Category Archives: Software

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

My involvement with the MuseScore (open source notation software) project continues to deepen.  At first I just helped with documentation and support.  Then I dusted off my programming chops and wrote some plugins, and then started bug fixing.  Last summer I went further and implemented a whole new flexible chord symbol parsing and rendering system, and I’ve continued with bug fixing since in preparation for the big 2.0 release, which is getting closer and closer (no, there is no official date to announce).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone in and overhauled the basic note layout algorithms.  I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but more importantly, I’m excited for what it will mean for users of MuseScore 2.0 – better looking scores with much less need for manual adjustment of notes, chords, dots, ties, or accidentals.  You can read more here:

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

The Accessible Music Notation Project

An important announcement!

Some of you may know that I have been working on and off over the past few years on tools and methodology to support blind musicians as well as educators working with them.  I have managed to put this work to good use in my own teaching, but so far, I have not developed anything really polished enough to be ready to share it with the rest of the world.  Recently, I became inspired to try to change that.  After engaging in discussions with some blind musicians and educators – including some of the experts in the field – I have come to believe strongly that that there are some real needs here and some real opportunities to address them.  While I am sure there are any number of people more qualified than I to be dealing with these issues, the universe seems to be telling me that I need to take the initiative to start making some things happen.  So, I have launched The Accessible Music Notation Project:

http://accessiblemusicnotation.wordpress.com/

Right now, the “we” referred to throughout the site is the “royal we” – that is, it’s really just me speaking for myself (albeit with the support of some people I respect).  But I hope to see the project grow over time.  I hope to find musicians and educator willing to share their ideas regarding what is needed, programmers willing to help address these needs, and perhaps people and organizations willing to help fund these efforts.

I honestly do not know where all this might lead, but I have ideas of what I think is possible, and I intend to be setting forth as time permits.  Please feel free to share this and if you have ideas for me, please let me know.  Replies on the site itself would probably be best for any substantial comments.  One of the whole reasons for creating the site was to make sure there was a permanent record of some of the ideas being tossed around via email over the past few weeks.

iPhone/iPad apps for the jazz musician and educator

I suppose every blogger with a smartphone or tablet has this idea that it might be good idea to share a list of their favorite apps. You’d the think the world would have had enough of these articles, yet I constantly get questions from people, especially with regard to my iPad – “what do you really use that thing for?”

I’m going to try to keep my list reasonably focused: the apps that actually help me in my day to day activities as a professional jazz musician and educator. Some, of course, will be very specific to music. Others are more general, but I’ll try to describe how they can be of use to musicians and educators specifically.

You’ll note there is relatively little in the way of hardcore “content creation” apps here. I’m still usually more comfortable using my PC for music notation (MuseScore), audio editing (Audacity), and so forth. These are things I do not generally need to deal with when away from my computer, and the range and power of applications available for Windows or Mac is still quite a bit ahead of what is available for mobile devices. Even the free applications for Windows and Mac (MuseScore and Audacity are both open source) are as good as or better than the high end apps for iOS.

But even a laptop is more hardware than I want to carry around most of the time. My iPhone and iPad, on the other hand, go with me to the classes and lessons I teach, the ensembles I direct, and the gigs I play. The apps I list here save me from needing my computer or stacks of papers and books in order to get my job done on a day to day basis.

Some apps I tend to use more on my iPhone, others I tend to use more on my iPad, and others still I use on both equally. I’ll talk about this more as we go. BTW, while I am an iOS user, I should mention that most of these apps have Android versions as well. And even when there is no Android version of a specific app, there is usually something pretty comparable you might look into.

Finally, I should mention that as a professional musician, I am as sensitive to price as anyone. A lot of these apps are free. But for the ones that aren’t, I think they are well worth what they cost, as they really help me do my job.

Music Apps

These are the apps that you wont read about on general lists of recommended apps, because they are mostly useful only to musicians and educators.

Set List Maker

This gets top billing because it was really the game changer for me – the app that transformed my iPad from an interesting novelty to an indispensible tool. Set List Maker does what the name suggests – it helps me put set lists together for gigs. And it does this very well – much better than trying to do so with paper and pencil, constantly erasing or crossing out titles as I experiment with different ideas, etc. But Set List Maker also does so much more than just manage set lists. As a performer, I lead a few different groups, each with its own repertoire. As an educator, I also direct several others, again each with its own repertoire. Set List Maker manages separate databases for each of these ensembles, letting me track which songs I do with each. For each song in the database, I can keep notes on arrangement and solo order, attach recordings and PDF charts, list the tempo, and more. I have a special set list for each ensemble I use to track what tunes to work on in rehearsal, and of course a list for each gig. During performance, I can consult my notes, read the chart, use the built in metronome to count off, etc. Being able to track what we’ve performed on which concert is another benefit.

