QUICK HIT: The best software packages for building professional guitar tabs and sheet music.
Updated by Millie
Recently updated on July 28th, 2020
Updated table of contents, checked software links, and made minor changes to article format.
Best Music Notation Software Picks
Before we look at software, let's define what we mean by "music notation."
Notating music is simply the process of writing music, usually in standard notation or guitar tab form.
Thus, music notation software simply allows us to do this more quickly and efficiently in a digital format.
Sheet music and tabs (tablature, if you want to be formal) look like the following:
Creating these sheets can range from being incredibly complex to mind-numbingly simple.
Thus, I want to avoid rounding up only high-level music notataion software. Because often times people need to edit and transcribe music for reasons that are better served by a simpler interface.
In fact, the basic tasks that would fall under the banner of “music notation,” are all well-developed in some of the cheaper music notation software packages.
These tasks would include the following:
- Notating via user input (keyboard, mouse, etc.)
- Creating exercises or educational material
- Previewing sheet music or tabs with audio playback
While software packages like Sibelius can be useful in the right context (I do recommend and discuss it in this article), it’s nice to have some simpler, more affordable options as well.
To cover this wide range of functionality, we’ll highlight four of what I consider the best music notation software options.
Two of them are lightweight while the other two are more professional and heavy duty.
Before we get into our software, let’s look at how music notation technology might be used and applied with a real-world example.
Music Notation and Songsterr Example
Music notation will typically be done for personal study, writing (composing) or teaching music. Any kind of software that plays sheet music as audio, lets you write notation or helps you learn a piece of music, could be considered notation-related or at least educational.
Take the website Songsterr, for example.
Built for guitar players, Songsterr is a massive database that lets your search for tabs and then actually plays the song in proper time along with the tab sheet.
This, in and of itself, is an example of music notation software.
It’s also a good example of how music notation solutions can be used for writing music, listening to that music played back and for developing educational resources that help other people learn music more accurately.
With that in mind, we’ll start with the two lighter (and more affordable) music notation software options.
Read the full review: Songsterr
ScoreCloud is a downloadable application that’s compatible with both PC and Mac. It’s initially free, with upgradable options.
It’s described as an “intelligent” notation tool that tracks and writes sheet music for you as you play. Your input can come through a MIDI keyboard, microphone or the companion app that can be downloaded for Android and iOS.
Predictably, you can also input your notes the old fashion way, via keyboard or mouse.
As you play, the software analyzes your music, both the melody and tempo, then creates a score for you.
While you’ll need to have a bit of savvy audio knowledge to setup your instrument externally, it can work with just about any that you might want to use.
There are a few different connection methods to consider.
Now the bad news:
While the software itself is free, it limits you to 10 songs (which are stored in a cloud account) and puts a watermark on all your music. While you can certainly delete songs as you go, it’s not ideal for anyone with a high volume of work.
You’ll also need a pro level account to access your songs offline. Of course, printing them out and tolerating the watermark is always an option. Here’s the pricing info for the other two upgrade options.
For the PLUS plan, if you move the pricing to a yearly bill, they’ll drop you to $49, which saves a little bit of money. For someone who would use this feature a lot, particularly music students, tutors or teachers, it’s not a hefty investment.
Potential buyers should also be aware that the “Cloud” aspect of this software is very much a part of your subscription as this is where each song is initially stored.
Further, this is how your 10 song limit is enforced. You’ll need your account and login information to access your music, outside of the printing option.
For infrequent use, the free account is probably enough to get by with if you just want to print your music sheets, learn to love the watermark and delete as you go. Though for any additional or high-volume use, upgrading will probably be necessary.
PRICE: Free with upgrade options
FUNCTION: Sheet music and notation
2: Guitar Pro 7
Arobas Music designed Guitar Pro specifically (and predictably) for guitar players, as a means of creating both professional-grade tab sheets and standard notation. The software is incredibly powerful, providing you all the proper sheet music features you could want, but also making it possible to playback your music with a full range of effects and amplifier models.
Guitar Pro also allows you to download instrument audio models, like bass guitars, acoustics or other electric guitars.
All of these instrument models are usable with the playback feature.
To start building a piece of music, simply use the keyboard to type in numbers on the tab sheet, or use the standard notation side by itself.
You can use either tabs or standard notation alone or at the same time.
To switch between the two, simply press F6 then select/deselect either one, via the following window:
If you were to deselect the “Standard” checkbox and click OK, you’d be left with only the tab sheet, which still has indicators for each type of note (whole, half, quarter, eighth, etc).
Both modes (tab and standard notation) allow you to keep track of the time signature of each note (notice the lines beneath each tab number). Note timing is typically only discernible in standard notation, though Guitar Pro does a great job displaying it on their tab sheets as well.
The most conventional method for inputting notes is to use the tab portion with numbers on a keyboard.
For example, if you want to start with a G on the sixth string (as I did in the above image) simply click on that line and hit number “3” on the keyboard.
You can download the of demo Guitar Pro 7 for free and use it for 30 days, although saving and exporting features are completely disabled. Access to different instrument sounds are also severely limited.
To get the full version you’ll pay a one-time fee of $75, which could fluctuate slightly depending on where you buy from.
This is a fair and decent price point for what you’re getting. Because not only is Guitar Pro 7 a fantastic notation software, but it’s a decent sound modeler as well. Arobas (the company that makes Guitar Pro) could easily charge more and still be fair to consumers.
