Having the ability to use notation software and transcribe music has proven to be one of my most valuable skills as a musician.
I have been involved in countless projects with fellow musicians that have required me to use notation software to create lead sheets, fully-transcribe solos, transpose parts to match the key of wind instruments, and a multitude of other tasks.
For each of these projects, I have been thankful that I put in the time to really learn how to operate notation software, and took my time to make an informed decision about which program was right for me.
What To Look For When Choosing a Music Notation Software
Most notation programs share similar layouts and are rather intuitive; namely, the options included in this article.
This makes it easy for users to transfer their knowledge from one program to the next and enjoy new features without spending hours combing through a user manual.
Still, there are features that certain programs will have, or salient functions that are better suited for a specific activity, that is good to be aware of.
For example, there are many options on this list that are ideal if you are creating large symphonic works. Others would take quite a bit of adjustment to accommodate this type of piece.
Not all software choices will make it easy for you to create 20 staves, assign contrasting dynamic marks to multiple instruments, and make it look nice.
On the other hand, certain programs will be much easier for casual or educational use; some programs will make it more simple to input notes and rhythms for play-alongs, quick composition demos, or exercises for lessons.
The price tag on quality software can always seem overwhelming; buying the full, permanent version of some of the most reputable notation products outright can be up to $600.
It has become very common for software makers to offer trial versions and subscription pricing. These can be $9.99/month or less.
Compatibility – System Requirements
All software on this list is compatible with both Mac OS and Windows, and most have an app that can be downloaded to a tablet or smart device. As with much of our favorite music software, the storage cost is quite extensive. Since programs come with such a vast library of sounds, it does require a large amount of storage space on your device.
Transcribing, simply put, is notating the music that you hear. It is often a rite of passage for performing musicians to write out the parts on manuscript paper, for the music they learn by ear. This is quite a challenging task and it can be incredibly time-consuming, especially when multiple parts are playing simultaneously.
On this list, several of the options include a package deal with transcription software included, which can listen to music for you and spit out the notes in sheet music form right into your score. All programs are also capable of transcribing playing from your MIDI device, such as a keyboard or multipad, and export the notes you play into the software.
It is assumed that all notation software choices will come with the conventional symphonic range of woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instruments. It is also common for programs to include keyboards, melodic percussion, drum set, cultural instruments, bass, and 6 string guitars, typically accompanied with tablature notation available in multiple tunings.
Your Skill Level
If you’re new to notation software, it would be wise to devote some time to truly get to know the “lay of the land”, regardless of the product you choose; it may be beneficial to download a free version of any software and become familiar with navigating the basics.
If you have experience using notation software, you’ll find similarities in most products, but seeking out programs with new and different features can help inspire your work.
The 5 Best Music Notation Software
In the music-creation business, we are given many choices for what we do. Each production demands so much of our time and skill, and our industry has created programs that can help us make the most of it.
Like all things, take an honest look at what you will be using this software for while shopping, and consider if, in the future, you may use it for more adventurous projects that may require more specific features.
1) Sibelius 8, from AVID
Created by AVID, who is also responsible for legendary DAW Pro Tools, Sibelius has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the “heavy hitters” in music notation software.
The realistic sounds included in the software, along with the logical layout make it a strong contender for composers, teachers, and students of music. The options for trial and subscription pricing are a great way to see if Sibelius is the right choice for you.
Who’s it for? This software can benefit any type of musician—composer, performer, transcriber—but our music educators have been given several gifts in Sibelius 8: there is an educator discount for licensing; there are myriad ways to make annotations in scores, as in helping students with their work; and transcription features galore.
Skill Level: This software is easy to use for those familiar with standard notation software layout, and easy for newcomers to learn. Sibelius does offer a more “novice” version of their product called Sibelius First; a more affordable way to test the product.
Price: Various subscriptions available: $19/monthly subscription, $199/yearly subscription, $599 for perpetual license
Compatibility: Mac, PC, and Tablet versions are available
Transcription: Yes, a lite version of AudioScore, PhotoScore & NotateMe come included with purchase.
Instruments in Software:
- 36 GB of professional-quality samples
- Full symphonic instrumentation, modern percussion instruments, contemporary pop instruments, intuitive tablature, chord notation, and nomenclature.
- Mixing board with volume faders, panning, reverb, and basic EQ.
Currently, on version 26, Finale is another program that is considered a goliath of notation software. This software was first created in 1988, and it has been refined and improved ever since; it has truly stood the test of time.
Who’s it for? Composers from many different styles have offered testimonials on their support of Finale: this includes Wynton Marsalis of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; Justin Hurwitz, who composed the music for La La Land; and parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic. Finale can suit many needs, whether you’re arranging music for ensembles, or composing your own pieces.
