Updated by Millie
Updated on April 19th, 2022
Updated table of contents, checked software links, and made minor changes to article format. Updated references to MakeMusic Finale and Guitar Pro versions.
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.
Best Music Notation Software (top 4 picks)
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.
For example, a guitar to computer connection would be best served by some sort of audio interface, like the PreSonus Audiobox.
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
- Link: https://scorecloud.com/
- 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:
- Price: $59
- Download: Guitar Pro download link
- 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 (one-time purchase price)
- Website: Browse on Sweetwater
- Function: Professional music composition, sheet music generations, 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.
I checked on Amazon and you can actually get the Academic/Theological version much cheaper on a USB flash drive.
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: $350 (academic version) $600 (retail)
- Website: Browse on Sweetwater
- 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.
Written by Bobby on Tabs and Music Theory
i’ve been through them all…
the most important point is how self exploring is the software and do I have to take weeks of lessons and tutorial journeys to find out simple operations.
They all have their own way of doing things, and most of them don’t offer real-time input, so to create scores by mouse can end up in thousands of clicks.
Most of them have brilliant results, but no realtime midi input.
I used to use (older) Cubase for notation and TAB, but now I use PROGRESSION (smaller version of Presonus “Notation” ) with my midi Guitar for basic draft and then editing. (lots of restrictions compared to Cubase)
There’s no midi input software existing that can handle bendings, slides and other guitar tricks thou. All has to be edited manually.
Toby – thanks for sharing. I think your assessment is spot-on.
ok thanks Bobby, but I wasn’t very accurate here…
complex software like Finale or Sibelius do of course offer midi input in realtime – but like mentioned, sometimes it seems as if note input settings were just a secret to hold!
I admit, it´s because I’m lazy and just used to it:
Metronome, record button (red!) and go!
What else do you need?
Even if you want to switch between realtime to step recording – there is no reason to change settings to achieve this…..
Guitar midi recording is still a niche application.
The lack of auto entry as of bendings is a shame, despite midi hardware is capable of sending all the events needed.
(PS: can’t find a cool lead sheet software as well…)
I’ll not-so-humbly offer up essyguitartab.com as an alternative to the reviewed software. There’s a pretty much full-featured free version so I’d encourage people to check it out. I made the site, please contact me through the site with any suggestions.
How long have you had this site up? It looks fantastic.
Thanks for saying so Bobby, I appreciate it. It’s been up in some version for maybe 2 years but really only ironed everything out in last year or so. Always looking for suggestions or comments, there’s a contact page that will send us an email.
Rob Driscoll says
Have you or anyone on this conversation looked into scoring drum kit charts? I am a pro drummer, and also a closet composer/producer on keys and guitar in my home studio and want to produce charts for other musicians to play my drum and other parts of my originals (mostly MIDI and some audio tracks in Sonar X2). Any advice?
Bobby Kittleberger says
Hey Rob – to be honest I don’t know of any software that does this. I assume you’re talking about a kind of sheet music tracker for drums? I know Sibelius has some pretty involved rhythm notation and tracking abilities, but I’m not sure if that’s what you’re looking for.
Robert J Driscoll says
Thanks for the reply, Bobby. I’m not sure what you mean by “sheet music tracker”. What I am looking for is software that will convert MIDI files (for drum kit tracks) into drum kit sheet music. Thanks, again!
Bobby Kittleberger says
Oh ok, my bad. I misunderstood what you were asking. I honestly don’t know of any software that would do this, so I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help on this one. I’ll check with a few of my buddies who play drums and see if they can drop an answer for ya on here.
Dave Mason says
I’ve been looking at the “Notion 6” notation software from PreSonus. It seems to be tailor-made for the middle ground user: composer/songwriter (piano, guitar, vocal) who wants a basic score with optional tabs. It’s very reasonable – a one-time purchase price of $49 as of this writing – and supports MIDI keyboard, virtual piano keyboard or guitar fretboard input as well the more primitive point-and-click techniques.
Bobby Kittleberger says
Thanks for the mention, Dave. Here’s a link for those interested: https://www.presonus.com/products/Notion
One thing to be aware of with Notion 6 is .. the standard library that comes with the software does not include all the instruments, duo’s, sections that you will need to score a full orchestra. Nor does it include all of the playing styles, articulations, and techniques of the instruments. If you want to score a full orchestra you will need to spend $299 more for the Expansion Pack (Bundle) – All. That puts the Notion 6 purchase price nearly at a full license for Sibelius, which includes those capabilities, and is far more comprehensive.
Sam Butler says
For those looking to start out with Sibelius but are unsure about the features and price, start with Sibelius First. It’s a light-weight version of Sibelius that still provides the full features for writing for guitar (chord symbols, chord diagrams, bends, tab etc.). Subscriptions start at $5.99 a month or you can buy the program for $119.
Files are compatible with Sibelius so you can collaborate with anyone using the full product. If you need more features, you can then trade up to Sibelius, which is just $179 if you’re in full time education.
Bobby Kittleberger says
Hey, thanks for this, Sam. I appreciate you taking the time to post.
dave c says
Just downloaded Sibelius First. Haven’t looked at it yet, but it is a 1GB file.
But best of all…. it’s free.
Bobby Kittleberger says
I’m assuming this is the lite version?
Bryce Fischer says
I’ve used Flat.io with some success too. Although I generally just use guitar pro
Bobby Kittleberger says
That’s a new one to me. Good find. Here’s a live link for anyone interested:
Millie Roark says
Bunch of different instruments for Flat. Otherwise, Guitar Pro is more powerful and easier to use.
Great review, thanks!
To me, ScoreCloud wasthe easiest to use with not too many (cluttered) functions.
The automatic scores when playing on a midi-keyboard are incredibly good, even for complex music!
Millie Roark says
Yep – I agree. For direct input, ScoreCloud is the simplest/easiest to use (although keyboard is the only thing I’ve ever tested it with).