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. []

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?”

How can a MIDI file help me practice music?

If you open it in a notation editor, you can play it back while watching the notes, and adjust the volumes and tempo to suit yourself.

Where can I find a notation editor?

If you already write music on your computer, the application you use can probably import MIDI files.  Use that.

If you don’t write music yourself, I recommend starting with MuseScore.  It’s free, quite powerful, and runs on most Windows, Mac OS and most major Linux distributions.

If you don’t want to install anything new on your computer, you can also use the demonstration version of NoteFlight – a notation editor that runs right in your Web browser.

Visit musescore.org to download and install MuseScore.

Visit www.noteflight.com to try out NoteFlight in your Web browser.

Once you have the score editor of your choice open, you will need to do three things:

  1. Import your MIDI file.
  2. Adjust the tempo to match your conductor (or less, if you need to start slower).
  3. Adjust the volume to emphasise your part.

Continue reading “How can a MIDI file help me practice music?”

How can I name every page of my Sibelius scores?

Top of Sibelius document showing \$Partname\, \$Title\, \$Subtitle\, \$Composer\ and \$Arranger\

By adding text wildcards to the page header.

Has this ever happened to you?

You’ve been keeping your orchestra music in the same folder all year.  You receive the final concert running order, and you rearrange the folder.  You put the final item in…

…and find a page left over.

Sheet music labelled "Violin 3" and "Page 3" without any other information.

Which pages 1 and 2 does this page 3 belong to?

Sometimes the typesetting makes it easy to find.  However, it’s increasingly common to see music formatted in Opus Std, with text in Times New Roman.  That means it was notated in Sibelius… like a dozen other pieces this year.

If you find this happening to you, or to people who use your Sibelius files, you need to format them with all the information needed to put them back together:

  1. Title
  2. Instrument
  3. Page number
  4. Revision date

Continue reading “How can I name every page of my Sibelius scores?”

Can I import a LilyPond file into my graphical notation editor?

Yes, but you may have to convert it to MIDI first, losing a lot of detail.

Imports and exports: imbalance of trade

Transferring files between music editors has always been difficult.  Even the two behemoths of the field – Sibelius and Finale – don’t make it easy to transfer. between them.

The programming effort involved in writing an importer or exporter is immense.  The programmer has to study all possible aspects of the format, and decide how to translate them.  It is therefore not totally surprising that the export options are sparse.  If you are developing a notation package, why expend programmer time to make it easy for your customers to leave?  On the other hand, adding import options gives you a competitive edge.

As an example, for many years, Sibelius could import the MusicXML format, but not export.  If you really needed this capability, you could buy the Dolet plugin.  This changed in 2011: Sibelius 7 added native XML export, while MakeMusic (the company which makes Finale) purchased the Dolet software and made it freely available.

MusicXML is a good (but not perfect) way to migrate files between different programs.  However, the program we are currently concerned with is LilyPond.  As of November 2012, there is no way to export from LilyPond to MusicXML.  If this capability is ever added, you should use it.

MIDI: the last resort

However, LilyPond files can be converted to audio, as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files.  Most music editors can import these.

There is no command to export a LilyPond file to MIDI (instead of the more common choice of typesetting it to PDF).  Instead, you need a \midi block in the music.  See the GNU LilyPond Notation Reference – Creating MIDI files for specifics.

Existing file collections may come with source files for generating MIDI.  For example, the King Arthur music used in previous examples made pre-generated MIDI files available, and also provided the file “Arthur-MIDIs.ly” for re-creating them.

Why is MIDI the last resort?

Before editing or printing notation imported from MIDI, it is vital to understand its limitations.  For details, see Why didn’t this MIDI file import properly?

More LilyPond

  1. What is a LilyPond file?
  2. How do I read this LilyPond file?
  3. How do I edit a LilyPond file?
  4. How do I transpose a LilyPond part?
  5. Can I import a LilyPond file into my graphical notation editor?