Mus2 has a lovely interface.

Mus2

Mus2 is a fascinating piece of software, and it’s one I have strongly considered buying from time to time. It’s not the most feature-rich application I’ve looked at, but it functions within its limitations very well. It’s specifically targeting those who want to create microtonal music (think Turkish maqam and Indonesian gamelan music), and it has several unique features targeted directly at that task.

General Usability

Of the music notation software I’ve tried for the Mac, Mus2 is easily the most eye-catching. I spend my days working in graphic design, so an application’s icon and user interface can instantly bias my opinion of the overall quality of the software. I have to admit that most notation software elicits an initial negative reaction based on looks alone.

I even like how it handles highlighting notes.

I even like how it handles highlighting notes.

Mus2 is very uncluttered, the developer accomplishes this with context specific palettes that appear and disappear as needed. If you select Note Input in the sidebar, a specific set of supporting palettes appear. If you then select Dynamic, the note palettes disappear and new one take there place. This also affect cursor interaction with the score. It was odd at first because so many music notation applications take a kitchen-sink approach to their interfaces, but I found it works very well in most cases.

Palettes change depending on the selected tool.

Palettes change depending on the selected tool.

There were times when the palette system seemed a bit cumbersome. There are certain elements you might expect to be able to edit directly but cannot touch without having the proper tool selected first. The title is a good example of this. At a glance, it looks like you should be able to just double-click on the title to change it, but that doesn’t work. Clicking the Score Info icon doesn’t do anything. Instead you have to select the Text tool from the palette and then select the Floating Text tool in the sub-palette that appears. Then you can edit the title.

Once you get used to how Mus2 thinks, clicking through the required palettes becomes second nature. It has a very intentional workflow. If you like keyboard shortcuts, you can navigate through the palettes fairly quickly. It isn’t quite as easy as Sibelius’s number pad input, but it works pretty well, and I learned the keyboard shortcuts in Mus2 faster than some of the other programs I’ve tried.

Unique Features

Mus2 is built around microtonal and notation and supports free time note input, so it should come as no surprise that you’ll find some unique aspects about working in the application. One of the most obvious things is that it doesn’t constrain the number of notes you can place in a measure based on the assigned time signature. The measure will continue to grow to accommodate as many notes as you’d like.

Mus 2 does not constrain how many notes go in a measure.

Mus 2 does not constrain how many notes go in a measure.

The other big features revolve around microtonal composing. You will see a number of different accidentals that you don’t usually see in Western music. You can import your own vector files to create custom accidentals. You can obsessively tweak the tuning of every line on the staff as absolute pitches or relative pitches. Mus2 even supports microtonal MIDI recording through its own built-in MIDI interface.

Another nice touch to help you get started with Eastern and microtonal music is that Mus2 provides access to the SymbTr collection, which comprises more than 2000 Turkish maqam music scores. That alone is a great resource for learning about a style of music that may be unfamiliar to many of my readers. I spent hours just loading one file after another and listening through while watching the score.

Playback

Mus2 only features a limited number of playback instruments, and most of these are unique to Eastern music. You won’t find saxophone or cello here, but you will find instruments like Qanun and Bendir. Violin and piano are the only Western instruments available, which might seem like limitation if you are trying to use Mus2 for compositions and arrangements outside its scope.

The selection of instruments sounded very realistic, and they did a nice job playing back the music accurately.

Picking Nits

As much as Mus2 has going for it, the application does have a few quirks:

  • The application does not have a fullscreen mode on OS X.
  • Pinch-to-zoom does not work.
  • Scrolling in general seems very rough.
  • Menus occasionally begin duplicating commands until the menu goes off the screen.
  • There is no OS X Quick Look support.
  • Interacting with notes you’ve already input can be problematic. I can’t seem to find a way to adjust the pitch of a note after placing it on the staff.
  • Mus2 has almost no predefined key signatures. You will have to define any key signature you want to use in the Tuning dialog.

Coda

Mus2 has a bit of a learning curve if you are used to applications like Sibelius or Finale that put their features in numerous toolbars and ribbons. It may not be the best choice for creating your next symphony, but its features are essential if you’re wanting to work with microtonal music. It’s best suited for writing music for a solo or for a small ensemble.

At $60, it’s abilities to record and accurately play back microtonal pitches can easily make it worth the price of entry. Mus2 is not for everybody, but if its features sound compelling to you, it’s definitely an application worthy of your consideration.

Mus2 Product Page – Go here to learn more about Mus2, download a trial version, or purchase a copy.

Gallery

 

One of the plug-ins that still works is colored notes.

MuseScore 2.0 Beta

It’s obvious a great deal of love and attention went into the development of MuseScore 2.0 Beta. Almost every corner of the application has seen updates and refinements. All of the great features that have always been part of MuseScore are still there along with numerous new features and other improvements. The end result is a package that feels even more professional and complete than the previous iteration, and this beta is stable enough that it’s become my one-stop solution for my modest composing and arranging needs.

