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

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 system ((Installation details were correct at the time of writing but may have changed since.)).  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” subscriptions ((The sustainability of the MuseScore business model is an interesting question, but not a focus of this post.)).

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.

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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?

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What are non-printing characters? Why should I see them?

They allow your word processor to tell you how your document layout works.

Know your layout

Earlier this year, someone walked past while I was word processing and noticed my screen was full of odd characters.
Lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne" showing dots between words and symbols at the end of lines

Usually people who notice this go “Aargh!  Hideous!”, but this time the response was “That looks useful”, and it is.  The blue symbols are non-printing characters, and they show why your layout is happening.  As the name implies, they only appear on your screen, not in print, or when you export to PDF.

How do I see them?

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Which word processor should I use?

All of them.

Exploring applications

To fully understand the English language, learn a different but related language.

To fully understand a musical instrument, learn to play both it and some other instrument.

To fully understand your word processor, learn to use a different word processor.

Admittedly, two of these three abilities will gain you more admiration and applause than the third. Don’t let that stop you seeking word processor mastery, however. Although everyone thinks they know how to operate a word processor, all too few people understand it.

Comparing different applications for the same task — even a task as mundane as processing words — offers insights into their design, which may in turn help us use them better.

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What is a word processor?

It’s the class of application that Microsoft Word belongs to.

Generic applications

Sometimes people ask how to get started on some computing job, and I tell them it’s best done in a “word processor”, “spreadsheet” or “presentation package”.  This is often not a helpful answer.  If I have just directed you to this post, it probably didn’t help you, either.

I could have said “Word”, “Excel”, or “PowerPoint”, but I don’t own or use those applications.  Depending on the task, I use LibreOffice or iWork.  I also shop photos in the Gnu Image Manipulation Program or Pixelmator.  (However, even if you own and use Adobe® Photoshop®, Adobe requests than you stop using their trademark as a verb. ((While statements like this are easy to laugh at, current trademark law is what makes it necessary.)))

So, how do we talk about these applications?  By describing what we do with them.  While there are a multitude of document editors, three are the most common by a wide margin:

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What is a file extension? Why does it matter?

It’s part of the filename that tells your computer what the file (probably) contains.

Assigning meaning to numbers

When you save a document, it is stored as a long list of numbers.  You may have heard that “computers can only count ones and zeroes”, and at the lowest level, this is correct.  We can represent those numbers any way we like; here are document contents represented as base 16 (hexadecimal).

D0 CF 11 E0 A1 B1 1A E1 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00

This still isn’t useful.  We want to open the document in an application that displays those numbers in a way that is meaningful to us.  Does anything here tell us which application to use?

Something does, in fact: the name of the file is “Words.xls”.  “Words” is the name I gave it, but the “xls” tells us that it’s a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.

Why do I need to know this?

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