Category Archives: Music Notation

Ultimate Guitar Acquires MuseScore

Reported first by Scoring Notes, it appears that Ultimate Guitar has acquired MuseScore.

MuseScore has been an outlier in the world of music notation.  It is an open source, free program that can do most of what musicians (including educators) need a program to do, and it runs much like Sibelius.  This past weekend, I visited with a fellow music education techie who mentioned that they have not upgraded Sibelius since version 6, and are generally using MuseScore for most of their work.

Music Notation is a crowded industry right now, with programs such as Sibelius, Finale, and Dorico, as well as programs like Noteflight and Flat.io, and platform specific solutions such as Notion (Mac/Win or iOS), StaffPad (Win), Komp (iOS), MusicJot (iOS), Symphony Pro (iOS), Forte (Win), and others.  George Hess just wrote about this today as well, and he does what I do…most of his work in Notion (Mac/Win or iOS).  I move to Finale when I can’t do what I need to do in Notion.  All of these are paid programs.  And now there are notation editors in programs such as SmartMusic and Soundslice, too!

MuseScore has been the outlier.  Several years ago, I asked college students what programs they used, and they all used MuseScore.  What did you use in college?  Do you still use that application?  Chances are, you do.  What does this mean for the future of software notation?  And now that MusicXML is not controlled by a company and can be freely used by every application (and new versions of MusicXML will be even better)—there is nothing to stop you from using whatever program you want to use.  So why not choose free?

The large elephant in the room has been this: why pay for a notation program when a free version does nearly everything that you want it to do, with similar results?  The answer usually lies in three categories:

  • I need tech support that I can call; I don’t want to rely on a community for answers
  • I want a program that is easier to use (Notion and Dorico)
  • I need all the power I can get because I am a super human

I’ve been watching MuseScore for years, occasionally using it (the Sibelius-type note entry is hard to wrap my mind around as a Finale user), and have simply marveled at its existence.  George mentions that the core developers of MuseScore wanted to make money with the program even when it was free.  I suppose they have, at least now with the acquisition.

Ultimate Guitar has been very useful for me as I make ukulele play along videos—I check their chords when I work with music to make sure that chords I am using are correct.  However, if you want all the functions of Ultimate Guitar, you need to subscribe (e.g. transposition).  We call this a subscription/freemium model, and it works.  In the world of iOS apps, it is one of the only ways to sustain income over time (versus the one time purchase of an app).

MuseScore and Ultimate Guitar are both promising that MuseScore will remain free and open source; and that MuseScore 3 (which could once again change the playing field) is still under development.  All that said, I’m betting that MuseScore will be a freemium application, offering basic features for free, but advanced features for an affordable monthly or yearly rate.  Again, mind, you, that is MY guess and has NOT been stated by either company.  Just remember…if you want a product to make money, you have to actually collect money somehow.

Soundtrap was recently acquired by Spotify.  Peaksware acquired MakeMusic and Alfred.  Hal Leonard acquired Noteflight.  Acquisition seems to be a part of the process in the field of music technology.

If you want to follow this industry more closely, follow the work at Scoring Notes and the thoughts of George Hess!

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SmartMusic has an Online Notation Editor/Creator!

You know those movies/TV series where all sorts of events build up to a point of confrontation (That’s just about any movie, TV show, book, drama, etc.)?  That is what is happening right now in the space of music notation, practice tools, and student assessment.

About a week ago, I was given a “sneak peek” at the new online notation editor that exists inside of the new SmartMusic.  Yes, let me repeat that: inside.

The “new” SmartMusic is web-based, and works on most devices (iPads still need a proprietary application, as is often the case).  I have stepped away from red note/green note programs for a while (I’ll write an addendum at the bottom of this post if you are curious why), so while I continue to watch what is happening in the space (SmartMusic, MusicProdigy, PracticeFirst) I am not using any of those products with my students.  I still very much see the value of these products, and in a different teaching position, I would insist on (as least the consideration of) the use of those programs in band, choir, orchestra, and general music (recorder, mallats, and ukulele).  “New” SmartMusic allows for Chromebooks to be used, which opens a huge educational market in the United States—and is one of the best ways for a Chromebook school to put those devices to use (along with Noteflight, Flat.io, and Soundtrap).

I was stunned to learn that the SmartMusic team has added a full notation feature to SmartMusic.  Yes, stunned.  In the dark ages when Finale was created (MakeMusic’s other product), Finale was the product.  SmartMusic came along, and now the mission of MakeMusic is “to develop and market solutions that transform how music is composed, taught, learned, and performed.”  That is far beyond the original focus on music notation.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a Finale user.  I use other tools, too, but when the going gets tough, I use Finale.  That said, the notation field has simply exploded over the past years, from open source MuseScore to heavy-hitting Dorico…and at least five other significant applications, some on mobile devices.

At the same time, web applications are improving all the time.  I used to be strongly against Chromebooks (particularly when compared to iPads), but web applications have made Chromebooks significantly more useful for music educators.  I still believe that iPads are the better tool for our field—but a day is coming where the Chromebook could be just as good of a choice.

All this makes me wonder how long it will be before all traditional programs move to the cloud.  For example, you can log into iCloud.com and use Pages, Excel, and Keynote on just about any device.  The same is true with Microsoft products, and of course, Google apps continue to improve.

How long will it be before Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, Notion, and MuseScore all move to the web?  Probably sooner than we think.  Five years ago, this didn’t seem possible.

