How do I start writing sheet music on my computer?

Install MuseScore and learn to use it efficiently.

What is MuseScore?  Where do I find it?

MuseScore icon

MuseScore is a free application for editing sheet music.  You can download the current version from musescore.org.

Can it be any good if it’s free?

MuseScore is open source, released under the GNU General Public License.  This does not automatically make it good or bad compared to “closed source” applications.  The document you are reading is hosted on a web server running the Linux operating system, Apache HTTP Server and WordPress content management system1.  All are longstanding projects that have proved themselves capable and are in widespread use.  You are also probably reading this on a web browser that uses the WebKit layout engine, if you aren’t using Firefox, where the whole browser is open source.

It is good to ask what pays for “free” software.  Sometimes it is advertising.  Some “free” websites rely on intruding on your privacy.  Some especially malicious examples go hunting through your files for credit card or bank account details.  MuseScore, at the time of writing, does not do any of these; it relies on an associated storefront for selling music written in MuseScore, with free accounts (which may be subject to advertising on the website, but not in the MuseScore application) and “Pro” subscriptions2.

Can I use anything else?

Yes, there are many other applications that do this job.  The most common two are Finale and Sibelius.  For an incomplete list, see the Wikipedia Comparison of Scorewriters.  If you already have one installed, you may prefer to start there.  You can download a time-limited demonstration version of most notation editors as well.

If you would rather not install anything on your computer, try NoteFlight, which runs in your web browser.  While you don’t have to install anything, this does require signing up for a free account.  NoteFlight has some potential for teachers and students wishing to easily share work.  Its notation library is limited, however, and its use of the browser keeps it from using all available keyboard shortcuts.

I have a notation editor, how do I start using it?

Learn how to do basic notation in it, then practice that.

This site has a number of posts on the subject, starting with How do I efficiently write sheet music on my computer?, with other topics listed at the Cowirrie Guide to Writing Sheet Music.

Most notation editors also have both written and video tutorials.

Continue reading “How do I start writing sheet music on my computer?”

  1. Installation details were correct at the time of writing but may have changed since. []
  2. The sustainability of the MuseScore business model is an interesting question, but not a focus of this post. []

How can I efficiently add slurs and ties to my sheet music?

Sheet music titled "Quintett" by E. M. Smyth, containing slurs and ties.

Use the mouse to select the notes and s to add slurs, except in Finale.

Slurs or ties?

When we learn to copy music my hand, we often refer to any curved line connecting notes as a “slur”.  However, most applications have two such lines.  You therefore need to know whether any given curved line is a slur or a tie.

Ties indicate the specific case where consecutive note symbols at the same pitch should be played continuously, sounding as a single note.  While slurs indicate some continuity (especially for string and wind players) they may change pitch or have articulations indicating small breaks.  Longer slurs may also indicate phrasing.  If both slurs and ties appear around the same notes, the slurs will be shorter and closer to the notes.

Musical passage with crotchets tied across barlines.

The ties on these notes indicate continuous sound across the barlines.

Sequence of crotchets with staccato notes, slurred in pairs to indicate bowing.

The addition of staccato symbols means that the bowing should be indicated by slurs, not ties.

This leads to a difference in how applications implement these two symbols.  While specifics vary, “being tied” is generally a property of a note that may be switched on or off, in the same way that a note may “be sharp”, “be dotted” or “be staccato”.

In comparison, slurs are graphical objects that are attached to notes, in a similar way to crescendo “hairpin” lines.

In consequence, when you look through the user interface you will probably find ties near the other note entry buttons, and slurs in a list of graphical line tools.  The slur will probably be the first on the list, as by far the most common line graphic.

With that covered, let’s look at notating the start of Ethel Smyth’s String Quintet, Op. 1. Continue reading “How can I efficiently add slurs and ties to my sheet music?”

How can I efficiently add dynamics to my sheet music?

Sheet music showing the first two lines of a string quartet violin 1 part.

Notate all the dots, then add the dynamics in a batch.

Let’s look at adding dynamics to Halina Krzyżanowska’s String Quartet, Op. 44, Violin 1, movement 1 (Allegro commodo), from the upbeat to bar 14.

If you’re already behind schedule

If you only have a few hours to finish a notation job, don’t worry about the formatting the dynamics.  Stop browsing websites like the one you are currently reading; they won’t help you.  Just finish copying the notes, print the music, and pencil in the dynamics or ask the musicians to do them for you.  It’ll be faster.

Promise yourself that once this deadline is over, you’ll come back to learn how to add dynamics quickly and accurately.

Continue reading “How can I efficiently add dynamics to my sheet music?”

What does typing sheet music on my keyboard look like?

Sheet music on faded paper.

It looks something like this: 5 e control 4 b control 5 b 4 a

Let’s look at a simple piece of real-world music: “The Rakish Highlandman,” as published in 1795 within James Aird’s A Selection of Scotch, English Irish and Foreign Airs, Volume 3, Page 175, Tune number 449.