While additional features are simply too numerous to mention in total, a few I like include the advanced playback controls, effects pedal modeling and the ability to configure and save “stylesheets” for your notation. The full version also supports a number of different export options, including PDF documents.
You can also incorporate chord sheets into your tabs, at the top of the page via this interface:
FUNCTION: Music notation, guitar tab creation and education
3: Avid Sibelius
Ok, first – I want to be upfront about my comfort level with this product, and say that it’s not 100 percent. I would have to echo what many others have said (particularly a handful of Amazon reviewers) in that it’s an incredibly powerful program that leaves me with a few reservations.
But first, let’s lead with the good news, because for students, teachers and composers, there’s plenty to love about what Sibelius provides.
A Stacked Spec Sheet for Sibelius
I think it’s important to be aware that the ideal (and perhaps Avid’s primary target) user is someone who is involved with music full time or at least in a semi-professional, perhaps part-time capacity.
If that’s the case, composers, students, teachers and songwriters are catered to via a litany of powerful features that includes the following:
- Touchscreen compatibility (use a pen with a Microsoft Surface Pro)
- Fast and slick GUI (assuming your computer is powerful enough to run the software)
- Instrument compatibility for playback (the Incredible Hulk version of Guitar Pro 7's Soundbanks)
- Notate and scan your own music or hand-written sheets (accuracy depends on quality)
- Integrate with ProTools for music producers
Features lead into features, as the full extent of Sibelius is immersive, giving you nearly every possible manner in which to write and compose your music.
Sibelius’s popularity has made it the choice of numerous professionals, including James Horner who composed the music for Avatar and has his endorsement on the site’s front page.
So, why not just rush out and grab a copy of Sibelius?
Isn’t this obviously the best music notation software?
Well, sort of – but not in every situation.
The Ideal Sibelius User
While there’s no question that Sibelius is a solid and incredibly powerful piece of software, it’s often going to “out-punt the coverage” of an average music teacher, student, songwriter or composer.
In other words, it’s possibly more than you need.
If you already work with ProTools, then Sibelius (which integrates quite well with ProTools) might be more of an ideal investment for you. In fact, Sibelius is geared towards music producers and recording studios more so than teachers and those involved with music in an academic capacity.
But even for small recording studios, Sibelius just feels like a lot more weight than what you’ll need to get your music on paper. If you aren’t doing this for a living or in a significant professional capacity, you're likely getting more software than you need and a ton of features that you won’t use.
If you’re considering this software, take advantage of the 30-day free trial offer.
That will allow you to test it and see if it’s a good fit.
After the trial is done, you can do a monthly plan of $19 for a subscription, or own the software for $599.
Like I said, it’s a hefty investment that may or may not be worth the cost. As someone who has composed and written music on a part-time basis, it’s more than I would have ever needed.
PRICE: $19 (subscribe) or $599 (buy)
FUNCTION: Professional music composition, sheet music generation and music production
4: Finale Music Notation Software V25
One of Sibelius’s direct competitors is the music notation software titled Finale, which is created by MakeMusic.
While Finale’s retail price is similar to Sibelius, hovering around $600, there are actually a lot of different roads you can take to purchase the software at a cheaper price tag.
For those who like the power and flexibility of Sibelius, but bulk at the $600 price tag, Finale could be a cheaper alternative, particularly for those in the education arena.
Finale can record and track music from external interfaces like a MIDI keyboard and (of course) basic computer keyboard/mouse input. Guitar tabs, lyrics and chord sheets can also be developed and included in your final product, all in addition to standard notation.
You can even cut, copy and paste different portions of your music to various parts of your sheet.
Some advanced educational and sharing features are included like an exercise sheet generator and SmartMusic which allows you to create customizable worksheets.
As I mentioned earlier, these features seem to be uniquely geared towards those in the academic realm, while Sibelius caters more towards music production and the needs of recording studios. The advanced features of Finale V25 make that especially clear.
The guitar tab feature, in particular, does a good job of displaying how easy it is to edit and manipulate your music once it has been entered into a sheet.
You can even export your music as an audio file, with support for EPUB, MIDI files and the SmartMusic feature.
You can also save your work in graphical form, using any of these file formats:
- .PICT (Mac only)
For playback of your music, you’ll have the ability to adjust volume, mute or pan each part of your sheet with a graphical mixing interface.
Who is the ideal Finale V25 user?
Even with the mixer, it doesn’t have the production level vibe that we get from Sibelius. Everything about Finale is distinctly education oriented, clearly designed with music teachers and students in mind.
I’d think of it as Sibelius for colleges and high schools, which (based on the pricing) should be a more attractive option for folks in that niche, anyway.
At the same time I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who isn’t certain they would use it consistently. Even the cheaper pricing is a hefty investment, and shouldn’t be taken on if you’re not sure that at least some of these features will be useful to you.
That’s a call you’re going to have to make for yourself.
If you’ll use the advanced features and find that the cheaper music notation software isn’t powerful enough, grab the academic version of Finale from Amazon and give it a spin. If you work as a music teacher, it’s most likely a worthwhile investment.
PRICE: $280 (academic version) $599 (retail)
FUNCTION: Professional music composition/education, sheet music generation, music tutors, students and full-time music teachers
Your Questions and Experience
Do you know of other music notation software packages that deserve a mention? These are the ones I have experience with, but there are others available that compete and serve other areas of music or even particular instruments.
If you want to talk about those or you have questions about what I’ve mentioned already, leave it in the comments section below.