Notation Software on a Budget

Mike Lawson • Technology • October 22, 2006

Music composition/arranging is perhaps one area of music standards in K-12 education that is even more neglected than improvisation. Instructors may rationalize that the cost of a music notation application is too expensive. Also, composing/arranging without music notation software can be a rather tedious handwritten activity.

With computers, you can print, edit and transpose in seconds as well as instantly hear your composition for feedback purposes. But implementing this technology can be a tricky matter because most students can’t afford to have such programs at home, and school may have time limitations. However, there is good news to report. Music notation products under $100 are now numerous, versatile and rather powerful. There are also some good freeware options.

Music Notation Prerequisites

While there are many features inherent in music notation products, there are several key features that you need to pay attention to or you may be purchasing a product designed more for the hobbyist rather than the music educator. The foremost key feature is the ability to automatically extract and transpose parts from a full score. Unless you can extract and print out individual parts, the music notation application is severely limited for music education purposes. The ability to work with a full score and then extract and print out parts is fundamental for music educators in their teaching environment.

Another important feature is how simple the product is to learn. Namely, are there clear and simple tutorials for mastering how the program works in a step-by-step manner? Tutorials usually are found in the help section of the product or in the user’s manual. Video tutorials may also be included and incorporated within the help section of the program. In addition, there may be some excellent third-party books offering tutorial instruction, such as PrintMusic Primer and NotePad Primer published by Back Beat Books ( and Finale Power, published by Muska & Lipman (

Entry Level vs. Professional Level

There are some realistic differences between a professional music notation product with a retail listing of $500 or more and an entry-level notation product under $100. The number of staves for products under $100 can vary from 1 to 24 staves while professional products can have 64 or unlimited numbers of staves in their scores.

Music scanning applications are common for professional-level music notation applications, while only four products under $100 incorporate it. MakeMusic’s PrintMusic! 2004 offers a “lite” version of SmartScore 3.1, which is one of the leading music-scanning products available. MakeMusic’s Finale Guitar also offers a version of SmartScore 2.0 by Musitek, which is a very good software application, though one version older than the version found in PrintMusic! 2004. Finale Guitar is outstanding and thorough for under $100. Don’t let its name confuse you; Finale Guitar is a good all-purpose music notation program for any music educator and is also the most powerful music notation product selling under $100.

Importing music notation files from other music notation applications is also not going to be a popular feature. In general, music notation applications use their own proprietary file format. And transferring and reading proprietary data files in other music notation applications is not going to be thorough. Reading Standard MIDI files may be convenient from other notation products, but be aware that all their content may not be transferred and read by another application. For example, articulations, text, lyrics, and tempo markings and titles will generally not be read and imported in the Standard MIDI File format.

Consequently, there definitely will be editing required to incorporate everything from the original file via the Standard MIDI file transfer. But, there are some products that can read third-party music notation applications. Play Music, for example, reads Encore and MusicTime files. Finale Guitar and PrintMusic! 2004 read SmartScore, Encore and Rhapsody files. Note: there is a recent breakthrough in this area: Music XML is a file transfer third-party product ( that shares proprietary data files with major sequencing and notation software applications, such as Sibelius and Finale.

The minimum system requirements for notation software will vary from Pentium I to Pentium II computers. Professional-level music notation products are moving to Pentium III as a minimum system, especially with soft synths that are being incorporated in these applications. Soft synths are powerful improvements in playback capabilities.

Unfortunately, with the exception of PrintMusic! 2004, music notation applications under $100 do not incorporate soft synths. Consequently, entry-level applications depend entirely on the computer’s hardware (soundcards) in order to playback the scores.

Comparative Overview of Affordable Notation Products

The spreadsheets on p. 58-59 will outline what music notation applications are available either as freeware (no charge) or under a $100 retail list price and how their product features compare.

For those of you who really are looking for more advanced features in music notation applications, the following table will give you more insight into product features that may not be popular in entry-level applications but are standard in professional-level products.