Anyone who leads/directs bands – especially multiple bands – will be likely to appreciate this app. I use it primarily on my iPad as I much prefer typing on the larger keyboard, also reading charts on the larger screen. But it also runs on iPhone and easily shares data between them via the cloud. Entering data on the iPad but then running from the iPhone on the actual gig would make a lot of sense, if you weren’t needing to actually read charts from the screen.

iReal Pro

This is a very popular app (formerly known as iReal b, and before that iReal Book) whose main function is to provide automatic playalong accompaniment (piano, bass, drums) for practice, and it does a great job of this. I’ve long been a fan, if not actually a regular user, of Band-in-a-Box for Windows/Mac. But iReal Pro presents a rather nicer user interface, not to mention a much more portable package. iReal Pro does almost as well as Band-in-Box in terms of the actual quality of the accompaniment, and it costs only around a tenth as much. Entering your own chord progressions is possible if a bit awkward, but the real value for most people will be the 1000+ songs (and that’s just in the jazz category) you can download from the company’s web site in a matter of seconds. Being able to provide this kind of accompaniment to my students during lessons – and of course the fact they they can get this at home too – is having an unbelievable impact. It is literally transforming the musical experience for many of my students. And it’s also bailed me out on gigs when someone calls a tune I don’t know. I put this in the indispensible category; I cannot recommend it highly enough!

This app runs equally well on iPhone and iPad. I tend to use it on the iPhone more for playback, but I like the iPad for entering my own songs (and these can be shared as well). And of course, iPad is easier to read on a gig, but the chord-symbol-only display is such that it’s not bad on iPhone either. Oh yeah, Android version too

unrealBook

I know hundreds of songs, and when I do a gig as a sideman doing jazz standards, I really don’t need to consult fakebooks very often. So I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking any with me at all. But I own quite a few, legally produced and legally purchased, and I have PDF versions of many of these loaded onto my iPad. unrealBook is the app I use to access these. It comes with no PDF files itself, but allows you to load any PDF files you already have. And if you create a specially formatted index file along with the PDF, unrealBook provides a very handy facility that makes it easy to find any given tune regardless of what book it lives in. Again, you need to provide the PDF and index files, but unrealBook takes it from. So from the point someone calls some onscure tune I don’t remember to the point where I have the chart in front of me on the screen is a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to carry around a stack of fakebooks to have access to them on the gig.

Because the main point of this app is presenting charts to read on a gig, it really only makes sense on iPad.

Pro Metronome

I assume everyone reading this knows what a metronome is. This app is not terribly fancy, but the free version does everything I would expect and then some. It’s easy to dial in a tempo and easy to select a time signature so you can hear a “special” sound to mark the downbeat – that much is the bare minimum I expect from the windup pendulum metronome I used as a child. This app also lets you tap in a tempo, so you can easily figure out what tempo you want. And in addition to selecting a time signature, you can even customize the sound used for each beat individually. So you can choose 7/4 and set it up to play a strong accent on 1 and then secondary accents on 4 and 6 if you wish. All with a simple and nice looking interface, for free (a paid version unlocks more features).

This app runs on both iPad and iPhone, but somehow the size of the iPhone seems a more natural fit.

GarageBand

GarageBand can do quite a few things, but to be honest, I primarily use it for one feature: live performance. If I’m directing a band in rehearsal and need to demonstrate some musical concept but can’t be bothered to walk over to the piano, I can play the GarageBand keyboard and the students can hear. And if we are rehearsing without a bassist – which happens all too often – I can hook up my iPad to an amp and play bass lines using the GarageBand keyboard. There are other apps that do this at least as well, I’m sure, but I suspect most musicians will need no prodding to check out GarageBand for its other music creation features. So that is why I list it here rather than any of the simpler apps that exist to just provide a virtual keyboard or other instruments.

Because I use this mostly for live performance, the larger screen of the iPad makes it the more natural choice. But when I do create loops in advance – as I have on occasion for playalong tracks where I need something more specific than iReal Pro can do, I like the iPhone for playback. Songs can be synced between devices via the cloud.

SoundCloud

Photographers have Flickr, videographers have YouTube, and musicians have SoundCloud. That should give you an idea of what this is about: a sharing site for audio recordings. You don’t need the SoundCloud app to participate, but I find it useful just for its recording feature (the iPhone is a fair-to-middling audio recorder) and the ability to instantly upload recordings. If I didn’t wish to access the SoundCloud sharing service, an app like Pocket WavePad might also be a good choice just for recording and editing on the iPad or iPhone. It’s a much more full-featured audio program, but a bit clumsy to get music into and out of.

