Regarding Shaped Notes

If you’ve done any congregational singing among more traditional American churches, chances are you’ve run across something like this at some point:


Instead of customary note heads, every pitch has a unique shape. Ironically enough, a trained musician may find this system disconcerting because they may have never encountered this method of notation in any other setting. These note shapes are based on the seven basic scale degrees, and each shape represents one of those pitches.


seven shapes for seven basic pitches

A Little History

The seven shape system of notation is not very old and is usually credited to Jesse Aiken. In fact, many music manuals and notation software applications refer to these notes as Aiken Note Shapes. His 1846 book The Christian Minstrel brought shaped notes to spiritual music, and, while gaining little traction overseas, the seven-shape system became very popular in the United States — particularly in southern states. Four-shape notation can be traced a few years farther back but never gained the popularity of seven-shape notation.

In their original form, shaped notes were supposed to be self-sufficient. Aiken’s books would contain simple time signatures and no clefs or key signatures. Absolute pitch was considered unnecessary when singers could easily see the relative relationship between notes through Aiken’s system. (Remember that a capella singing was more prevalent in congregations of the 1800s than today.) Today, some hymnals use a hybrid system where absolute and relative notation is combined.


We Shall Overcome – traditional notation

ShapeNotes-04We Shall Overcome – Aiken notation with clefs/key signature

Lowell Mason — a name that is probably familiar to many Christian musicians — would later seek to eliminate shaped notes from Christian hymnals, but they were too firmly entrenched. Some northern hymnal publishers have abandoned shaped notes in favor of traditional European notation, but Aiken notation is still popular among southern hymnals.

Shaped Notes’ Worth

I’m not a fan of shaped notation. I find it a distraction from what I already know about music. On the other hand, another member of the congregation I attend swears by it. He has limited knowledge of modern music theory, but he can sight-read almost any song with Aiken notation. So when are shaped notes appropriate to use and teach?

  • If you’re teaching in a music curriculum, vocal or instrumental, I’d avoid shape notes altogether. Most choral music does not use them, and instrumentalists rely wholly on absolute pitch. The note shapes would provide no benefit.
  • Note shapes can be useful in teaching sight singing. In the 1950s, Gerorge H. Kyrne carried out a study that Aiken notation is more effective in teaching vocal sight-reading than traditional notation.
  • If you’re writing music for professional musicians or any instrumentalists, don’t use shaped notes. They will only distract from what these musicians already know.
  • If you’re writing music for congregational singing, shaped notes may be appropriate. Individual music publishers will often have the final call, but, if you are independently writing for a single congregation, check their hymnals and use the system to which they are accustomed.

Shaped notes are an interesting footnote in American music history. The Aiken notation system is one of the very few musical innovations unique to our hemisphere. While they remained limited to a specific musical culture, they enabled whole groups of people to experience and create music they might have otherwise been too daunted to try.


Why Use C-Flat?

Note: I’ve noticed that this post looks just fine in most browsers, but Internet Explorer may have a hard time with the flat and sharp symbols in the text.

a music staff showing enharmonic equivalents

Not misfit notes…just misunderstood.

A Little Background

To understand why C♭ is such an odd note, you have to understand a little about musical pitches, and the best way to describe this is with a keyboard. On a piano keyboard, there are black keys and white keys. The white keys are usually whole steps apart, and they get names like A, B, C, D, and so forth until you get to G. The black keys exist at half steps between those white keys; notes like G♯ and D♭ exist on the black keys.

piano key board three octaves

Notice the space between E & F and B & C, however. There are no black keys between these notes – meaning they are already half steps apart. That means an F♭ is an E, and an E♯ is an F. C♭ is B and B♯ is C. (These are called enharmonic equivalents for those of you seeking to expand your vocabulary. They produce the same tone while written differently.) The question remains, however, that if these are essentially the same notes, why bother?



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.


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.


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.




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 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).






You know that game Threes? This is kind of like that. Only with music notes, which is kind of great.




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 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 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


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).




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


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.



NoteAbility Pro

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


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.



Encore 5

Encore was the first piece of composition software I ever owned. We had it in my high school music lab, and I somehow talked my dad into helping me pay for a student-discounted version (by mail-order no less) in the late 90s. Since then, Passport Software, the original developers were acquired by GVox, under whom Encore saw a number of under-the-hood improvements. These were released in Encore 5.0 in 2008, but development seems to have languished since then. As of August 2013, Passport Software has reacquired Encore, and it will be interesting to see what their plans are for the software.