This will provided good practice for the skills described in How do I efficiently write sheet music on my computer?

Continue reading “What does typing sheet music on my keyboard look like?”

How do I efficiently write sheet music on my computer?

By typing notes with your computer keyboard.  Most notation editors offer powerful ways to quickly enter music, but the means of doing so are not obvious, and may even be actively counter-intuitive.

Apart from this document, your notation editor probably contains some sample scores and videos covering this.

A digression on word processing

You’re probably more familiar with your word processor than your notation editor, so it’s worth taking a moment to think about the different modes of operation it has.  When started with a blank document, you probably see a blinking vertical bar.  This is called a caret.  You may have heard the caret called a “cursor,” and this is a valid word, but the “cursor” is also used for symbol where your mouse points – an arrow most of the time, or an I-beam shape when over a text entry field.

Word processor screen capture showing vertical blinking bar (caret) and mouse cursor.

Word processor in text entry mode, showing text caret and mouse cursor

When the caret is visible,

  1. Any letters typed on the keyboard are inserted1 at the caret, and it moves to the right2.
  2. Any formatting (bold, italics, font changes) will have no visible effect, but will apply to letters typed from then onwards.

However, if you select text by dragging the mouse or holding down the shift key and the an arrow key, the caret disappears, and instead the selected text is highlighted.

Word processor screen capture showing the word "emboldened" selected and with bold formatting being applied to it.

Word processor in text selection mode, showing formatting being applied

When text is selected,

  1. Any letters typed replace the current selection, and the caret reappears to allow typing to continue as usual.
  2. Any formatting will be applied to the selection.

Why does this matter to music?

You have probably absorbed these lessons from your word processor, so easily that you don’t have to think about them.  However, your music editor also has a caret mode and a selection mode, but they require greater awareness of which mode they’re in and how to move between them.

Continue reading “How do I efficiently write sheet music on my computer?”

  1. If overwrite mode is on, new letters will be replaced, not inserted. []
  2. If working in a language that reads right-to-left, the caret will of course move to the left. []

What’s new in PBPhonics 2.0?

PBPhonics screenshot showing microphone button in action.

The microphone is the big new feature.  We also adjusted the colours and layout.  These updates were released on the 19th of November 2014, for both PBPhonics 1 to 3 and PBPhonics 1 to 7.

(If you are wondering what PBPhonics is, you can find a description on the PBPhonics page.)

The microphone

Because iOS tries to protect you from inadvertent privacy breaches, apps that use your microphone must first ask permission.  So, the first time you launch PBPhonics after the 2.0 update, you will see this:

PBPhonics screenshot saying '"PBPhonics" Would Like to Access the Microphone.  PBPhonics will offer spoken word practice if you allow microphone access.'  Buttons offer 'Don't Allow' and 'OK'.

PBPhonics requesting microphone access on first launch.

Continue reading “What’s new in PBPhonics 2.0?”

How can I turn my sheet music into a book?

You can do this, but there are at least three distinct methods.  Each has different compromises.

The destination: single PDF

For the purposes of this exercise, we want to finish with a single PDF document, storing the entire book. This is what you want almost all the time, including:

  • Printing yourself, with the printer on your desk
  • Sending files to other people to download and print
  • Taking to your local print shop
  • Selling via print-on-demand

PDF may not not be sufficient if:

  • You want to share work other people can edit – for this, provide your original notation file and also export to MusicXML
  • You want to distribute your music with interactive playback or video – tools exist for this, but are too complex to discuss here
  • You are working for a major publisher – in this case, they should provide specific file and formatting guidelines

So, how do we go from notation to a single PDF?

Continue reading “How can I turn my sheet music into a book?”

What are vector graphics? When should I use them?

Vector graphics are images defined by shape coordinates, instead of the more common method of defining them by pixels.

You should use vector graphics whenever a vector file exists and the application you use can read it. Neither circumstance is as common as it should be.

Describing pictures

Below is a picture. Take a moment to think about how you would describe it.

Black arrow pointing to the right, looking sharp on most screens.

Continue reading “What are vector graphics? When should I use them?”

How do I make my PDF files smaller?

By compressing the pictures. Depending on the tools available you may apply this compression (1) to your existing PDF, (2) while generating your PDF, (3) to your source document, or (4) to your individual pictures.

Every technique described here will make the pictures in your document fuzzier and less distinct. Never overwrite the original print-quality document with a compressed version. Before sharing a compressed PDF, open it and take a close look to make sure it’s still meaningful.

How large might my PDF be?

A good assumption is that your PDF will be at least as large as the sum of the pictures that go into it.  This isn’t always true – some PDF generators insist on applying some compression (making the file smaller than estimated), while some edits may turn JPEG-compressed pictures into PNG or TIFF (dramatically increasing the file size).  Still, it’s a start.

Continue reading “How do I make my PDF files smaller?”