The extreme portability of the iPhone makes it the natural choice for live recording applications. Plus I imagine most iPhone models have better audio specs than most iPad models, although I could easily be wrong about that.

iLift

There are quite a few apps out there to help one learn music from recordings – marking a section to loop, slowing down the audio to make it easier to hear what is goong on in complex passages, etc. But for my money, the most valuable feature a transcribing app can offer is easy to use basic transport controls. In particular, a simple way to mark a spot and start playback there, or to back up just a few seconds to hear a given phrase again. iLift is easily my favorite of the apps I’ve tried for transcription precisely because of how well it handles the basic transport controls. Displaying the waveform on the screen is an especially nice touch. I don’t actually use the slowing down feature as much as some might, and I will confess that the quality of slowed down playback in iLift is not quite up to the standard of the very best apps. But I just find it so much easier to use than anything else I’ve tried that I am very willing to settle for a slight (and it is slight) degradation in audio quality when slowing down. Oh, by the way, it also has a function to adjust the overall tuning of a track to better match whatever instrument you might be using, and also to actually change the ley of the recording. It isn’t unique in providing these functions either, but again, it’s the ease of use that really shines here.

The iPad version is easier to use on some ways – the bigger screen makes it easier to take advantage of the waveform display to help you set the song markers. But it definitely looks good and works well on iPhone too.

Planbook

If you teach a class that meets regularly, you’ve probably made up, or thought about making up, lesson plans. There are plenty of calendar and to-do-list apps out there, but most are not optimized for the specifics of teaching a class. They won’t show Thursday as being the next lesson after Tuesday if you teach that type of schedule, they won’t have an easy way to move all lessons back a day to accomodate a snow day, they won’t have an easy way to attach assignments or other files to a given day’s plan, or otherwise model much about teaching classes actually works. This is what Planbook does. To be honest, I don’t really “love” this app – the interface seems very clunky to me – but I haven’t found anything I like better. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this!

Planbook runs on iPad only, but even if it was available for iPhone, I’d prefer using it on iPad for the larger screen.

Spotify

In my teaching, I often want to play a recording of a song for a student, so I want access to a large library of recordings. There is an awful lot of music available on YouTube for free, and I do take advantage of this, but I find it is worth it to me to pay for a subscription to Spotify. This gives me a much more useful search engine for music, better organizational facilities, and an easy way to download music to use offline. On the other hand, music from Spotify can’t be loaded onto iLift or other apps, so I do also purchase music on iTunes.

I tend to prefer to use my iPhone for music playback, but I like how Spotify runs on both iPhone and iPad as well as on my PC, and I appreciate that it synchronizes data (like playlists) automatically.

Productivity Apps

These are the apps that are of equal interest to people who are not musicians or educators. But again, I will focus on how I use these apps in my work.

Evernote

This is a basic note-taking app, but its main claim to fame is how well it synchronizes notes between devices. It does a lot more in terms of letting you attach pictures, web links, and more, but I mostly just type. And like any typing-heavy app, I use it mostly on my iPad.

Splashtop
or
TeamViewer / TeamViewer HD

Splashtop has been my ace in the hole that allows me to feel comfortable leaving my laptop at home. The app gives me full access to my PC from my iPad – or even my iPhone. A server program runs in the background on the PC, and I connect to it over the Internet from my iPad. The result is that everything on my PC at home is displayed on my iPad screen, and the iPad on-screen keyboard (or a Bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPad) controls the PC. It’s like my iPad is a monitor and keyboard attached to my computer at home via an impossiby long cable (that also happens to be invisible). My computer doesn’t run quite as fast when accessed remotely as when using my PC normally at home, but playing audio and video is actually quite feasible.

Since I originally posted this article, I became aware that Splashtop has become more expensive for new users. Rather than selling the app outright, it is now offered for free, but they charge a (very low) monthly fee to access your computer from anywhere but while actually at home. As a long time user who paid for the app originally, I am grandfathered in and don’t have to pay the monthly fee. For what you get, I think many may still decide it is worth the price. But since I know there are other remote access apps out there, I decided to look into them for you. Two years ago when I initially compared, I found that Splashtop was really the only good choice if you wanted to work with audio, and it also handled video much better than other apps. But the others have made great strides since, and I’m happy to report that TeamViewer – which is free for “personal” (as opposed to corporate) use – works reasonably well for audio now and does provide a viable alternative. It still doesn’t seem to do as good a job with video as Splashtop, but that’s probably not an issue for most musicians considering this type of app. Other apps also offer free versions but don’t handle audio or video at all; others still handle audio and video but charge monthly fees higher than Splashtop’s. So the choice really comes down to Splashtop versus TeamViewer, I think.

