Music Writing Software

By Robert Curtis

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Music writing software programs vary widely from the very simple chord based lead sheet oriented programs to the very sophisticated compositional and scoring programs. And there are programs today that can even score your performance from an instrument, or even your vocal, automatically and without you needing to know how to notate music.

In this discussion I want to go from talking about the more simple programs that are focussed on mainly chord placement entries over lyrics, your typical songwriter lead sheet presentation, under Chord Based Lead Sheet Software below, to the more elaborate programs that are designed to create full musical scores that depict every note and nuance of a musical arrangement. We'll finish off discussing programs that can do a lot of these things automatically just from your singing or playing your guitar, piano or instrument live.

I want to discuss the breadth of programs in this way because if you're a typical pop songwriter then often programs that are oriented to chord based lead sheet production are more than adequate to demonstrate the core arrangement of your song and are the norm for the various situations you'll encounter in song production and presentation.

If you're wanting to write compositions that are more precise and include your melody or require writing a piano-vocal score for example like is typically the standard for presenting your work for musical theatre (yes they spell "theater" that way :-) then that typically is addressed by much more sophisticated programs that I'll discuss under the heading further below Compositional Based Software.

Lastly we'll delve into programs that as I mentioned can take your live performance, either from an instrument or your singing, and notate the the notes you've played automatically.

You'll note more on this under Auto-Scoring Programs towards the end of this article.

Chord Based Lead Sheet Software

Lead sheets serve the purpose of getting your song across to a demo producer and to other musicians if you're playing live and also simply serve for your own reference to practice and or produce your song.

However, most songwriters' lead sheets typically just cover the basic harmony component (chord progression) of the song and this of course leaves the need to communicate the melody, rhythm (groove) and tempo as well.

Some lead sheet preparations do have a melody written out also but typically in popular song production projects just lyrics with chords written in a shorthand form above the lyrics is the norm.

The melody, rhythm and tempo are typically expressed by most songwriters by simply singing or singing and playing the song if you play guitar or the piano accompanying your vocal.

To make a recorded rendition of the all of these elements you'll typically record a sung and or played version, possibly accompanied by your guitar or keyboard, onto a cassette tape or cd or mp3 recorder or even your computer to have an example rendition for reference.

In any event as a core representation of your song the chord based lead sheet is the standard tool for illustrating your song in it's most basic form that other music players will be able to understand and play along to as they follow the melody, tempo and rhythm communicated by you the songwriter or whoever is leading the song.

Given that your song's written representation is just lyrics and chords it's good for other players to hear the song a few times so they can more easily accompany a demo production situation or live performance.

Lyricist for lead sheet music writing.A program that works well to address this approach is Lyricist which is primarily oriented towards lyric writing with provisions to automatically click in piano chords above your lyrics and to even automatically click in guitar templates that show exact fingering positions.

With Lyricist if your instrumentation is keyboard based or you just want to note a chord in shorthand then you can click in the chords like Amin7 above the lyric lines.

Click here for a more elaborated discussion of how Lyricist assists you in placing guitar chord fingering templates above your lyric lines. The same functionality applies to piano chord placement which is now available in the newest version of Lyricist, version 3.

A music oriented program that actually takes your chord progression and then can construct an entire full band arrangement to any number of classical and contemporary styles is Band-in-a-Box. This program has been around for several years and has gotten more and more sophisticated. It works great particularly if you're a songwriter who's stronger suit may only be developing the chord progressions to accompany your song. Find out more about this program by clicking here.

Compositional Based Software

For more sophisticated renditions of your songs, especially if you're needing to portray a melody line along with your arrangement then you'll typically be looking at programs that can literally take what you play and can plot the notes for you onto music staves with the notes placed precisely where you've played them. (Article continues below after video frame)

You can also "write" the music in with your mouse or digital pen and this type of software will also allow the depiction of your chords with their particular voicings that you may want to be precisely indicated as well. In other words you may want the first FMaj7 chord of your song to be played with the root note on top and writing this out on musical staves clearly indicates this.

Writing music out to this extent is called notating your song simply referred to as the song's notation.

This of course is useful for the exact musical reproduction of a composer's or songwriter's work by other musicians. These types of programs are used frequently by composers needing to produce written music for bands and or orchestras and also for musical theatre songwriters who need to produce a piano-vocal score as the essential and initial rendition of their work.

Programs that address these kinds of issues that are most relevant to songwriters range in sophistication and price and these programs offer the ability to produce exacting sheet music renditions of the notes that are played in the time sequence they're played.

A lower cost program that has begun to offer a lot more in this regard is the Band-in-a-Box program that I mentioned above in the Lead Sheet based software discussion. Band-in-a-Box has notation capabilities that are starting to rival the capabilities of much more sophisticated programs and it has the added bonus of being designed to produce entire arrangements for you musically and all of it translates into proper notation formatted onto sheet music.

Play Music - affordable music notation software.Another lower cost entry level program that has been compared to much more expensive programs is Play Music that will create notation from basic mouse click entries all the way to midi instrument input.

Although Play Music is considered entry level it has rather sophisticated capabilities for even pro users tastes and rates high among users for ease of use and capability.

A slightly more expensive program that is highly regarded having earned several 5 star awards from software sites like is MagicScore Maestro. It has more capability suited well to more complex scoring needs. It also has a lot of customization features.

Also notable is Ars Nova's SongWorks II, workable on Macs and Windows, and quite versatile for a program under $100 US.

To move in the direction of very sophisticated and focussed programming relative to notation specifically two programs lead the pack, Finale and Sibelius.

These two programs are designed to allow the keyboard based player, and now even guitar players with recent program innovations, full and complex notation and scoring capabilities.

There are different levels of each program and Finale even has a free program that has their absolutely most basic functions, called Finale NotePad, but it helps introduce you to the program and it's general functionality and that makes it much easier to decide if you want to invest in the more elaborate versions.

You can find our more about Finale by clicking here and Sibelius by clicking here.

Auto-Scoring Programs

Auto-scoring programs can take your live performance on your instrument (in addition to midi-instruments) like your acoustic guitar or piano or even your vocal and notate the the notes you've played.

If you're not versed in music notation this type of program comes in handy especially when you need or want to notate your melody.

These types of programs allow you to sing your melody either as a dummy lyric like with "na- nas" or similar or actually sing your lyrics to your melody into a any standard microphone and the program will interpret the notes you're singing and score them onto sheet music in your computer either directly or via a two-step midi file process.

Programs like Digital Ear and IntelliScore will convert your recorded performance (singing voice, even whistling, or played instrument) from its recorded audio file (a .wav file typically) into a midi file that can then be loaded into a notation or sequencer program.

For example you could sing your song's melody into Digital Ear or IntelliScore, convert it to a midi file (all explained in each program) and then load that midi file into notation programs like Play Music, Finale or Sibelius and or sequencer programs like Cubase or Cakewalk's Sonar Home Studio or Logic , just a few among many choices of sequencer programs, and the notes can then be created on regular musical staves accordingly.

Looking For A Music Oriented Computer?

If you're looking to invest in an Apple computer that is already pre-designed for music writing and recording check out the music configured systems at - Music Computers. Click on the Computer Music tab at the top of their homepage then click on Computers in the left hand menu bar.

For PC systems check out the Creation Stations presented by Sweetwater Music.


Mac users - run Windows software on your Mac with
award winning Parallels Desktop for Mac - click here.
Run both systems simultaneously - no shutting down the Mac os to run Windows!


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