Mastering MuseScore: the definitive guide to MuseScore 2

Mastering MuseScore

I am incredibly pleased to present Mastering MuseScore, the definitive guide to MuseScore 2.  I have been working on this book for the past two years, in conjunction with my contributions to the development of the software plus my teaching and whatever gigs I could fit in.  If you are a MuseScore user already, or are interested in learning about what is possible with free and open source music notation software, you will love this book.  I wrote it to be as comprehensive as I could, covering every feature, every option, every trick I could think of, and yet I start with the absolute basics, so beginners can get going right away.  Sales of the book directly benefit the further development of MuseScore.  Please check it out!

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

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.


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:

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 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 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 to post these charts online, I can post a link to the full set for your perusal and enjoyment:

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

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:

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 (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 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 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.