Anyhow, no matter which remote access app you use, you will find that taking a program designed for a PC (with mouse and keyboard) and running it via a tablet (with touchscreen only) is an interesting exeperience. Some applications are pretty awkward to use this way, as you might imagine. Others – like Audacity for editing audio – actually work so well you might easily forget you aren’t running them locally on your iPad. It’s a real “wow” experience, technologically speaking.

Obviously, the iPad is easier to use for viewing your PC display, but the iPhone does work better than one might expect.

Google Drive

There are a number of “cloud” services out there to choose from, and of course, we don’t really have to choose at all. I have free accounts with several of them, and use different services for different purposes. But the one I use the most is Google Drive. Compared to Dropbox – and it is always compared to Dropbox – it offers several features I especially value. One is being able to easily share entire folders (as opposed to just individual files) with my bandmates or students without requiring them to sign up for accounts. The other killer feature is “Google Docs” – the office apps (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation) built on to Google Drive. I use Google Docs for my class rosters, grade books, syllabi, course notes and handouts, and so forth. I can use my computer to create these documents – as well as scores using MuseScore, or other files – and save them to my Google Drive folder. Then they are instantly available on my iPad and iPhone, where I can view them, edit them, and – very importanly to someone like me to who is to cheap to pay for unlimited data on my mobile plan – I can make files available for offline access. If I save the files in a folder that I have shared, then the files are also immediately available to others. This makes it incredibly simple to share files with my students or bandmates – I simply send them a link to the shared folder and they can always access the latest versions of the files I save there. I can also access my Google Drive files on any other computer. This allows me to create school-related documents at home, save them to my Google Drive, and access them on a school computer to print them. So this has also replaced my flash drives.

Documents in Google Drive are of course easier to edit on my iPad, but the convenience of being able to access files on my iPhone is nice too.

SugarSync

I think of Google Drive as a service where my files primarily live in the cloud but where I can have a local copy of them on my PC and can also view them on my iPad and iPhone. SugarSync is kind of the other way around – I think of the files as primarily living on my PC but a copy is kept in the cloud. Google Drive presents itself as a “special” location my PC, and I don’t feel inclined all my files there. SugarSync allows me to designate any folders I want for cloud storage.

With this in mind, I use Google Drive to store files that I know in advance I will want to access remotely or share with others – like my teaching materials or ensemble charts – but I use SugarSync to back up my entire Documents folder from my PC to the cloud. These are files I may never need to share or access remotely, but that I want to have backed up offsite. And if that were all SugarSync did – cloud backup for PC – I would find it valuable but of course not relevant in a list of iOS apps. But the fact that all of my PC documents also live in the cloud means that SugarSync can also provide an app to allow me to access these any of these files can from my iPad or iPhone should the need arise – so naturally, they do just that! Of course, many of the files on my PC are in formats I can’t open on my iPad, but many of the files I am most likely to want to view remotely (eg, PDF) will open on my iPad just fine. And sometimes, I don’t actually need to open a file from my PC – I just need to email it to someone. This is accomplished very easily – much more so than logging in to my PC via Splashtop and doing it that way. SugarSync does a great job of giving me quick remote access to all of the documents on my PC.

As with Google Drive, actually working with my documents is something I am more likely to do with my iPad, but having access to them – such as to just email to someone – is very valuable from my iPhone as well.

Genius Scan

This app allows you to take a picture of document (or use an existing picture) and automaitcally turn it into a PDF. It make it easy to build a multi-page file by taking pictures of each page, it provides cropping controls, and it does some effective automatic contrast adjustment and B&W conversion to turn a color photo into a readable document. I find this handy to create PDF copies of sheet music, but it has plenty of other uses, too. Once you have created the PDF, you can send it to any other app, including email or a cloud service to make the document available to others.

The app runs native on iPhone, and since my iPhone has a much better and easier to use camera than my iPad anyhow, I use the app on my iPhone exclusively. But for sheet music in particular, I would be likely to then transfer the file to my iPad (via email or a cloud service) to actually use the document.

Paper

Listing this app is a bit of an indulgence. It has nothing to do with music, and it’s not really the sort of general productivity app I can honestly claim that most people would benefit from. But I love Paper and want to give it some props here anyhow. It’s a drawing app, and it appeals to me primarily because I am also an artist. Paper is not the most full-featured drawing app in the store – on the contrary, it is pretty limited. But it really feels very natural and produces great results. And it does have one useful application for music educators: I use it as a portable whiteboard to demonstrate things for my students. I can easily draw in some staff lines and a few notes, big enough for a small roomful of students to see. It also has a clever “rewind” feature that lets me erase the notes and leave the staff lines so I can keep reusing the same page, which is rather nice.