First Impressions

Opening Encore filled me with nostalgia. I don’t think anything cosmetic has changed about this software since the 1990s (expect for the obvious thing where it’s running on OS X). I even remember the included sample files. Unfortunately, this means there are no Mac OS X features here. iCloud support? Nope. Versions? Nada. Documents don’t even support QuickLook. This is firmly a piece of software from yesteryear. At least the built-in midi keyboard sounds better than I remember.

The application looks surprisingly similar to Finale. Floating palettes for note input, tiny icons made for monitors of a bygone era, single page score navigation — all very familiar to someone who’s worked in notation software for years but will look dated to newcomers. This adherence to the past even extends to Passport Software’s website, which looks much like it did fifteen years ago.

Usability & Features

Encore is fairly easy to use. It has many of the same interface quirks that Finale PrintMusic has, but the default zoom is better. Launching the application simply opens a new document with piano staves present. You can then add or subtract instruments. Alternatively, selecting to create a new document opens up a simple wizard that can get you started with a number of predefined ensembles. After that, everything is point and click input. You can also bring up an onscreen keyboard, which maps some of the notes to your computer keyboard.

New document wizard
New document wizard

Encore handles every piece of notation I threw at it and has quite a few advanced features. As long as you are writing a traditionally notated piece of music, Encore will be able to keep up. It’s the little omissions that add up. There seems to be no support for undo history. You can’t view pages side-by-side. However, Encore allows for a scrolling layout like Sibelius and Finale, and it even seems to handle the scrolling layout better than Finale PrintMusic. There are also no linked parts, something I didn’t miss until it wasn’t there.

Output Quality

A layout nightmare.
A layout nightmare.

This is where Encore really suffers when compared to other proprietary notation tools. I had multiple instances of overlapping systems, crowded notes, and other elements simply appearing in the wrong place. Complicating this, clicking on and dragging elements is a hit-or-miss affair. Encore gives you no indication that you’ve successfully selected an object before you start moving the cursor around, and, at times, I found myself repositioning the wrong thing. (I found later you can set control points to visible, which alleviates this problem to an extent.)

Playback was a mixed bag. Percussion instruments and the piano sounded pretty good, but most other instruments did not. On the up side, Encore does support VST, so you could potentially bring your own sound libraries. Since I don’t have any laying around, I couldn’t test this functionality, but that goes a long way in allowing for better playback.

The Future?

I can’t help but wonder where Passport Music goes from here. Obviously, Encore needs some love — from its user interface all the way down to its layout engine. Things have been fairly quiet since Passport brought Encore back under its wings, but that may just be a sign of hard work. It may be that the next release of Encore will knock my hypothetical socks off. It may take full advantage of OS X technologies, have a completely redesigned UI, produce amazing-looking scores, and feature a wonderful sound library. As it is right now, though, I can’t recommend it at $400. There are better and less expensive alternatives.

Update: Richard Hotchkiss, the president of Passport Music Software, has replied below and is offering Encore at a steep discount — $129. At that price, it might be worth investing in, especially if you think of it as an investment toward Encore’s future.

Still, I’m going to be keeping my eye on Passport Software, and I’m eager to see where they take the software that introduced me to the world of music composition.

Encore product page – Go here to learn more about Encore’s features, download a trial version, or purchase the application.



Finale PrintMusic and SongWriter

Finale was producing high quality scores before most of its competition was even around. It’s the MGM Studios of composition software, responsible for some amazing advances in its medium, but are its best years behind it now? As MGM has been eclipsed by other movie studios during recent years, is the same true for Finale? Perhaps that’s too big of a question for this post. Instead, let’s just take a look at MakeMusic’s more modest offerings — PrintMusic and SongWriter.

First, Some History


Coda Music Software released Finale 1.0 in 1988, and it has gained a large following among professionals over the years. Finale was among the first composition solutions to let composers fine-tune their scores and to feature high quality sound samples in playback, and it’s still considered the best solution for score writing by many professional composers. It’s the tool all other notation software gets compared to, and for good reason. Finale produces quality scores and affords composers great freedom in writing — whether they are like me and writing hymns in four-part harmony or are evoking modern masters like Corigliano in their compositions.

