Best Music Notation Software of 2018

Billy Bommer ·
Audio & Travel Writer
Updated
We maintain strict editorial integrity when we evaluate products and services; however, Top Ten Reviews may earn money when you click on links.

We spent 40 hours comparing and testing the best music notation programs that cost less than $200. To evaluate them, we took note of how easy it was to create original compositions with each one. We also imported and exported a variety of file types to make sure using the software wasn’t more troublesome than quickly handwriting a song idea. After compiling our testing data, we believe Notion 6 is the best software for most people because it has all the tools you need to compose complex and basic scores and has an intuitive user interface.  
   

Best Overall
Notion 6
Notion 6 is available for Mac and Windows computers and has all the important editing tools we look for. You can input notes with a MIDI keyboard, virtual piano or virtual guitar fretboard.
View on Musician's Friend
Best Value
MuseScore 2
MuseScore is free, open-source notation software with the tools you need to make basic compositions. It isn’t as customizable as the best programs, but it is a good way to learn how to notate music with software.
View on MuseScore
Easiest to Use
Sibelius First
Sibelius First is easy to use and has a good selection of composition templates to get you started on the road to using software to notate your music.
View on Sibelius First

Prime Day Audio Deals

  • Audible: $4.95/month

    For new or returning Audible members, Amazon offers three months of service for $4.95/month. That's $10 off the normal monthly price. You must be a Prime member to get this deal. It ends July 31.

    $14.95 $4.95 @ Amazon
Product
Price
Overall Rating
Music Features
Input/Output Features
Editing Features
Ease of Use
Guitar Tabulation
Guitar Chord Diagrams
Chord Names
Windows 10
Mac OSX
Windows 7
Windows 8
Volume Mixer
Multiple Tool Palettes
Audio (WAV, MP3)
Graphic (BMP, GIF, JPEG)
Virtual Piano Note Entry
Check Price
10 10 10 10
A-
$109.00Amazon
9.9 10 9.8 10
B+
-
Check Price
9.6 10 9 10
B-
-
Check Price
9.5 10 8.8 10
B-
-
Check Price
9.4 10 10 6.8
A-
-
$119.00Amazon
9.3 10 8.3 10
A
-
-
$99.00Bhphotovideo
9.2 10 8 10
A-
-
-
Check Price
4.7 3.3 5 6.8
C+
-
-
-
-
-
-
Best Overall
Notion 6 is available for Mac and Windows computers and has all the important editing tools we look for. You can input notes with a MIDI keyboard, virtual piano or virtual guitar fretboard.
It’s easy to install and register the program, and the software recognized our MIDI keyboard instantly – we didn’t have to navigate through hidden drop-down menus to get it to connect. The tool palettes are arranged well, which also helped us get started composing within a few minutes of opening the software. It is one of the more expensive programs we reviewed, but it is still hundreds of dollars less than music notation software with similar feature sets. This composition software’s standout feature is its incredible instrument sample library. Notion’s developers took the time to record samples from some of the most sought-after musicians and orchestras in the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Neil Zaza and the Wooten brothers. After you finish writing a score, you can listen to it with stunningly accurate articulation and export a WAV or MP3 file to share with your bandmates or fellow composers. Notion can be used with Mac and Windows computers as well as iOS mobile devices and Windows tablets – you can start writing a composition on your home computer and finish editing it on your iPad or iPhone. This is one of only two programs we tested that has a companion mobile app.
Pros
  • Intuitive Workflow
  • Realistic playback instrument tones
  • Tablet Compatibility
Cons
  • Intimidating user interface
  • Expensive compared to other programs we reviewed
  • Tone library and software use a good amount of hard drive space
$149.00Musician's Friend
Read the full review
Best Value
MuseScore is free, open-source notation software that’s compatible with Windows and Mac operating systems. Even though it’s free, it includes many of the same features and tools found in the best for-pay programs we reviewed.
Its interface is clean and easy to navigate. The left side of the screen displays all the available input tools, and the inspector to the right of the score shows information about the notes you input. We had no problem connecting our MIDI keyboard, but if you don’t have one at your disposal, you can MuseScore’s virtual piano to input notes. You can also use your mouse or keyboard shortcuts to add notes to the staff. MuseScore can import MusicXML and standard MIDI files from other popular notation software. When your score is complete, you can export it as either a graphic file, MusicXML file or audio file. The instrument samples aren’t as realistic or dynamic as those in the best notation programs we tested, but if you are interested in composing music with software, MuseScore is an easy way to learn for no investment.
Pros
  • Free
  • Good selection of input and output features
  • Easy-to-use interface
Cons
  • No volume mixer
  • No virtual guitar input option
  • Support is limited
$0.00MuseScore
Read the full review
Easiest to Use
Sibelius First is an affordable music notation program with an attractive and easy-to-use interface. You can input notes with a computer mouse, virtual piano or virtual guitar fretboard or by connecting a MIDI keyboard to the USB port on your computer.
Sibelius automatically adds the correct rests and note appearances, so you can work through a melody quickly without worrying about editing the score as you go. If you are having a hard time getting started, this notation software has 40 genre-specific templates to help spark your imagination. In its latest version, Sibelius First gained a unique output feature – you can now share your compositions via the Sibelius Cloud. When you finish a score or reach a good stopping point for collaboration, you can hit the Share button on the toolbar to send your work to the cloud. Avid’s MediaCentral Platform then processes it and sends you a URL that can be opened on any computer with any web browser. If you’re collaborating with another Sibelius user, you can both edit the score, and when either one of you presses the Push button, the changes will be saved without generating a new URL or exporting a file. The full version of Sibelius costs more than $500 and is intended for professional composers who create large, complex arrangements. If you can create your compositions within the framework of 16 staves, Sibelius First is a cost effective option, and it’s easy enough for musicians and composers of all skill levels to use.
Pros
  • Note entry is easy
  • Mac and PC compatible
  • Innovative cloud sharing feature
Cons
  • Score can't be saved as a graphic image
  • Program takes up a lot of hard drive space
  • No guitar scale diagrams
$119.00Sibelius First
Read the full review

