When someone sends me a PDF to typeset, I have two options. The first is to manually enter all the notes into Finale or Sibelius. The second option, which I’ll demonstrate in this post, is to use OMR (Optical Music Recognition) technology to speed the process along. OMR utilizes the same the technology used to automatically recognize and digitize typed text, but for sheet music instead! There are some limitations, which I’ll get to later.

I’ll be using Neuratron PhotoScore Lite, which is included with Sibelius. Finale comes bundled with SmartScore, which is similar. The piece I’ll be typesetting is a public domain arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’.

So here’s PhotoScore. It can read sheet music from a PDF file, an image file, or directly from a scanner. When I pick a PDF, it converts it to an image file and asks me to choose the resolution. I find 300 or 400 dpi to be about right—200 is too low and >400 doesn’t seem to help with note recognition.

Once it finishes processing the PDF, it shows me the computerized score alongside the original PDF file for comparison. Notice that it only digitizes notes, accidentals, and key/time signature changes—it doesn’t recognize text, dynamics, or articulations. There are also a handful of mistakes; it has difficulty recognizing dotted notes and occasionally it’ll mistake an oddly-placed slur for a beam. Still, not bad. When PhotoScore recognizes a mistake in note values, it helpfully points them out.

I cleaned up the score using the built-in editor, which is a light version of the Sibelius interface. Then I can either open it with Sibelius or save it as a MusicXML or MIDI file (for import into another program).

Sibelius gives a few options here. It’s usually best to choose the instruments yourself.

The imported score:

After some clean-up:

Now I can put in dynamics, adjust the layout, etc . . .

A simple piano piece like this one is the best-case scenario for PhotoScore. A large orchestral score, or one with a changing number of staves, would be much more difficult to work with.

OMR isn’t a fit for every notation project, but when used correctly, it can be a powerful tool!

Peter Gates is a freelance typesetter who has done work for holysheetmusic.com. He studied choral composition at Snow College, with continued coursework through Berklee Online. You can find a few of his arrangements at Sheet Music Plus. If you have need of a typesetter or choral arranger and would like to give Peter a try, his business e-mail is pgatesmusic@gmail.com.