Paper is iPad only. And for the type of use I am talking about, I can’t see wanting to use it on anything smaller.

MuseScore Example Manager for LibreOffice

As a music educator and writer, I am constantly faced with the need to incorporate notated examples into text documents.

Most notation programs include some limited text capabilities, and I have used this for creating simple scale sheets and the like.  But the text facilities built into notation programs are nothing you would want to use to write anything more than a page or so, much less an entire book.  So instead, the usual solution is to export your musical examples as graphics and then import the latter into a word processor document.  But for a work of any length, managing the dozens or hundreds of files that result is quite a chore, and going back and editing an example is a tedious process of finding the original score for the example, editing it, regenerating the graphic, and reinserting it into your word processor document.

screenshot

As the former software engineer I am, I decided there should be tools to help automate this process, and since no one else was writing them, I would.  The result is my MuseScore Extension Manager for LibreOffice.  You can download it here:

http://extensions.libreoffice.org/extension-center/musescore-example-manager

MuseScore should be familiar to readers of this site – it is the free and open source notation program that provides 99% of the power of Finale or SIbelius for 0% of the price.  LibreOffice, for those for don’t know, is a free open source word processor that similarly does virtually everything you might otherwise use Word for.  It is a “fork” of the OpenOffice.org project, created when it appeared the latter was dead (although this turned out to be premature).  As far as I know, my extension should work with OpenOffice.org as well as with LibreOffice.  And since both MuseScore and LibreOffice are free and open source, so is my extension.

I used this extension to produce the document shown above.  The basic operation is very simple.  The extension adds a “MuseScore” button to the LibreOffice toolbar (which can see toward the top right).  Position your cursor where you want an example to appear, press the MuseScore button, and a dialog appears in which you can select a regular MuseScore file – no need to manually export a graphic file.  A graphic file will automatically be generated and inserted in your document at the cursor position.  The graphic is inserted as a link to the original score, so editing the example later is very simple.  Ctrl-click on the graphic automatically opens the corresponding score in MuseScore.  After saving the edited example in MuseScore, simply return to LibreOffice, hit the MuseScore button again, and the example is automatically updated in your document.

I’ve already used this to create well over a hundred pages worth of a jazz theory textbook I am working on, and I can’t tell you how much time it has saved.  Maybe even almost as much time as it took develop the extension :-)

My extension also provides the ability to create examples directly within the text as ABC source for those familiar with that notation language, and to automate the conversion of examples created with MuseScore into ABC.  You might wonder why you would care about this.  I became interested in ABC because, as text-based notation language, it provided a way of communicating with a blind student in my jazz theory & aural skills class.  I think the possibilities opened up by this are incredible, and I hope to follow up on this in the near future with more tools for allowing educators to make their work accessible to the blind.

More Experiences with MuseScore

As related in a couple of previous articles, I have become something of an evangelist for MuseScore, the free and open source music notation software that is positioned to completely replace Finale for me. Version 1.0 had shown tremendous promise, and I described my impressions very favorably in my initial article on MuseScore. Based on this, I was motivated to work with the developers in implementing some significant improvements for the 1.1 release, as described in a followup article and also in a tutorial I put together.

With the 1.1 release, I felt confident enough in MuseScore to undertake the task of going through my existing charts and re-creating them with MuseScore. My “book” consists of more than fifty original compositions that had previously been scored in lead sheet form with Finale. Over the course of the past few months, I have been replacing these with MuseScore versions. I finished just this weekend, and as I have been taking advantage of the score sharing site musescore.com to post these charts online, I can post a link to the full set for your perusal and enjoyment:

http://musescore.com/marcsabatella/sets/leadsheets

In honor of the occasion, I would like to share a little about my experience with this project.

The compositions involved range from simple blues heads to multi-page scores of some complexity, incorporating both lead sheet and grand staff (piano) notation as well as some non-traditional notation styles, plus the use of background figures, irregular and multiple meters, and other elements that had pushed the capabilities of Finale when I created them originally.

I am pleased to report that MuseScore did not disappoint. The simple scores were simple to create – easier and faster than with Finale – and the complex scores never required me to compromise my musical intent for the sake of notatability on account of any limitations in MuseScore. And the results were always beautiful. Kudos to the developers of MuseScore for creating such a powerful and eminently usable application!

As an example of one of the more complex lead sheets I created, check out the first page of Down (click the image below to see it larger, or click here to view the full chart on musescore.com):

This arrangement demonstrates the basics of melody, chords, and lyrics, but also shows off more advanced features like switching between single and double staves, notation of accompaniment rhythms using slash notation, time signature changes, etc. All of this is easily accomplished in MuseScore. Although it might not be obvious, this score also presented a number of layout challenges in order to fit it on two pages while keeping it at a readable size. This is one of several compositions for which the MuseScore version is actually a significant improvement over the earlier Finale version.

