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Best music notation software 2020: Music writing software for quick and easy composition

Best music notation software 2020: Music writing software for quick and easy composition
(Image credit: Getty)

For even professional composers, the most challenging thing about writing music should be coming up with the best score you can. That’s why the best music notation software is such an essential tool, even for beginners to the composition scene. The best music notation software can help you finetune your music with accurate playback and an extensive sound library to help you find the perfect ensemble to make your music come together. This is achievable through using MIDI keyboards, which connect to your music notation software and your music will be recorded straight onto your screen. 

Some of the best music notation software will come with virtual piano and guitar options which let you record and save music notation on the go or as inspiration strikes. Often, you won’t even need a laptop to use music writing software. Many of our top picks of the best music notation software come with apps which will work on the best smartphones to help you create original compositions on the go. 

Most of the best music notation software needs to be downloaded onto your computer, but not all of the software we’ve reviewed is compatible with Mac computers, which is something to watch out for if you are looking to download composition software to help you write music on a Mac computer or laptop. We’ve reviewed free music notation software as well as premium options to help you find the right one for you. To find out more about the best music notation software for you and your needs, just keep reading.


1. Notion 6: Best music composition software overall

Notion: Best music composition software overall

(Image credit: PreSonus)

Notion 6

This is the best music writing software you can buy

MIDI compatible: Yes | App: Yes | Free version: No | Suitable for Mac: Yes

Intuitive workflow
Realistic playback instrument tones
Tablet and phone compatibility
Uses a lot of hard drive space

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 dropdown 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.


2. MuseScore: Best free music composition software

(Image credit: MuseScore)

MuseScore

This is the best free music composition software

MIDI compatible: Yes | App: Yes | Free version: Yes | Suitable for Mac: Yes

Free
Good selection of input and output features
Easy-to-use interface
No volume mixer

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.


3. Noteflight: Best value online music notation 

(Image credit: Noteflight)

Noteflight

Technically, it's not software, but it'll save valuable hard drive space (and money)

MIDI compatible : Yes | App: No | Free version: Yes | Suitable for Mac: Yes

Excellent educator platform support
Even premium is great value 
Access to Noteflight Marketplace
Can’t permanently download the software

There are three versions of Noteflight, including the free Noteflight Basic, which allows you to create and edit up to 10 scores. Noteflight Learn is specifically designed for educators. It syncs with Google Classroom and other popular learning management systems. Noteflight Premium is one of the cheapest premium music notation options we reviewed. 

You can't permanently download this software, but the online platform allows you to access your account from any computer with an internet connection. The toolbar is customizable and includes everything you need to create and edit simple arrangements. You can also import and edit MIDI and MusicXML files from other notation software. However, the online platform gets bogged down and reacts slowly with complex compositions.

The Premium version is a better choice if you use notation software on a regular basis, and it has similar workflow to the best programs we tested. There’s an audio recording feature for adding audio segments to any score as well as 85 built-in instrument sounds. Also, the Premium subscription gives you access to the marketplace, where you can sell and market finalized compositions. The program's volume mixer is easy to use and a helpful tool to get all the audio levels correct before you export an MP3 or WAV file to share with other musicians.


4. Sibelius: Best professional music notation software

(Image credit: Avid)

Sibelius

Sibelius is easy to use, and has a free option to try it out

MIDI compatible: Yes | App: Yes | Free version: Yes | Suitable for Mac: Yes

Easy note entry
Mac and PC compatible
Innovative cloud sharing feature
Limited on lower-tier options 

Sibelius is a multi-tiered music notation program with an attractive, 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. There is a free and a premium version, as well as Sibelius itself.

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. In case you have a hard time getting started, this notation software has 40 genre-specific templates to help spark your imagination.

You can also 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 premium 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 a smaller framework, Sibelius is a cost effective option, and it’s easy enough for musicians and composers of all skill levels to use.


5. Finale PrintMusic: Best beginner music notation software

Finale PrintMusic: Best value music notation software

(Image credit: Finale)

Finale PrintMusic

If you have a Windows computer, this is your best beginner option

MIDI compatible: Yes | App : No | Free version: No | Suitable for Mac: No

Intuitive and easy-to-use interface
Great value for money
No virtual keyboard
Not available to Mac computers 

Finale PrintMusic has an intuitive workflow and an easy-to-navigate interface. It boasts an impressive set of note entry tools and editing palettes, and they are all easy to find and use.

You can enter notes with your computer’s mouse, a MIDI keyboard or a computer keyboard – even though it doesn't have a virtual piano, there's no shortage of input options. When you finish entering notes, you can listen to your composition with the Human Playback feature, which performs your music using one of the hundreds of built-in instruments, including strings, horns and percussion instruments.

