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.
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:
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- 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:
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.
many thanks for the tip. it will work very well for me.
I write a lot of lead sheets. (Melody with chords above or sometimes just Chord symbols). What is the best pen writing program or midi friendly program you would recommend?
Hi Eustace – I’ve got a few articles about this topic. Try Googling for “notation apps tim topham”
Is there any software available to scan in a string quartet or piano PDF score and output a guitar score (I’ve done this by hand but it is tedious).
Hi Paul. I’m not sure if they’ll do exactly what you want, but try Sheet Music Scanner app or playscore.co
Which free software would you recommend? I have been using music jotter for quite a while a i am quite happy with the options it has. Anyways, I am open to other options as well if you have. Thanks
Hey Alex. I do like noteflight
I’ve been using the trial version of DORICO, and I really like it. It’s pricey, but awesome. I have been using Sibelius (which I like), and like that Dorico was started by the original developers of SIbelius. About $250 or so to convert from Finale and Sibelius to Dorico.
Hey Michael – yes, I’ve heard about Dorico, but haven’t explored it. Thanks for sharing.
Hi ! I’ve been using finale for many years and I love it. But now I want to purchase a handwriting program.
Which, in your opinion, is the best? Staffpad or NotateMe ?
I don’t have a tablet device, so I have to buy both, the tablet and the software.
I’m studying composition, so It would be very usefull for me using something like that!! can you help me? Thanks a lot!
Hey Luciana. I think Staffpad is the better option, but if you don’t really want a MS Surface, then aim for the iPad Pro and use the Apple Pencil which is amazing.
I’ve had Finale for 3 years and still find it too complicated for what I want to do. I like to take pop songs kids bring me, water them down and make a simple lead sheet for them. Is there something easier than Finale for this? I need room to put in 2 or 3 verses under the measures. I’d love to input this with my little midi-keyboard but Finale is too finicky and rarely works. I spend so much time researching problems I might as well just write it out (and my handwriting SUCKS. Any ideas for lead sheets Tim?
Hi Sally. I know we’re also going to be discussing this with you in the Inner Circle but have you tried Noteflight? If you’re looking for the notation aspect, then it’s a good way to go (although I haven’t specifically tested it for 3 lines of verses!).
I’d also consider whether you really need to add notation for students – I do most of my pop teaching (even simplified) through the main scores but getting students to simplify and play through the chords only 🙂
Sometimes I travel to teach and would like to (need) use Noteflight offline. Is this possible? Also can I input with a midi keyboard?
Hi Matilda – you’ll need to have an internet connection to use Noteflight. You can easily set up a personal hotspot on your phone however. Not sure about midi input sorry – you’ll have to google for that answer as I haven’t tried that!
Hi Tim, I bought a cheap android tab from Aldi & a 2nd hand iPad 2 to trial display options for my 4 decades old library of Sibelius 3 !!!! Files.
I was about to give up, as any option required a new learning curve & quite possibly an expensive investment in software.
I was about to settle for converting Sibs to PDFs & just using Acrobat & a hyperlinked text file for live when it occurred to me to investigate the newer android pcs that run Windows, which would mean running Sib live.
For between $5 & 800 there’s now several ‘pads’ like Surface pro that will do this.
Meanwhile, it’s worth knowing about the iRealb pro app ($20 Aud) which doesn’t allow any actual note writing but is a fine chord resource, editable & own file creation possible . . so many jazz standards available on forums, & with any luck, the font library will be expanded in future so simple rhythm notations can be expressed in text mode above chords to clarify. A recent experience was to receive the whole gig’s 3 sets of info in a single htm file of ~50Kb! which opens in iRealb as 35 chord charts or a ‘playlist’
Thanks for your comment, Pierre. I’m already a HUGE fan of iReal Pro. I use it everyday in my teaching and promote it to my members as much as possible as it’s just so good. You can read about it on my Best iPad Apps Page too: https://dev.topmusic.co/blog/best-ipad-apps-for-piano-teachers/
Glad you’ve ‘seen the light’ for your gigs 🙂
I like note flight, because I can work anywhere, and may look at note flight learn, to see how I can create lessons on it for my students. Will check out your recommendations, Thanks!!
I’m looking for a compositional software package that checks for “strict resolution” rule breaks, like parallel fifths etc. Any suggestions?
Hi Randman – not sure about this one. Good question. Hopefully another user may be able to assist.
I’ve been using noteflight on my iPad because it’s easier to use sitting at the piano. Then I export it and finish in Finale on my PC. It works great!
Thanks for the tip, Amanda!
Sibelius easily the best and I know as I used to use Finale
Thanks Robin – great to hear.
I REALLY want to use Staff pad. I was planning on buying a new iPad Pro early next year, but Staff pad has made me reconsider & I’m thinking about replacing my laptop with a Surface Pro. I don’t have an ipad right now, but could possibly use notateMe on my iphone 6plus.
Hi Jan. I wouldn’t bother trying to do any serious notation on an iPhone – I think you’ll go crazy. The screen, even in the plus, is pretty small when you’re trying to notate. I do all my work (including this blog) from my surface and love it but, like you, haven’t invested in StaffPad yet although it does look like one of the best. Might have to bite the bullet one day and do a thorough review 🙂