First Impressions and OS X Integration

Finale was Adobe-late to the transition to OS X. In fact, I think Adobe came out with OS X native versions of their applications nearly a full year before MakeMusic released a native version of Finale. When they did so, Finale took little advantage of OS X technologies, and the application still feels out-of-place. The software takes no advantage of OS X features like Spaces, Versions, or iCloud. It doesn’t even auto-save, which means I need to exercise those cmd-s muscles that have all but atrophied in recent years. It does, however, support QuickLook.

Even the application workspace feels like something from Mac OS 9. Instead of the interface and document being in a self-contained window, Finale is a document window surrounded by individually floating palettes. With the exception of an image editor or two, I can’t think of any Mac applications that still use this setup. It makes the application look old. On the other hand, if you’ve used Finale in the past, there is no learning curve involved in newer versions, and that’s definitely worthwhile to a number of musicians I know. They know how to use Finale, and they feel comfortable in knowing they won’t have to learns something new.

Overall Usability

The launch window
The launch window

Getting started on a new score is a familiar experience. Launch the wizard, choose and customize an ensemble, select time and key signatures, then finish. Finale set the pattern for how to set up a score. They still follow it, and so do most others. It simply works. Unfortunately, after you get done setting up your score, the user experience goes downhill.

In order to maximize your document area, Finale’s toolbar icons are ridiculously small. They are nearly unusable on an HD monitor, and the same is true when opening a new document. The default zoom for notation is very small, making it easy to click on incorrect lines and spaces. Fortunately, enlarging the document window and increasing the zoom fixes this, but Finale never remembers this for new documents. (As an aside, it also kept throwing me off that you can only resize a window from the bottom corner — just like a Mac OS 9 application.)

One pleasant surprise is that you can accomplish a great deal through contextual menus. Adding repeats, switching time signatures, transposing notes or passages — these and more features are quickly accessible with a double-tap on the trackpad (or right-click if you use a mouse). You can even switch notation styles this way, but I found no easy way to apply shape notes to an already complete score. For that, I had to open the shape note template, set the score up to match what I was working on, and then copy-and paste. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it was a bit convoluted.

Features and Quality

Fortunately, once you get past the interface quirks, Finale is capable of great things. It’s a full-featured notation solution for all but the most advanced users. Like Sibelius First, I did not feel the limitations placed on Finale PrintMusic, but the constraints on SongWriter are definitely more noticeable. Here are some of the differences I found:

  • PrintMusic can import scanned files. SongWriter cannot.
  • PrintMusic supports up to 24 staves. SongWriter supports up to 8.
  • PrintMusic has more available music fonts, including shape notes.
  • PrintMusic supports non-traditional staves of 1-5 lines. SongWriter only supports 5-line staves.
  • PrintMusic has better-quality playback than SongWriter and supports external sound libraries.
Scrolling view
Scrolling view

Like Sibelius, you can view your scores as one continuous scrolling page, but I found this view problematic in Finale. Notes and lyrics ran into each other, and I found it easier to simply stay in a more traditional view. That’s Finale in a nutshell actually — it’s a program that does what it does very well as long as you are okay working in the past. If you are the type of person who longs for the old Office 2000 toolbar, then you will appreciate Finale’s adherence to tradition.

I can’t criticize Finale’s output at all. I noticed better quality sound when playing my music back than I did using Sibelius 7 First, and printed scores look very good. You can tweak layout to your heart’s content, but you’re seldom going to need to. Finale is very good at placing notes, symbols, lines, and lyrics exactly where they should go. As much as I may want to criticize toolbars, I can find no fault with Finale’s engraving quality. It set the standard for proprietary music notation for a reason.


I have the misfortune of being a musician with a background in graphic design — specifically user interface design. This automatically makes me critical of how an application looks and functions. When composing, I want good results, but I also want to work in an environment that is well designed. Finale PrintMusic gives me the first but lacks the second, so I’m going to keep looking.  The selection of notation software for the Mac keeps growing, and there are some interesting alternatives left to explore. That said, if you are set on choosing between the big two in music notation, Finale PrintMusic is a better overall value than Sibelius 7 First. It simply has more features for the same price.

Product pages to explore more features and download trial versions: