The last couple of decades have seen a dramatic evolution in the tools used to create and record music. What could be done only with expensive studio hardware not long ago is now possible with powerful desktop software and inexpensive smartphone apps—on the fly, no less. And music notation software has received all of the benefits of this technology. Gold-standard programs such as Finale and Sibelius were originally designed for the sole purpose of creating musical manuscripts. But now, with their high-quality sampled sounds, they’re like instruments in themselves, and so are the handful of feature-rich programs they’ve inspired.

Engraving, Literally and Figuratively

It wasn’t always so easy. For centuries before the personal computer revolution, composers committed their music to notation with pen and paper. They didn’t really know exactly how their pieces would sound until they were performed. Music was prepared for mass production through a process of engraving—a term still used to describe notation software, even though it’s all but outmoded. Notation was engraved onto zinc metal plates that were then inked and used for printing. Needless to say, this was a complex and often tedious process.

Developed in the 19th century and used throughout the 20th, music typewriters worked similarly to conventional typewriters, but, as the name suggests, the keys had musical symbols instead of letters. Still, music typewriters were cumbersome by today’s standards. Readers of a certain age will remember the onerous task of using correction tape to fix mistyped words.

When personal computers first became affordable in the ’80s, the earliest versions of music engraving software appeared, and they were to music notation what word processing was to text. Though far less functional than the current version, Finale’s earliest software made it possible for composers to efficiently and cleanly present their music in notation. The program also included a playback feature, albeit with the most basic sounds—think of the timbres heard in vintage video-game music.

The digital audio workstation (DAW)—with which music can be recorded and produced on a computer rather than a multi-track tape recorder—emerged in the next decade. DAWs began incorporating software instruments and programs like Finale and a new competitor, Sibelius, offered increasingly realistic instrument sounds. Since then there’s been a kind of cross-fertilization between DAWs and notation programs. The latest notation programs have virtual mixers and built-in digital effects, while it’s standard for DAWs to include some form of notational capability. 

Or, if you’d prefer, you can still go “old school” and write out your music by hand!

Notational Software 101

Like any other type of software, today’s engraving programs offer varying degrees of flexibility and power, and work on a variety of platforms—at a range of price points. At one end of the spectrum, programs such as Finale, and Sibelius ($600 each) remain industry standards for desktop and laptop users, while an Android/iOS app like NotateMe ($39.99) allows for music to be jotted down on a smartphone.

Though there’s a wide range of available notation software, all of the programs share the same basic operational idea: You’re presented with a blank staff manuscript and a series of palettes with icons for music symbols. The program generates the staff lines for the instrument or group of instruments you specify. Then you get to work, entering the music with a computer keyboard or MIDI instrument, or in the case of a program like NotateMe, drawing the music on the screen with your finger or stylus. Your notes are then converted to printable notation with playback functionality.


If you’re on a QWERTY keyboard, you use a combination of mouse clicks and keystrokes to enter the notes. For instance, you might type D for the note D, or simply click on the appropriate line on the staff. Here’s what’s cool—the program will play back the notes on your hardware’s speakers or external headphones as you input the music, and it can honor a score’s dynamics, articulations, and even individual instrumental techniques, like a violin’s pizzicato on a ukulele’s strum. Plus, a playback controller lets you hear one or all of the instruments in your score at any point, so that you can get a very real sense of what you’re composing or arranging.

Copy-and-paste functionality allows you to quickly reproduce any repeating element in a score, from a note to an entire passage. You can easily change the order of sections, just like moving things around on a DAW or Word doc. And there are controls that allow you to transform a piece, for instance, transposing it to another key, with just a click or two. On some programs, there are even compositional tools with which you can instantly double or halve the note values, arrange the pitches in retrograde and inverse order, and a whole lot more.

I use the latest version of Finale for all of the work I do for Stringletter’s magazines. Not only is the playback feature an excellent tool for quality control, it allows me to transcribe music without having an instrument at hand. Many other features are a boon for this work, as well. I can change the pitch of the strings in the tab staff to match a nonstandard tuning, for instance, ensuring a perfect agreement between the standard and tablature staves. And the control I have over each element in the score, including Classical Guitar’s specialized tablature clef symbol, gives the music a distinctive and consistent appearance.

Abundant Possibilities

Most notation programs offer multiple ways of saving, exporting, and sharing music. For instance, I export this magazine’s work as print-ready PDFs, but it’s also possible to save it as MIDI files, for use in a DAW or program with MIDI capabilities; as an audio file like AIFF, WAV, or MP3; in the XML (cross-platform) format, so that it can be opened in Sibelius or other programs, and shared to Facebook, SoundCloud, etc.—and more.

The inherent possibilities of notation software for composers and music producers are exciting. Just to scratch the surface: You might not have a brass or string ensemble at your disposal, but you can throw together an arrangement, export it in MIDI, sync it to your project in Pro Tools or Logic, and tweak it with plug-ins and EQs so that it offers a reasonable or even very convincing likeness of an actual ensemble.

If you’re unsure whether a melody will sound best played on, say, a flute, oboe, or clarinet, most notation programs will play it back on all three instruments. They can also highlight any notes that are out of range on a given instrument—not that this precludes a careful study of how instruments are played and what they’re capable of, at least not for the serious composer or arranger.

You’ve Got Options

If you’re a professional engraver and are preparing music for publishing—or are a composer in need of notational flexibility—you can’t go wrong with the new Finale or Sibelius 8. However, if your needs are less specific—maybe you just want to jot down some ideas in notation—you can get in the door with a streamlined version like Notepad (free download), Songwriter ($49.95), Printmusic ($119.95), all three by Finale, or Sibelius First ($99.99). A program like PreSonus’s Notion 6 ($149.95) is packed with features, is easy to use, and offers a terrific library of sounds, some sampled from the London Symphony Orchestra.

There are a number of apps that will let you get the job done, and these of course are particularly helpful when you find inspiration while on the go. The same sounds on Notion 6 are also loaded on the company’s iOS app. If handwriting feels most intuitive, try NotateMe ($39.99) or StaffPad ($69.99), for Windows 10, designed for use with a Surface device. You can also use a Surface Pro with Sibelius, and Notion also offers a handwriting feature for its app.

The neat thing about yet another offering, Noteflight, is that it requires no software and will work on any device with a web browser. It’s available in a limited capacity for free, or from $49/year or $7.95/month. Noteflight really encourages collaboration—you can share your work with anyone, notational expert or not, simply by emailing the URL of your project.

But whatever program you explore, remember that you’re not committed to just one; they can communicate with one another through the XML format. And more important, keep in mind that, regardless of your notational needs, there’s no substitute for hitting the proverbial shed when it comes to composing and arranging.