1. Includes several music fonts (number of fonts included).

2. Supports alternative music fonts.

3. Supports alternative font heads.

4. Cross-staff/Cross measure beaming.

5. Can product create rhythm section parts from melody and chord symbols?

6. Can product harmonize melody from chord symbols and melody line?

7. Auto Arrange for creating compositions based on thematic material in which it orchestrates the composition.

8. Can product use third-party plug-ins? Number of third-party plug-ins available at this date?

9. Non-standard key signatures.

10. Complex meters/Non-metric music.

11. Parts dynamically linked to score.

12. Can product easily burn audio CDs from product’s notation files?

Bargain-Priced Music Notation

The most versatile freeware music notation product is MakeMusic’s Notepad. Not only is it a bargain because it is free for massive student use at home, but its files can read, write and save in Finale file format. Its data can be freely exchanged with the widest number of users, since Finale has over one million users. In addition, NotePad can read and write MIDI files but not direct real-time entry. And best yet, students can be using it at home on both Mac and PC computers. This is a wonderful way to implement MENC standards with your students in creating and arranging music compositions. It has an eight-stave score capability and can also play back Finale files that the teacher might be interested in having students work on. And for $19.95, you can get NotePad Plus from the same manufacturer, which also allows MIDI input from a digital keyboard. If you don’t have Internet access at home, there are CD versions available for both NotePad products.

Generally, there are three primary ways to create music notation scores: alpha keyboard, step-time entry and MIDI keyboard. Most entry-level music notation applications will allow all three modes. Additional ways of creating scores/parts are: importing Standard MIDI, music scanning files and/or reading proprietary music notation files.

Play Music is the least expensive full-feature music notation application at $49.95, which includes a manual, CD-ROM and warranty. It can produce up to a 24-stave score with eight voices per stave. It includes 30-plus templates to quickly set up your score, 20-plus sample songs and lyrics and text insertion. It offers 128 sounds to play back your song. And if you need a lab pack for a computer lab setting, the price goes down further per workstation. Best of all, it is easy to learn and use.

As previously mentioned, MakeMusic provides a whole family of music notation products under $100: NotePad, NotePad Plus, PrintMusic! 2004, and Finale Guitar. What makes PrintMusic! 2004 and Finale Guitar rather unique is that they encompass many professional-level features that are not regularly incorporated in products in this price range, such as soft synths, 55 video tutorials, microphone entry for acoustic instruments, music scanning applications and more. Finale Guitar even has a 32-stave score capability. What sets these applications apart is that both of them offer full-upgrade credit when one eventually purchases the professional-level product, Finale 2004. This means that you can use PrintMusic 2004 or Finale Guitar to learn to master music notation for years and then receive full credit for that purchase applied to the future purchase of Finale 2004 ( This full-upgrade credit from a previous purchase is the first of its kind offered in the music technology industry.

If you are primarily looking to convert music scores into Standard MIDI files for printing, transposition, etc., you may want to consider the MIDI and piano editions of SmartScore that are under $100. They also have editing capabilities for sharing with other music notation products via Standard MIDI files. For more product features, visit (Be aware that PrintMusic! 2004 and Finale Guitar both include “lite” versions of SmartScore as well.)

There are other affordable music notation software applications that make recording, editing, arranging and printing your music easy, such as Score Writer 2 by GenieSoft (www.geniesoft. com/products/scorewriter.htm). For Mac users, NightLight 2002 is a very good Mac platform entry-level product, especially for users of older Macs. It is limited to four pages per score file and nine staves per system. You cannot hide/unhide staves in progress; nor can the program open up Finale ETF files as in Nightingale version 4.5 ( It really has most of the features of its Nightingale version 4.5 product, which can handle up to 64 staves per system.

Need More Choices?

Here are some other choices that warrant further consideration.

NoteWorthy Software ( offers a PC platform product that works with any 32-bit version of Windows (95 and later). The product is NoteWorthy Composer Version 1. It is offered as a shareware product with a free download. The licensed version is mailed to you on CD with an immediate download of the newest version.