I have worked on and off for a major publisher over the past few years, producing and editing charts for what has become perhaps the most popular legal fakebook series in the jazz world. I have thus become something of an expert on the preparation of lead sheets for professional publication, above and beyond my own personal experiences as a composer and as a gigging musician. I know what is required in order to produce a good lead sheet, and I can honestly say that MuseScore is the ideal tool for creating charts like those in The Real Book – to name a popular fakebook series that may or may not have been the one that I worked on :-).

I teach at two universities where both Finale and Sibelius are in use, and I often work with students struggling to learn these programs and to produce decent jazz charts with them. This year I started having my students use MuseScore, and I am amazed at how quickly they have been able to produce charts that look far better than those their predecessors created in Finale or Sibelius. Note this isn’t to say that Finale and Sibelius are not capable of producing results just as good, or that this process cannot be made easier through extensive customization. But many people don’t make the effort to improve on the defaults, and the lead sheet defaults in MuseScore are definitely much better.

During the last few months I also produced several arrangements for larger ensembles (eg, octet and big band). Again I found MuseScore to be the equal of Finale or Sibelius for the most part, although I am looking forward to the “linked parts” feature that will be coming in MuseScore 2.0. I hope to write an article on creating larger scale arrangements will MuseScore sometime in the near future.

Speaking of which, I will be giving a couple of hands-on workshops with MuseScore at the upcoming JEN (Jazz Education Network) / TI:ME (Technology Institute for Music Educators) conference in January. The sessions will cover lead sheets and arrangements. I hope to see some of you in Louisville for this event!

Anyhow, for anyone out there are still wondering if MuseScore is suitable for serious use (particularly in jazz): as someone who has been using it seriously for several months now, I can say most emphatically that it is!

MuseScore 1.1 released, lots of improvements for jazz

In an earlier article, I wrote at length about MuseScore, the free and open source notation software. The short version for those who missed it: I said that MuseScore can do almost everything that Finale and Sibelius can do, and I predicted that, despite a few minor limitations, it would completely replace Finale for me.

Since then, I have become more personally involved in the MuseScore project. I haven’t done any actual programming – at least, not on the core application itself. But I have contributed some plugins, templates, and other configuration files, I have worked on one of the fonts, and I have helped with the documentation. So I no longer qualify as a completely unbiased observer.

With that said, today, MuseScore 1.1 is released. While it is mostly a bug fix release, we have managed to make some significant improvements with respect to creating jazz charts.

Two of the areas I had mentioned in my previous article where MuseScore needed improvement were in entering chord symbols in places where there are no notes and in creating slash notation. Both of these have been addressed in version 1.1. In addition, the new Jazz Lead Sheet template creates great looking charts right out of the box. An enhanced version of the MuseJazz font allows you to get a handwritten look for titles and other text markings as well as chord symbols. You can also select from a wider variety of chord symbol styles, and it is easier to customize these styles further.

I had written a tutorial on creating lead sheets in MuseScore 1.0, and I have now completely rewritten it for version 1.1. The new tutorial is in two parts: The Basics and Advanced Topics. If you hadn’t already checked out MuseScore before, or if you had looked but had not gotten very far with it, now would be a good time:

http://musescore.org/

Here, for example, is the lead sheet I created for the advanced tutorial:

There are more exciting things to come in the MuseScore world over the next few months, and I plan to be sharing those with you soon!

MuseScore 1.0 – A Milestone in Free Music Notation Software

I’m a big fan of free / open source software. I’m not opposed to commercial software; I’m just frugal. I do a lot of writing, but OpenOffice.org (and its recent incarnation LibreOffice) is more than good enough to render Microsoft Word and other Office applications unnecessary for me. I also use free / open source programs for audio editing (Audacity), for desktop publishing (Scribus), for Web site development (KompoZer), and a host of other tasks.

As a professional composer and music educator who often produces his own teaching materials, though, I hadn’t found a free / open source application for music scoring and typesetting sophisticated enough to replace Finale for me. Power users of the other major commercial application – Sibelius – would probably tell you the same thing. If you wanted to produce printed music beyond the simplest of examples, you resigned yourself to spending a few hundred dollars on Finale or Sibelius, and another hundred or so every couple of years for upgrades.

Until now.

MuseScore has been around in some form for almost a decade already, beginning life as the notation engine of the sequencer MusE. I had seen references to it over the years when searching for free / open source alternatives to Finale, which I tended to do whenever I got ready to shell out another Benjamin for the latest Finale upgrade. But MuseScore had always seemed too obscure and too limited in the past to warrant serious consideration.

