Exploring Music Notation

In addition to my technical interests I’m involved in many other things including music. Great advances have been made in the integration of music and computers in the last 20 years. As with many other industries, computers have changed the way music is created, disseminated and recorded. One of the many areas where computers have been used is in the typesetting of sheet music. This has allowed for major music publishers to reduce costs and composers, arrangers and musicians to widely disseminate music without the need for an engraver and publisher.

Like many advances the transition from hand engraved music scores to computer typeset scores has not been without problems. Most notably computer typeset music can be harder to read and interpret by musicians and simply doesn’t look as musical or beautiful as hand engraved music. LilyPond has an excellent and illustrative essay on the problems of computerized engraving which I encourage you to read.

The Finale program by Make Music (formerly Coda Music) and Sibleus by Avid are undoubtedly the biggest players in the music notation software field but both suffer from the problems of automated engraving (lacking life, more difficult to read and interpret, etc.) but what is a composer/arranger to do? Assuming you can’t afford to hire a professional hand engraver (if you can even still find one) the answer is quite clear actually. Lamenting the decline of music score quality a group of developer/musicians got together and wrote a software program called LilyPond. When used correctly this program produces some of the most beautifully engraved music you can find. Best of all the program is free and open-source meaning that anyone can see the code that is used to generate the music and contribute fixes and enhancements. The program is cross-platform and can work on Linux, Macintosh OSX and Windows (though Linux and Macintosh are admittedly easier to get running).

As it turns out there is a bit of a catch though… While programs like Finale and Sibleus offer a graphical notation editor, LilyPond is a specialized program which does nothing more than automatic engraving (typesetting) based on a textual input file. This means to use LilyPond you need to learn how to manually describe the music in the LilyPond formatted text file, a significant impediment for many composers/arrangers. Or do you?

Recently there has been quite a bit of movement on developing some free and open source music notation programs, many of which support exporting to the LilyPond format. While the exported LilyPond file may still need some manual tweaking to get the best possible score it’s certainly much easier than entering an entire score into LilyPond format by hand.

One of the oldest and best known LilyPond compatible editors is NtEd (of NoteEdit lineage) by J. Anders. Though not immediately apparent from the feature list, this Linux software supports exporting to LilyPond. A more recent entrant to the music notation space is Denemo, a multi-platform WYSIWYG notation editor designed specifically for LilyPond. Finally, one of the most promising solutions seems to be MuseScore, a project stemming from the MusE Midi/Audio sequencer. MuseScore looks to be one of the most consumer friendly options with packages for Linux, Macintosh and Windows readily available and a fairly decent engraving engine itself as well as LilyPond support.


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