Skill Level: Many respectable musicians have told me they have used Finale all along, which means they started using it as a beginner. It does have a steep learning curve—music schools often offer classes in Finale—but it can be satisfying to learn one of the top names in notation software, and easily share XML files with others who use Finale.
Price: Finale Notepad-Free; Finale Print Music-$119.95; Finale 26-$600, discounted prices are available for educational purposes.
Compatibility: Windows, Mac (full version only), Tablet or Smart Device.
Transcription: Yes, Finale has an on-board tool called Hyperscribe that can help with transcribing.
Instruments in Software:
- The sounds included in Finale’s playback are from Garritan, who creates exceptional virtual instrument libraries in every style.
- Aria player, which is a mixing board embedded within Finale that allows you to adjust the nuances of the sounds from Garritan.
3) Flat (by Google)
For the more casual musician who occasionally has the need to create sheet music, a cloud-based option that is easy on your budget may be a good choice. Flat is relatively new, created in early 2019, so Google is still working to provide its users with as many features as possible. Having all of your manuscripts “in the cloud” and not taking up space on your hard drive is something every musician can benefit from, and the accessibility to link Flat to other apps in Google suite can prove useful as well.
Who’s it for? Flat can be well utilized by performers, teachers, students, or composers; to quickly transcribe music, create play-alongs, or notate exercises for lessons, for example.
Skill Level: This software has been designed to be very simple for beginners to use, of course more savvy users will find it useful as well.
Price: $6.99/monthly, $49/yearly, $149 full purchase
Compatibility: Mac, PC, tablet, or any smart device.
Transcription: Not currently offered.
Instruments in Software:
- Contains over 100 instruments,
- Covers the typical spectrum of woodwind, brass, keyboard, percussion, vocal, orchestral string, and plucked string instruments. It also features electronic, and several free reed instruments.
- You can create your own instrument by customized the clef, transposition, MIDI sounds, range, and more.
Noteflight is more than just music notation software, though that element certainly has its strong points. Noteflight is a community of musicians who are able to share, sell, and play along to scores created by users. Noteflight also has a dedicated program for educators called Noteflight Learn, which is a private website for organizing classroom sessions.
Who’s it for? Perhaps the biggest benefit of having your sheet music in an online library is that you can access it on any device, anywhere with internet service. You also don’t need to concern yourself with saving your scores, as Noteflight will auto-save and upload your work for you.
Skill Level: Noteflight is a great “starter home” for those just getting involved with music notation. It can also function as a secondary program for advanced users who want to have a platform to share their scores with students or other musicians.
Price: Noteflight Premium has three choices for subscription prices: $7.99/month; $49/year; or $299 for a lifetime. Noteflight Basic is Free
Compatibility: Windows, Mac, Apple and Android devices
Instruments in Software:
- Over 85 high-quality instruments
- Use MIDI instruments as input devices
- Record live audio into scores to hear during playback.
5) Dorico 3.5
A product of Steinberg, who we also can thank for Cubase and many VSTs, Dorico was created in late 2016 and is currently on its ninth release, version 3.5. Dorico currently has three editions: Dorico SE; Dorico Elements; and Dorico Pro. For an in-depth look at the differences between the three versions, Steinberg’s website has a useful comparison chart here. A huge supporter of Dorico is a famous film composer Alan Silvestri, who has given us the music from Back to The Future and The Avengers movies, among many others.
Who’s it for? There are many features in Dorico that will make it stand out for composers who write music for video. There is an embedded video engine that produces a thumbnail during play mode, and allows you to create markers that appear in your score. Although media composers will relish in these benefits, musicians of all kinds will find intrigue in Dorico’s appealing score layout and sound design.
Skill Level: Dorico has a compelling layout that still has familiar navigation for those switching from other notation programs. Though the program is simple to use, Dorico has a plethora of videos on its YouTube channel to help you steer you through some of the finer features it has to offer.
Price: $559.99 for Dorico Pro, $99.99 for Dorico Elements, Dorico SE is a free download.
Compatibility: Windows and Mac OS
Transcription: Dorico doesn’t have any transcription software included.
Instruments in Software:
- Over 1,300 production-ready sounds from HALion Sonic SE 3.
- Complete HALion symphonic library
- Olympus Choir Micro from Soundiron
Find What is Right for You
There’s no reason to disguise how much of an investment you will make into your notation software. Not just fiscal, but time and emotional investments will be made into this software. Hours of composing music from the heart; transcribing the music that you love and want to learn more about; helping your students forge a love for music.
These are just some examples of what makes music technology so beautiful, and what making this decision so important. If you are contemplating one of the programs on this list, great! But, please, be sure to take your time and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the reduced-trail periods and low-budget offers. The time you spend doing research will be fruitful; the more you feel inspired by the program you choose, the more you can focus on what you do best.