Over the last couple of years, however, it has really come into its own. I checked it out again a few months ago on the recommendation of one of my students, and was blown away by how far it come since I last looked. I began using MuseScore (version 0.9.6.3) right away and it was able to handle everything I asked it to. While it cannot do everything that Finale or Sibelius can, it comes surprisingly close, and the development team is proving to be committed to improving it further and has been doing so at an amazing pace. Oh, and by the way, MuseScore runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and has been translated into over two dozen different language, so it is not just for English speaking PC users like myself.

You may have already encountered MuseScore by now – it’s popularity has really soared in recent months. Still, the fact that the version number started with a “0” suggested to most people that the project was still experimental. With today’s release of version 1.0, the MuseScore team announces to the world that the product is ready for “real” use, and I wholeheartedly concur.

In addition to the leadsheets and other smaller projects I had been 0.9.6.3 for, I have recently begun using a pre-release version of 1.0 for a relatively large project: taking an orchestra score I wrote a few years ago and adapting it for a jazz octet. I am happy to say that I am finding it at least as capable as Finale in almost all respects, and generally easier to learn and use as well. And of the few time-saving features I miss from Finale, some turn out to be already on the plate and implemented for the next major release.

But there is no need to wait for that next release before using MuseScore. The list of features already in version 1.0 reads like a checklist of things most composers would be hoping for in a Finale/Sibelius replacement: unlimited number of staves; up to four independent voices per staff; MIDI playback and import/export; MusicXML import/export; lyrics; chord symbols; cross staff beaming; slash, drum, and other alternate notation styles; professional spacing and positioning algorithms with manual overrides; incorporation of graphic elements; output to PDF and various graphic formats; output to various audio formats, and much more.

I am no expert in the finer nuances of music typesetting, but MuseScore uses fonts from the GNU LilyPond project, which is often considered the gold standard for typesetting (too bad the latter is not a particularly useful tool when it comes to the actual process of composing). To my eyes, at least, printed scores produced with MuseScore look as good or better than those from Finale or Sibelius. And it is often easier to get great looking results in MuseScore – it is noticeably smarter about collisions between notes in different voices than either Finale or Sibelius is, so less manual positioning of notes may be needed when notating complex music.

I should also note that as with most major open source projects, there is an active and helpful user community, and the developers actually participate in the forums. Unlike the case with most commercial applications, you really get the feeling that bug reports and feature requests from ordinary users are seen and taken seriously. That’s why I feel confident predicting that most of the minor limitations I may mention here will be taken care of in the very near future.

To give you an idea of what can be done in MuseScore 1.0, here is a screen shot showing what I’ve been up to in my orchestra-to-octet reduction. You can click on the image to see it full size:

As you may notice, I have two documents open at once here. The top window pane displays my octet arrangement, the bottom the full orchestra score. I had initially created the orchestra score in Finale, but after exporting it to MusicXML format from within Finale, it loaded into MuseScore with virtually all markings intact – instrument names and transpositions, slurs, dynamics, etc. Using MuseScore, I can actually copy and paste passages from the Finale-created orchestra version directly into my octet version if I wish. I am re-entering the music manually, though, as I wish to gain more familiarity with the process.

Overall, note entry is very straightforward in MuseScore, as are the tools for copying and replacing and other tasks. Simple things like selecting a range of notes and hitting a cursor key to transpose them up or down step by step are like a revelation to me compared to Finale. FWIW, basic note entry in MuseScore is much more like Sibelius than like Finale. I think most unbiased users would probably say is a good thing, although it took me a little while to get used to the difference. Sibelius users should be able to make the adjustment more quickly.

I love that MuseScore allows you to customize keyboard shortcuts for most commands, and within a short time I had developed an efficient note entry workflow that feels very natural to me. I have to say that making this octet adaptation from the orchestra score is probably going as fast in MuseScore as it would have in Finale, despite the original being in Finale format and my having years of experience with Finale but only weeks with MuseScore. Incredible!

Note that while MuseScore supports MIDI input, it is step-time entry only – no transcription of real-time performance. This doesn’t bother me; I never found real-time transcription to be a particularly useful in feature in Finale, because it took longer to correct the transcription and make it readable than to simply enter the music myself. You can always record to MIDI in a separate program and then import the MIDI file – this does work in MuseScore. I normally do all my note entry from the computer keyboard in Finale, and that is how I am using MuseScore.

When it comes to MIDI playback, MuseScore can handle both my octet and orchestra scores without difficulty, but current versions of Finale and Sibelius are definitely ahead of MuseScore in terms of realism. Things like playback of articulations (especially slurs) and dynamics make a big difference. If you are trying to produce “studio quality” recordings via MIDI directly from your scores, that is one area where MuseScore falls short. But for simply checking your work, it is fine.