Looking for an entry-level product that provides beautiful printouts? Try a freeware product called LilyPond. It is an automated engraving system that formats music beautifully and automatically along with a friendly syntax. It has extensive documentation for a freeware product. For more information, visit

Aspire Software offers Music MasterWorks ( composing software to create scores quickly with easy MIDI music editing and printing in either staff notation or piano roll scores along with audio recording and playback capabilities. It’s a versatile and rather simple product to learn. For example, you don’t need to worry about channels or tracks. Its power is its voice-to-note conversion so you can sing into your microphone to create tunes or exercises for your students.

Looking for a “fast and simple” guitar tablature notation product? Use Etktab ( to write guitar tablature in the typical style of ASCII tab, often found around the Internet. It features 30 fret board positions available for one-key press entry (five on each string). It also features four-, five-, six- or seven-string tablature with user-customizable instrument tunings. It can easily import/export plain ASCII tablature. It is a freeware product.

Personal Composer ( has been available longer than any other notation product (since 1983). It has always been a good product. The PC-8 version can produce up to eight staves per system.

Be aware that small handheld computers (PDAs) can also be used for music notation. The leading manufacturer for PDAs is miniMusic ( The miniMusic NotePad software application is a perfect sketchbook for composing away from the desktop computer. It can be used for composing, practicing, or for studying music notation and music theory. Music notation tools included are chords, key signatures, time signatures, tied notes, triplets, inversion, retrograde and full cut/copy/paste editing. It can store an entire library of music. Using standard notation, you can enter songs, edit them and play them back. Included are high-resolution graphics and software synthesizer for polyphonic playback on supported handhelds.

Final Analysis

Not only is there a wealth of quality music notation applications available, including some good freeware products, but many advanced professional features are starting to be incorporated into entry-level products under $100. Music education will never be the same with the adoption of these cheaply priced but powerful and efficient products both for use in the classroom and at home. Nearly all of the products reviewed in this installment offer free demo trial versions. I can’t think of a faster way to find out how good these products are than to get your students using them. Your students will thank you for these creative experiences.

General MIDI Limitations and Solutions!

Beware if you are a high school band director with marching band charts that utilize full drum corps style charts with 4 bass drums and other full drum line instrumentation. General MIDI which the current playback mode can not play all of your drum parts correctly. As good as General MIDI is, it has some limitations inherent in its structure. Namely, General MIDI can produce up to 120 standard sounds, plus drum kit definitions. Consequently, marching band charts will not be able to authentically produce their percussive parts because all music notation products utilize General MIDI playback. Tap Space Publications’ Virtual DrumLine is an innovative sample library for drumline arrangers, band directors and composers, containing high quality stereo recordings featuring the award-winning Santa Clara Vanguard drumline. With this library installed to work together with a professional notation product, such as Sibelius 3.0 or Finale 2004, you’ll be able to get incredibly realistic playback of marching snare, tenor, bass and cymbal line sounds. Gone are the days of using cheap sounding, simulated drum sounds during playback in ones music notation application. Fortunately, there is even an entry-level notation product under $100 that can incorporate Virtual Drumline. It is Finale Guitar. Minimum system requirements for running Virtual Drumline include a Mac or PC with 512 MB RAM, Sibelius 3.0, Finale 2004 or Finale Guitar, a sampler program such as Kontact, Kompakt, Gigastudio, Reason or a soundcard that can load soundfonts such as a SoundBlaster Audigy and finally, Virtual Drumline. I prefer the software solutions with Kontakt or Kompakt by Native Instruments because they are very powerful, more reasonably priced and run on both Macs and PC platforms. Both of these products allow you to stream from the hard drive instead of loading samples into RAM.. Kompakt is a streamlined sampler that is powered by the efficient Kontakt engine with a 3 GB sound library. Kontakt is the most powerful sampler ever created with a massive 5 GB sound library. For additional information, go to For me, software solutions are easier and less cumbersome to update while hardware solutions will probably involve another purchase and installation. For more information about the various software/hardware options, go to:

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