When it comes to buying music composing or music notation software there often isn't any such thing as a free lunch. When looking for free music composing or notation software you can find several different free offerings, but like good Chinese food they all leave you feeling hungry a few hours later. These free music notation software tools break with that tradition.
Free music notation software is not the easiest tech to come by. While you can find hundreds of games, applications, and other mindless pursuits to install on your computer for free the act of writing and printing high quality music notation for free is much more difficult. The percieved need for free music composing software just isn't there, and the big name music notation companies are not about to give away their flagship products for free. But if you are not in the mood to pay three to five hundred dollars for a full blown commercial package do you really have any options?
There are several companies out there that offer free music writing software packages. We have all heard of the big name, Finale , but there are other cubs in the pack that may or may not be able to fit into your needs. The problem is that in most cases the free or shareware versions of such music notation software is crippled or stripped down in some way. Take the aptly named Free Music Composer software. The free version of the program allows you to create only eight (yes... EIGHT!) bars of music on a single staff. The upgraded shareware version can handle a whopping 255 bars. Another example is the Anvil Studio. More of a sequencing package than a dedicated music notation program Anvil is much more robust than the Free Music Composer, but still leaves much to be desired. Anvil Studio allows you to record audio directly into the program (from a guitar for example) but the free version limits you to one minute of imported audio.
There are other options in the free music notation software market though.Â Come of the most promising and anticipated products rely on the free Lilypond music notation program, but you won't see robust graphical interfaces for this program any time soon. In fact, unless you are a linux/mac user you probably won't be able to find anything that works with Lilypond at all. What is the big deal about the Lilypond music notation software? Unlike most other free competitors files made in Lilypond come out with beautiful engraved quality prints. The layout and accuracy of the rendered music in Lilypond is amazing, and even beats that of some of the commercial music notation software packages. You can see examples of the great quality of Lilpond by looking at scores available through the Mutopia Project . The problem? The Lilypond format is a text based format. That means that entering notes into the system is done by typing a text file, not by clicking and dragging notes around a screen. At some point in the future you can expect a Lilypond GUI to come out for the major operating systems, but until then this option is only for the truly geeky among us.
The only REAL option for music notation at this time is Finale Notepad. While not perfect, and extremely stripped down from it's very blue blooded older sibling, Finale 2008 , Notepad offers the best free music composing software out there right now.Â It can be downloaded directly from MakeMusic.com's web site, or it can also be installed from the DVD's included with several different beginner band method books such as Essential Elements 2000.Â Notepad can render multiple staves and seems to have no limit on length.Â The tools are very standard, and the interface rather stark, but Notepad gets the job done and with printouts that are at least acceptable in quality.
Please note that MakeMusic discontinued the free version of Finale Notepad beginning in 2009 (EDIT: Finale Notepad 2012 is once again free) . To help users find other potential music composing software solutions we also offer two comparison charts of commercially available music composing software. There are charts available for both professional level music writing software and also for more consumer oriented music writing software programs. We realize these are not free products, but with the loss of the free Finale Notepad product these are some of the more useful options.
Chad Criswell is a career music educator working in the Iowa public schools. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications both online and in print. He currently serves as the national music technology writer for NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine and has presented sessions at numerous music education conferences including the 2012 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic.
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