A Brief Introduction to Notation Software

Not so long ago, musicians put pen to paper to notate music, and publishers used engraved metal plates to print the sheet music. But that changed in the 1980s, with the advent of notation software.

The earliest notation software was designed simply to create musical manuscripts, but today’s programs borrow features from digital audio workstations (DAW). They don’t just notate music but also enable users to hear and share it. Moreover, the programs have evolved into sophisticated tools that actually help users create music. In fact, some musicians regard the best notation programs as musical instruments.

The Basics of Notation Software

Power and flexibility vary among brands of notation software, but most share the same basic functions. Users begin a new project with a blank canvas and then select instruments that fit the score, the time and the key signatures. They can edit those elements, among many others, at any point while composing.

Music is typically entered either manually or with a controller like a MIDI keyboard or guitar. In the former method, the user chooses a rhythmic value and pitch by typing a key or clicking on the appropriate position on the musical staff; in the latter, the music appears on the staff as the user plays the instrument and it’s cleaned up manually.

A playback device sounds the notes as the musician enters them, which serves as a handy feature for quality control. And at any point, the user can take a break from inputting and use the playback engine to hear the entire score or just a portion of it. It’s almost like having a string quartet or brass band on standby.

Notation software also enables users to edit and correct music. With just a couple of mouse clicks, they can change instruments, transpose a song to a new key, copy a piece’s section or delete one. Users can move sections around, just as they would on a DAW.

Learning to navigate a notation program may take some time, but once it becomes second nature, it’s indispensable for creating music.

Notation Programs and Apps

MakeMusic Finale 2014

MakeMusic Finale 2014

Finale, introduced in 1988, and Sibelius, which came five years later, have long been industry standards. These high-end programs offer control over every element in a score, from the smallest details to the overall layouts. That’s why they’re preferred by music publishers and composers alike.

Both programs offer professional-quality sound libraries with stunningly realistic instruments. They “read” a score’s dynamics, articulations, dynamics and techniques – like pizzicato on a violin-family instrument or palm muting on a guitar – and can be mixed with virtual controls resembling those on a DAW. Needless to say, this kind of instant gratification is a definite boon for writing music.

Finale and Sibelius offer a range of possibilities outside of their own file formats for sharing and saving music. Users can export files as an image file, like a PDF, a MIDI or audio file. They can also share them to Facebook or SoundCloud. At $600 each, the full professional versions of Finale (2014.5) and Sibelius (8.1) are not cheap, and many could do without the features that go beyond basic notation. But for total control in making print-ready manuscripts, these programs are indispensable.

PreSonus’s Notion 5

PreSonus’s Notion 5

The price of admission isn’t as high with PreSonus’s Notion 5, which generally sells for $149.95. It doesn’t provide the flexibility of Finale or Sibelius, but it’s intuitive to operate and offers high-quality playback sounds, sampled from the London Symphony Orchestra, guitarist Neil Zaza, bassist Victor Wooten and others.

Noteflight, an internet-based program that comes in free and subscription-based versions from $49/year or $7.95/month, does away with the need for software and the attendant updates. The program works on any device with a web browser, including computers, smartphones and tablets, and users can share their work simply by emailing the URL, making it a great collaborative tool.

A handful of apps help users create music when inspiration strikes, which is especially handy for jotting down ideas a musician might otherwise forget. Notion’s iOS app, which sells for $14.99, supports the creation of music creation on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. It features the same realistic sounds found on its desktop counterpart, and it can be synced with the desktop version via DropBox or iCloud, or exported as a MIDI, PDF or another file type.

Neuratron’s NotateMe, available for $39.99, is available for both Android and iOS, and it takes an entirely different approach to notating music. Instead of entering notes with a keystroke, mouse click or MIDI instrument, a user can write music by hand, using a finger or stylus. The notation is then converted to a printable score with playback functionality.

A similar new app, StaffPad, which costs $69.99, is available at the Microsoft Windows Store and works best with a Surface device. Similarly, users can compose on a Surface Pro in conjunction with the latest iteration of Sibelius. PreSonus’s Notion also offers a handwriting feature as an in-app purchase for $7.99.

A Word of Caution

Notation software makes it incredibly easy – and fast – to compose a piece for any instrumentation, but that’s not without its drawbacks. It’s possible to write music that looks great on paper, sounds good on a program’s playback device and contains notes that are within the instruments’ range – but is simply unplayable by real-life musicians. So, notation programs, like any other musical technology, won’t make every user a modern-day Bach or Beethoven.

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