Saturday, February 5, 2011

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.