Long gone are the days of writing music out by hand. With a few exceptions, most music is written on a computer. It’s easier, faster, edits are quicker, and you don’t have to worry about someone not being able to read your handwriting. Are you a composer? If so, you probably have a favorite program already that you swear by.
If composing isn’t your thing just yet but you would like to get into it, then it’s important to know what’s out there in terms of software. There are some similar products out there, but they definitely aren’t all priced the same.
The Big Two
If you have any experience with music notation software you’ve likely heard of the big two already, Finale and Sibelius. They aren’t the only options out there, but it may seem like it by how often they are mentioned and used.
Finale and Sibelius are both very powerful. Honestly, if you’re a composer, you could do just fine with either one. Often it just comes down to which one you learned first. At my school, Finale was the software of choice, so I feel most comfortable with it. That doesn’t mean that Sibelius is bad, but Finale suits my needs so there is little incentive to change.
It’s kind of like the iPhone vs. Android debate. If you own an android phone, you understand it. You know how to use it. There’s not much incentive to change over to an iPhone. The same is true of iPhone users changing to Android, most don’t. That’s ok. Both phones are great and will work just fine, but familiarity wins out almost always.
The first thing to understand about both Finale and Sibelius is that they are expensive. It’s like back in the day when Microsoft Office cost a small fortune. Software used to be really expensive. Now just about every software company is building their software in the cloud and running subscription services. Both Finale and Sibelius haven’t quite gotten there yet.
The full Finale software retails at $600. Yup $600. If you’re a student, you may be able to get it for quite a discount through your school. School is where I originally got my copy. Once you spend your $600, though, you’re still not done. They STILL want to get you on the subscription. To upgrade from a previous version of Finale it’s $149. Honestly, I’ve kept my original version for years and it works just fine. Other than the very serious composers, I doubt you’ll feel a need to spend Finale an extra $149/year for upgrades.
The full Finale software isn’t your only option thankfully. There are lower priced versions of it. Finale Print Music is basically Finale with fewer features. It retails for only $119.95. It actually works quite well.
If you’re writing a large orchestra piece, or the piece you’re writing has very specific requirements, Finale Print Music may not be enough. There are limits to how many staves you can use. There are fewer sounds that can be produced for playback, and it just has fewer features.
If you aren’t planning to go crazy with all of the features, you can get just about everything done with Print Music. You can compare the differences here.
Those that argue for Sibelius often say it is easier to use. Sibelius has a lot of the same functionality as Finale. They’re the same price too. Sibelius retails for $599. After you buy the initial program, you can upgrade for $199. If you subscribe to yearly updates, you only have to pay $89/year after the first year. Again, I don’t know that you’ll be chomping at the bit to get Sibelius upgraded. The version you buy will likely do just about everything you need it to.
Both Sibelius and Finale offer deals if you’re moving from one software to the other. There isn’t really any other major competition in the “ridiculously expensive notation software” space, and both companies would like to take each other’s business the best they can. If you have used one or the other in the past, just stick to it. The reason both companies offer discounts is because they don’t do well pulling in users from the competitors product. There’s very minimal benefits to switching.
Finale’s own website has a page where they compare both products. For me, it’s completely unconvincing. See their comparisons here. The differences as defined by Finale is basically its playback sounds and the ability to write silly shapes on the score.
Now that we went over the big two, you need to know that there are other options out there. Options that don’t cost much. Actually, here’s one that’s free. MuseScore is open source and free. It doesn’t have a free trial or ads everywhere either. It is sincerely free.
Open source software is software that allows for it’s code to be changed by the community. The website may look a little dated, but MuseScore is still actively maintained.
MuseScore works extremely well, and it has much of the same features as the big two. Here’s a great example of a score written in MuseScore with the playback and everything. It does a pretty good job if you ask me.
There are fewer features in MuseScore than there are in the big two, but the major features are there. In MuseScore for instance you can use a midi keyboard for input. This means when you play a note on the keyboard it shows up on the score, but in Finale and Sibelius you can actually play in time and have the software transcribe everything for you. That’s kind of cool, and some people might get a lot of use out of that, but for me it’s not a game changer.
If you don’t own Sibelius or Finale yet, you owe it to yourself (and your wallet) to see if MuseScore can be everything you need it to be first.
ScoreCloud is a little different. It seems to be aimed more towards non classical musicians. It’s major claim to fame is the mic input. You can play music on any instrument for ScoreCloud. It will then identify the music and transcribe it for you automatically. You can also use a midi keyboard, but playing through the mic may be a little easier.
To be clear, this is not something that is unique to ScoreCloud. Both Finale and Sibelius have a similar feature. If that’s primarily how you’re going to compose music, though, then ScoreCloud may be all that you need. You can of course edit the output of the transcription or just write the music outright.
If you don’t plan on using the mic, it works just fine with normal computer input as well. All of the features of Sibelius and Finale may just feel like bloat if you’re not going to use them.
One final feature is the companion app that you can put on your phone or tablet. With it, you can transcribe music, or just input ideas on the go. You don’t have to be sitting at your computer with the program open. It can be a great way to jot down musical ideas anywhere you are.
ScoreCloud is also much cheaper. They charge on a subscription plan, with the most expensive plan being $19.99/month. There is a free plan, but you’ll have to print your music with a watermark (and who wants that). The medium plan is only $4.99/month and there is no watermark.
The last notation software that you need to look into is Note Flight. Many companies are moving away from downloadable software and building everything in the cloud. Note flight follows this paradigm. You can use Note Flight for free, and actually get quite a bit of basic functionality with it. You just log into the website and away you go writing music. There’s no need to download any software, and you get most of the functionality of other software programs, but you can use it anywhere, on any computer.
If you would like more features, including creating unlimited scores, you’ll need to pay a subscription price. To unlock all features, it will cost you $69/year. That’s not too bad when you look at the alternatives.
If you’re a fan of cloud software, then you definitely need to give Note Flight a chance.
If you’re a composer, there are a lot of options out there. If you already have a software you love, stick with it. There’s not a lot of upside to changing now. If you are looking into software for the first time, you have some options. Finale and Sibelius might just be more than you need for a price that you might find unreasonable. There was a time where they may have been your only options. Things have changed.
What do you use for notation software? What do you like/dislike about it? Let us know in the comments!