The other major area where MuseScore 1.0 does not measure up to Finale or Sibelius right now is in the generation of individual parts. Linked parts are coming in the next major version, but meanwhile parts must be generated manually, and MuseScore does not provide independent formatting settings (eg, page orientation, staff sizes, margins) for parts versus score. So one can expect this final aspect of a project to take somewhat longer with MuseScore than with current versions of Finale or Sibelius. On the other hand, MuseScore is not particularly worse in this regard than Finale was just a few years ago, and actually, I’d say the generated parts are perhaps closer to being usable right out of the box in MuseScore.

So overall, despite a few limitations, I am very impressed with the facilities MuseScore provides for dealing with larger scale projects. As the above screen shot and discussion suggests, MuseScore has the tools one would need to create anything from a jazz octet arrangement to a full orchestra score, and I am comforted to know linked parts are on the way. But the simplicity of the MuseScore interface also makes it ideally suited for the smaller scale projects a working musician might undertake more regularly.

As a jazz composer, I create a lot of leadsheets, and MuseScore handles these well. Just as I did with Finale, I spent a fair amount of time up front customizing the appearance of chord symbols. The default leadsheet template, which uses the MuseJazz font that comes with MuseScore, does a good job right out of the box. But I elected to configure my own leadsheet template in MuseScore to use the Jazz font that came with Finale instead, as I still find that to be my favorite for chord symbols despite trying quite a few alternatives. My customized MuseScore leadsheet template allows me to get results almost exactly like what I get from my customized Finale template, and the actual process of creating leadsheets is much easier in MuseScore than in Finale for all but the most expert Finale users. The simplicity of the MuseScore interface is a real benefit here.

One thing I do miss from Finale is that I had configured my leadsheet template such that I could easily enter chords in mid-measure whether there was a note there or not. Current versions of Finale, I understand, finally make this easier right out of the box, but my template using hidden rests on layer 2 works fine for me in older versions. I couldn’t find an entirely satisfactory way of setting up a MuseScore template to allow me to enter mid-measure chords as easily as my Finale template did (hidden rests in voice 2 unfortunately affect stem directions in voice 1), so in that respect it’s more like using Finale versions from a couple of years ago and positioning chords or entering hidden rests and flipping stems manually where necessary.

Also, working with slash or rhythmic notation is a little more awkward in MuseScore than in Finale – although no more so than in any but the most recent version of Sibelius. Basically, you create normal notes then change their heads to slashes, and optionally hide their slashes and mute their playback. You also have to get the vertical positioning correct when using this notation in transposing parts. Not a big deal, but not as straightforward as Finale’s “Staff Styles” (or, presumably, whatever Sibelius has finally done in its latest version).

There are only a few other small areas where I find MuseScore 1.0 a bit more cumbersome than I would like. While there are keyboard shortcuts for most functions, and many can also be activated with a click or double click, a few operations (eg, adding key signatures) can only be achieved by dragging and dropping, which I find inefficient. And while the program does a great job of automatically positioning most elements, and most default behaviors make sense, manual intervention is still sometimes required at times when it seems it should not be (eg, for multiple repeat endings).

But aside from these few minor complaints, MuseScore is very powerful and easy to use overall; certainly easier to learn and use than Finale and almost as powerful. And of course, were I just coming to Finale from MuseScore, I would doubtless find plenty of things to quibble about in Finale – there are just different things that are easier or harder between the two programs. In fact, my list of complaints looks no more significant to me than a list of differences between Finale and Sibelius, or between one version of one of these programs and the next. Really, the capabilities of all three programs are more similar than different.

But considering that I am comparing version 1.0 of a free / open source application against a $600 package that has been maturing since the 1980’s (Finale) and an equally expensive if not quite as venerable challenger (Sibelius), I think it is truly remarkable that the differences come down to such minor details. Even if one of those differences turns out to be a deal breaker for you right now, I project that within a year or so at the rate the developers are working, there may be no reason at all why MuseScore could not completely replace Finale or Sibelius for almost all purposes.

But again, even this 1.0 release should satisfy the needs of most users. I have already been recommending MuseScore to my own students looking for music notation software, and now I can recommend it for educational institutions and professionals as well. There are many things one can spend the better part of a thousand dollars on; music scoring software no longer need be one of them.

So if you’re in market for notation software, MuseScore should be on the short list of contenders, and considering that it is free, there is a good chance that it will end up at the top of that list for you. I urge you to check out MuseScore even if you’re happy with your current scoring package but are open to other options that may turn out to provide advantages in the long run. I for one believe I have bought my last Finale upgrade.