Why Trust Us?

We have been testing and comparing music notation software for more than 12 years. Every time we update this guide, we download the newest versions of the best programs and use them as a typical consumer would.

During testing, our reviewers note how easy each program is to purchase and download, and we test its features to evaluate whether the software makes notating easier than doing it by hand. We also check whether there are hidden steps to connect input devices, such as MIDI keyboards and microphones. We report all shortcomings discovered during testing in each product’s individual review.

As a musician, I have been using notation software for the past 10 years, both professionally and for fun. Although my experience with these programs makes it easy to find and use certain features, I try to approach the testing process as if it is my first time using composition software. In the product reviews, I let you know my impressions of useful tools and indicate which features are impractical.

How We Tested

When we test notation software, our first step is to purchase each product, download it and register it, noting how easy or difficult the process is. Once the software is up and running, we connect a MIDI keyboard and headphones to our testing laptop and count the number of steps it takes to start notating music and monitor the playback.

Not everyone who uses notation software has a MIDI keyboard, so when available, we also used the programs’ virtual pianos and virtual guitar fretboards to input notes. The third important note input method is shortcut keys and a computer mouse, so we also compared the applications’ tool palettes. We found the best notation programs have toolbars you can customize to prominently display the tools you use most often, which can speed up your work.

After we created a score, we used each software’s playback engine to test how realistic its virtual instruments sound. Our favorite programs have a good variety of instruments in their libraries, including percussion instruments, strings and horns.

Finally, we tested each application’s import and export capabilities. We imported a variety of files, including MIDI files, MusicXML files and graphic images, to see how easy each program made the process. We then exported the compositions in a variety of formats to check that they were legible and accurate, which is important when you send your scores to other musicians or composers.

Key Features to Look for When Choosing Music Notation Software

We asked Mark Maxson, a faculty member and music technology specialist at Weber State University, which features he thought were most important, and he said, “Because the number one purpose of notation software is to put accurate and great looking sheet music in front of live players I find non-print export options useful.” He also noted, “Any feature that helps get notes on the lines fast is invaluable.”

Here are some of the features we tested that make sharing files and note entry efficient:

Music Features
It is important to choose software that can create more than one style of sheet music. The best composition programs we tested not only create piano music, but also make guitar tablature, guitar chord names and percussion notation. Programs that have a variety of these music features allow novice musicians to write and play compositions with little knowledge of music theory.

Input/Output
If you don't have a MIDI controller available, you need software with other ways to create sheet music. All the products we reviewed let you insert notes by clicking on the staff with your mouse or by using a virtual keyboard or guitar fretboard.

Sharing your sheet music with others is just as important as creating it. All the software we reviewed let you print off your sheet music and export standard MIDI files. Programs that allow you to export your final compositions as audio files make your work easier to share with people who may not be able to read music.

Editing Features
When you choose a composition program that has a volume mixer, you can make changes to volume and panning information as you listen to the playback. You can also use the mixer to record the changes as you make them, although those changes only apply to the playback sound, not to the composition data.

id:71