How Does Digital Sheet Music Work?

Why Use Digital Notation?

Simply put, the music industry requires digital notation. Music isn’t just played by real musicians anymore, and even when it is, it usually saves a lot of time and effort to digitize a score as early as possible. Any music composed in Sibelius, Finale, or another notation program can be imported into a DAW and played by a host of virtual instruments. It can also be prepared for print in a large number of styles and sizes.

One of the most compelling reasons to use digital notation is the ability to export as a MIDI file; we’ll go over this in the next section. Most professional notation programs can also stream MIDI data directly to a DAW.

Common Notation Programs

All of these programs will let you create and print sheet music. That being said, the workflow and advanced capabilities between programs are significantly different. The best way to decide which one fits you the best is to download a 30-day trial of each to test out.

MakeMusic Finale: This has been the professional standard for decades. It’s a significant investment, though educational volume licenses were cheaper than Sibelius at the time of writing this. Final is a comprehensive tool with a powerful layout engine for people who want to tweak everything. Playback options include the Garritan instrument library, which allows for decent mockups without exporting music into a DAW.

Avid Sibelius: Sibelius competes with Finale well in terms of included sounds (Sibelius Sounds) and advanced tools. It borrows Microsoft’s ribbon menu system and is a little more user-friendly for those new to notation programs. The way notes are created and layout is set up is significantly different from Finale.

Steinberg Dorico: Dorico was released late 2016, and has many innovations that could turn some heads. A few are: the ability to create and manage movements of a piece; a more flexible system when dealing with multiple staves; a more straightforward page layout system; and a piano roll that allows you to tweak playback without affecting what’s on the page.

PreSonus Notion/Progression: Notion is the PreSonus incarnation of NOTION (created in 2005). It includes a video window for film scoring; handwriting recognition; a library of playback sounds; touch-input fretboards, pads and keys; and a MIDI overlay similar to Dorico’s piano roll. Progression is a notation program for guitarists/drum players.

Your DAW: Some DAWs have built-in notation features. Most allow some form of sheet music to be printed without another program.

Free Options

Finale Notepad: Notepad is restricted to eight staves and lacks the advanced features of the full version, but it’s still a viable option for beginners.

MuseScore: MuseScore is the most popular open-source option. It has quite a few advanced features, including plug-ins and an online community of users who share scores and troubleshoot issues.

Noteflight, Flat (online collaborative), and FORTE are a few others.