Finale has a great list of shareable output formats. It outputs publisher-quality printable files as well as PDF and graphic files. You can also output an MP3 file to share an audio version of your finalized score. Finale is the most recognized name in music production software because it is easy to use and has a great selection of notation tools, but its PrintMusic software is designed for beginners specifically.


6. Forte Home: Best music notation software with app

(Image credit: Forte)

Forte Home

This music notation software comes with a handy free app

MIDI compatible: Yes | App: Yes | Free version: No | Suitable for Mac: No

Helpful companion app
Good price
Has a basic and premium option, too
Desktop software not compatible with Macs

Forte has two great companion apps: one that scans sheet music using the camera on your phone or tablet and a reader app that opens and plays back compositions from the desktop application with your mobile devices.

They are free and available for Android and Apple devices. The desktop application isn’t as visually appealing as some of the other programs we tested, but it has all the tools needed to create simple or complex arrangements.

You enter notes using a MIDI keyboard, virtual piano or your computer’s keyboard. While you input notes, Forte keeps track of the number of counts missing from a measure and automatically adds the appropriate rests to speed up workflow. Forte also has a volume mixer to control volume and panning for each instrument. When your composition sounds perfect, you can export an MP3 or WAV file to share with other musicians.


How We Tested 

When we test notation software, our first step is to purchase each product, download it and register it. As we do, we note 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, count the number of steps it takes to start notating music, and monitor the playback.

As we tested the software, we noted how easy each program is to purchase and download. In addition, we evaluated its features to find out if it's easier to notate with the program than it is to do so by hand. We also checked whether there are hidden steps to connect input devices such as MIDI keyboards and microphones. 

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 makes 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.

How much does Music Notation Software cost?

Most of the software we reviewed costs between $100 and $200 and is perfectly suited for making simple compositions for small band arrangements. If you compose complex arrangements for large bands or orchestras, you should consider one of the more full-feature versions of programs like Finale or Sibelius. However, you can expect to pay upward of $500 for one of these advanced programs. There’s also MuseScore, a free program for creating and printing simple lead sheets. It has comparable features to the best for-pay programs we tested.

What to look for in 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, 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 when you share with people who can't 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.

MIDI controllers for music notation software

There are two important considerations to keep in mind when choosing a MIDI-compatible keyboard to use with music notation software: the tactile quality of the keys and the number of keys. Acoustic pianos have 88 weighted keys, and many digital piano manufacturers have done a good job simulating the feel of a real piano. Keyboards with a MIDI or USB output with 88 weighted keys start around $400 and go up to thousands of dollars, depending on the number and quality of the built-in sounds. MIDI keyboards without built-in sounds control software the same as digital pianos but are much more cost effective and portable, and they often have differing numbers of keys. Here are our favorite MIDI-compatible keyboards for music notation software.

Yamaha P-45
This digital piano has an 88-key weighted key bed and USB output to connect directly to a computer without an additional MIDI interface. If you are accustomed to playing an acoustic piano, this is the best input device to use with transcription software. It only has 10 built-in sounds, but all the notation programs we tested have piano and other keyboard tones included. The downside of using a digital piano with weighted keys to control notation software is the keyboard's size. At 25 pounds, the P-45 is a bit cumbersome to move around. It has rubber feet on the bottom to keep it from sliding around on a desk, but we suggest pairing it with a keyboard stand to ensure the keys are at the proper height.

M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3
This controller keyboard doesn’t have a fully weighted key bed or any built-in sounds, but it’s lightweight and a perfectly suitable controller for all the music notation software we tested. The semi-weighted keys are the same size as those on an acoustic piano and velocity sensitive, so they track how hard you hit the key and send volume information to the software. The Keystation series controllers come with 25, 49, 61 or 88 keys and have a standard USB output to connect to a home computer or laptop.

Sheet music reader apps

A sheet music app is an invaluable tool for taking finalized arrangements to the stage or rehearsal. All the notation programs we tested export PDF files that display on any mobile device, but sheet music readers have better organization features and allow you to annotate a score and export it with markup. Here are our favorite sheet music apps for iOS and Android devices.  

forScore
This app is only available on iPad, but it is the best sheet music app available. It’s compatible with popular cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box, or you can upload PDF or MusicXML files from your computer or email inbox. Once you finish adding arrangements, you can search the library by composer, genre or key. forScore supports half-page turns, which allows you to see the bottom half of one page and the top half of the next page simultaneously. It also syncs with Bluetooth page turner pedals for hands-free page flips.

Orpheus Sheet Music Pro
If you prefer to use Android hardware, Orpheus is the best sheet music app on that OS. It doesn’t have as many organization and file import features as forScore, but the interface is easy to use and includes an annotation tool. There’s a free version that displays ads and limits chart uploads to 30 total. Orpheus has support for Bluetooth hands-free page turners, and syncs with Dropbox. This app isn’t compatible with as many import file types as forScore, but every notation software we tested exports PDF files, which is the preferred file type for Orpheus.