Here are some notable improvements in the beta.

Look and Feel

An open score with some open palettes.

An open score with some open palettes.

The first and most obvious improvement is the interface. It’s just as feature-packed as before, but it’s been refined in a way that makes it feel far less cluttered than the previous version. It’s still definitely using a non-native windowing solution that looks a little out of place in Mac OS X, but the overall experience is far better than version 1.3. The entire interface is far more muted, and — except for some noticeable gradients — everything is a bit flatter than the previous iteration.

An open document in the dark window theme.

An open document in the dark window theme.

In the preferences, you can also select a dark color scheme, but it does not fare as well. Some elements, like the blue hyperlink at the bottom of the new Start Center, are eye-straining, and some black interface elements against a dark gray window reveal that this skin is still a work in progress.

Start Center

Here's the new Start Center.

Here’s the new Start Center.

MuseScore has new window called Start Center that opens on application launch. It gives you access to your most recent documents, gives you a shortcut to making a new score, and it shows a featured score from MuseScore’s sharing service. It also provides links to social networks and mobile apps. It may not be a completely necessary feature, but it’s a nice place to see your recent documents consolidated in one place. Being able to search the MuseScore community right from the window also has potential to be a useful feature.

Continuous View

This is a feature I specifically wished for in my overview of version 1.3, and I am thrilled to see it pop up in the 2.0 beta. When working on a simple four-part hymn or piano piece, this view doesn’t add a great deal of value. When looking through and editing any kind of score for large ensemble, however, it is indispensable.

A band score in continuous view.

A band score in continuous view.

Even if the beta was a buggy mess (which it is not), this feature alone would have me sold.

Plugin Improvements

This one comes with a huge caveat that most third-party plugins don’t actually work with MuseScore 2.0 Beta 2, and I haven’t downloaded a nightly build to see if that has changed yet. It may be more on the side of the plugin developers to update their projects for version 2.0. That aside, it looks like plugins will see some improvements in MuseScore 2.0 with a more robust plugin manager and an integrated plugin creator.

The plugin manager.

The plugin manager.

With the plugin manager, you can view, enable, and disable currently installed plugins as well as edit their properties and define keyboard shortcuts. The plugin creator opens a basic text editor, and starting a new document provides you a basic Javascript framework in which you can start building. Yes, you will probably be better served with a dedicated text editor like Brackets, but this provides an easily accessible way to start exploring plugin development.

Other Improvements

MuseScore 2.0 has a huge number of additional improvements. Here are just a handful that I’ve noticed. I’m sure there are many, many more, and you can read about those in the MuseScore forums.

  • Some items that used to require plugins (like slash notation) are now built in features.
  • Changes to text styles are immediate.
  • Payback has been improved. MuseScore will correctly recognize and play more score markings, and the default soundfont sounds much better.
  • Linked parts now update when the score is updated, and updating linked parts can update the main score.

Platform Niceties

I noticed that the developers made a couple of touches that make the application feel more at home on the Mac.

  • For Macs with trackpads, pinch-to-zoom works perfectly.
  • Two-fingered scrolling — vertical and horizontal — also works great with a trackpad.
  • The green window control button puts the application into fullscreen mode like any native Mac application.
  • The application has a new icon. It’s a small thing, but it looks very nice alongside other OS X icons.

Additionally, while there is no direct iCloud support, you can still create a directory for your scores on iCloud and save them there with no hassle. Since MuseScore uses the platform-native save dialog, it treats iCloud as just another directory.

Still a Beta

I only ran into a couple bugs and limitations while working in the beta.

  • Once, the toolbar being drawn incorrectly after opening a new document, replacing all icons with a series of horizontal lines. Fortunately, I haven’t been able to reliably replicate it.
  • A couple time, MuseScore refused to quit by using Cmd-Q or the Quit menu command. However, the app did quit when I simply closed the window.
  • The infinite canvas thing is still there. The application workspace has no idea what the dimensions of your document are, so you can scroll it to oblivion. Of the interface I’d like to see fixed, this one is at the top of my list.
  • You can’t upload MuseScore 2.0 files to Musescore.com. That functionality is expected when version 2.0 reaches the Release Candidate stage.

Minor complaints aside, MuseScore 2.0 is remarkably stable — perhaps even more stable than version 1.3. I’ve yet to experience any application crashes, and I’ve noticed no slowdowns or other performance problems, even when loading large sound fonts. The overall quality of this beta is to be commended.

Wrapping Up

Right now, MuseScore 2.0 is my favorite notation solution on the Mac. The current beta feels more polished and considered than the current release versions of more expensive alternatives, and the great part is that it’s free to download. Like I wrote last time, I always advocate 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).

Gallery

A piano score open in MuseScore

MuseScore

musescore-01

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

musescore-02

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.

musescore-08

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

musescore-15

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).

Gallery