Units for higher quality playback. Additionally, NoteAbility Pro has an extensive online manual to help you get started.

I did not personally enjoy working in NoteAbility Pro. I found the interface more distracting than necessary, and I spent and undue amount of time trying to figure out how to turn off some of the visual feedback that I could have spent writing music. Whether or not you like this application will come down to whether you are the type of person who wants the interface to get as out of your way as possible or you like having all features right up front where you can easily get to them — even if you may never use them.

Output Quality

If you are willing to purchase an audio library, playback can be as good as you want it to be. Where NoteAbility really shines is in engraving output. Particularly if you are writing something with modern or avant-garde notation, you’re going to like NoteAbility Pro’s output.

Output of avant garde notation

Output of avant garde notation

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I have to admit to being impressed that NoteAbility seems to be largely the product of one individual. Mr. Hamel has obviously put a great deal of love and time into building a tool that will help him be as productive as possible, and I think it’s great he’s sharing his work with the world. It may not be for me, but I’m sure there are many others who will embrace this application as a feature-packed alternative to Sibelius or Finale, and, at $225 CAD, it’s also less expensive than those tools.

NoteAbility Pro product page – Visit here to learn more about NoteAbility Pro, download a demo, or purchase the app.

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