Joining the Staff

Music-notation programs are a complex and varied lot. They range in price from less than $50 for basic entry-level programs to several hundred dollars
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Music-notation programs are a complex and varied lot. They range in price from less than $50 for basic entry-level programs to several hundred dollars for the high-end applications that professional copyists use. As with other types of music software, the balance between ease-of-use and power is an important part of the design. The top-of-the-line offerings may be a bit more sophisticated than the average person needs, while the low-end products might prove to be too rudimentary for serious projects. Finding where your needs fall within that spectrum can be tricky if you've never used notation software before.

When shopping for a notation program, the best approach is to consider what kinds of scores you're likely to need and then compare specific features that are relevant to those scores. The following several important features are worth your close scrutiny before you choose one program over another.


Entry-level programs may only let you have a few staves in a score; high-end programs typically provide 100 or more staves. If you write big-band arrangements or symphonic scores, the number of available staves is an important consideration. For large-scale works, you may need 30 or more staves. If your needs are modest, having a large number of staves may not be important. You should, however, choose a program that offers at least 16 staves, so you can assign a different MIDI channel to each staff for playback.

The best programs also let you create specialized staves such as 6-line staves for guitar tablature or 1-line staves for percussion parts.


In addition to having plenty of staves, a good notation program should offer a complete collection of time signatures, clefs, and key signatures. All programs offer the basic treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs, but the best programs include several other less-common clefs (see Fig. A). A percussion clef for nonpitched instruments is also essential for orchestral scores. All programs let you insert any key signature from the circle of fifths, but a few programs let you show natural signs in a new key signature to cancel the old key signature — very handy.

You can expect all programs to offer the most common time signatures such as 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8. Many programs also let you use mixed meters like 5/8 and 7/8 and uncommon meters like 3/16 or 4/2. Others even let you create complex time signatures like 3+2/8.


All notation programs can import Standard MIDI Files and translate the tracks into standard music notation. Many programs can even transcribe real-time performances from a MIDI keyboard. Remember, though, that with either method the quality of the transcribed music depends on the sophistication of the transcription algorithms; some are more intelligent than others, so results may vary from program to program.

If your keyboard skills are not yet up to par, you can step-enter notes and rests with the mouse and sometimes also from the computer keyboard. Notation programs typically offer a variety of note and symbol palettes or pop-up menus for selecting items to deposit in the score. The best programs let you use the mouse along with the keyboard (MIDI or computer) to speed up the note-entry process.


You can reasonably expect any notation program to provide a good assortment of notes, rests, markings, and symbols to enter into your score. But not all programs offer the same range of options. For example, most programs offer rhythmic values (for notes and rests) down to 32nd notes, which is fine for vocal music but may not be adequate for complex orchestral writing. High-end programs typically extend the range to 64th-note values, and some programs even go down to 128th-note values. Similarly, entry-level programs may offer only staccato, legato, and one or two accent marks, whereas high-end programs may provide a wide range of articulation marks, which are vital for proper woodwind and brass scoring.

If you frequently work with lead sheets, the program you choose should include flexible handling of lyrics and other kinds of text as well as chord symbols with and without guitar-fingering diagrams. And don't forget the other essential elements, such as alternate note heads, dynamics markings, and measure numbers as well as page-layout tools for moving and adjusting ties, slurs, beams, and bar lines.

For a more in-depth look at music-notation software and how to evaluate it, check out “The Paper Trail” at