Free Music Notation Software

As a composer I use the notation software, Finale, for pretty much all my notation.  I’ve been using Finale for almost 20 years, so at this point I’m very familiar with the program and I’m really not interested in changing to something different.

However, one of the drawbacks to Finale (and other similar programs) is that the software can be expensive, particularly to music students who don’t have a lot of expendable income.  Since I sometimes assign students to use notation software to complete projects, I’ve been looking into other cheaper alternatives that I can recommend for my students who prefer to work on their own computer rather than hanging out in the campus music lab.  Here are three programs I’ve recently learned about that are free to use.

One program that I’ve heard good things about is Noteflight.  Noteflight is a web based notation application that is free to use (their commercial version is called Crescendo and is a subscription fee of $49 a year currently).  It works in your browser with Flash and in just a couple of minutes I was able to work out how to get notes entered into the staff and play the music back.  You have to sign up for the service in order to print and save and it looks like your files aren’t actually saved on your own computer, but on Noteflight’s server, which is a drawback.  It does make it easy for you to share you music with others, so this might be a good option for students looking for a simple way to print out music theory assignments and such.  Noteflight does import MIDI files, so you can convert a Finale or Sibelious file into Noteflight, but I couldn’t easily work out if you can export Noteflight into a MIDI file to use with other music software.

Another free music notation software I’ve been hearing about is Rosegarden.  This software is for the Linux operating system, so it may not be the best choice for those of us who use Windows or Mac exclusively.  Rosegarden is different from most of the notation software I’m more familiar with in that it uses not only a notation style system of inputing in notes but also a sequencer style “piano roll” method.  One feature of Rosegarden that may be appealing is its ability to create and integrate audio files into your work.  With this emphasis on playback and the Linux requirements, Rosegarden may be best for musicians who are more interested in computer music rather than just notation for acoustic music.

Musecore is another free music notation software I’ve recently heard about.  Unlike Rosegarden, Musecore is available to download for both Mac and Windows OS.  Scanning through the demo video on their home page it looks like it works very similarly to other notation software and should be relatively easy to use.  I note that it will both open and save MIDI files, making it easy to convert your file from or to other programs.  Other features that make it useful include the ability to input in separate voices per staff (so music theory students can do SATB part writing on a grand staff), lyrics, and special note heads for percussion notation.

I’m sure there are other programs out there that are free or cheap and if you know of any, I’d like to hear about it.  If you’ve used any of the three I discussed here what is your opinion of it?  Was the software powerful enough to do the work you needed and easy enough to learn to use?  Would you recommend it to someone else?  Please leave your comments below and let us know your review.

David Ahrens

I’ve used both MuseScore and NoteFlight and think they are excellent. As a music teacher, I own Sibelius and use it as a primary tool. But I have my students work with the others since they are free. I personally prefer MuseScore because of its similarity to the commercial programs. My students prefer NoteFlight for its ease of use and social/sharing capabilities.

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