Meanwhile, on the web, Noteflight and Flat.io have been working to create quality products, also sharing an interest education.  I have used Flat.io with students—it is a bit more accessible than Noteflight, and Flat.io is a little friendlier as it uses school Google accounts (GAFE).  Noteflight is working on a number of other features, including connecting Hal Leonard catalog content to the service as well as developing other educational features.

Keep in mind that Hal Leonard owns Noteflight, and that SmartMusic’s parent company owns Alfred.

A bit about the notation editor in SmartMusic: it is impressive.  It functions on a level very close to Flat.io and Noteflight.  The notation editor hides one level deeper in the program than you would think (the editor currently resides inside the “add content” button, whereas I would want just a “notation button”  on the front page).  I messed around a little bit with the program, and was pleased to find out that it recognized “traditional” Finale numbers for note value.  That said, the difference between Finale and Sibelius has always been note entry.  Sibelius (and MuseScore) have always approached a measure as having a measure full of beats, and when you add a note, the program subtracts that from the preexisting rest.  Put in a quarter note in 4/4 and a whole rest turns into a quarter rest with three quarter rests.  Finale (and Notion) have always been ex nihlo programs, where nothing exists in the measure until you put it there.  The SmartMusic notation editor acts like Sibelius in this regard, which was surprising to me.  MakeMusic would also want you to know that the notation program is tapping into the Garritan sound bank.  Sounds have been a weakness for a number of the web based notation programs.

And if you want to see the post by Michael Goode about the new features of SmartMusic, you can read it here.

The “new” SmartMusic allows you to import your own content.  I tried uploading a choral score that had two vocal parts (SA), piano, bass, and drum set.  SmartMusic allows you to map the drum part so it plays correctly…this is amazing and practical.  It allows you to write a drum part as you want to—and then to be able to have it played back correctly.  All the notation programs should follow this lead with a similar interface.

With the “old” SmartMusic, the way to get music into the program was through Finale.  I thought that was the key to Finale’s long term survival—as you had to own the most recent version of Finale to creat SmartMusic files.  The “new” SmartMusic accepts MusicXML files (now an open standard—another business move by MakeMusic that I’ll never understand, but am happy that it happened) eliminating the need for the user to have Finale.

And now, the embedded notation software, combined with a scanning app such as NotateMe (with the PhotoScore IAP) or Sheet Music Scanner (iOS), means you don’t need any other software to create SmartMusic scores…everything you need is right on the web.

All this said, the industry is moving towards a giant point of confrontation.  Some “bullet” thoughts at this time:

  • If the notation feature of SmartMusic continues to improve to the point that it can do everything Finale can do, I expect a merger of both products within 5 years.
  • I expect to see Noteflight move into the practice/assessment arena (they already accept recordings) as SmartMusic is moving into the online notation arena.  John Mlynczak was recently named Director of Noteflight (overseeing the service), and he was responsible for many of the previous education initiatives from the company (such as Noteflight Learn).  Look for John to continue to be distruptive (in a good way) in this industry.
  • I don’t know where MusicFirst fits into all of this, as Hal Leonard is connected with (but not owned by) Music Sales Group, the owner of MusicFirst.
  • The next item for all these companies to address is the quagmire of sheet music into digital formats, distribution, and revenue sharing (Creating an Apple Music for sheet music)
  • Look for SmartMusic to move into composition assignments for students.  Why not?  The editor is there, so logically, the program could expand to allow teachers to assign composition through the SmartMusic as well.
  • Look for MuseScore to move into the web space.
  • Can Sibelius survive in a world with MuseScore, web-based notation, mobile-based notation, and Dorico?
  • I’m not sure what to expect from Flat.io, which has taken a very different approach, focusing on relationships with Google versus working with publishers.  They are very innovative and it is fun to have no idea what they will do next.

So, in summary—I was surprised to learn about the music editor in SmartMusic, and it works great.  If you have SmartMusic, check it out.


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Addendum:

I just wanted to mention why we have moved away from using red note/green note programs, particularly as I believe in them.  Cost is one issue for our school, but more importantly we are working on changing our school climate through PBIS, respecting self, others, property, and learning.  We use Dale Duncan’s S-Cubed sight reading method, and MusicProdigy offered access to Dale’s exercises for unlimited students for $100 per year.  We tried that out, but students would not do the assessments at home (20% would do home—at most).  We don’t have practice rooms, so I moved to having students record themselves in class (we are 1:1 iPad) while completing sight reading or singing assessments (as part of the larger group), and submitting those recordings via our LMS/CMS.  Those recordings are graded on a rubric.  This process it is like using SmartMusic, but there is nothing “smart” about the process.  I know some other teachers use Charms Office Assistant in a similar way.  When we moved to doing the recordings in class, the percentage of completed assessments increased to over 90%. Until PBIS kicks in (it can take five years), I am going to have to do the assessments in class instead of outside of class.


Flat.io iOS App Available

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This may be old news for you, but Flat.io joined the ranks of web-based apps that have also released an iOS version of their web app called Flat – Music Notation.  I had been a beta tester of the app (I didn’t have a lot of time to provide feedback), and since the last beta version, I had not used the app and was not aware that the public version had been released.

If you aren’t familiar with flat.io, there are two solutions for web-based music notation.  One of those solutions is Noteflight, and the other is flat.io.  In my opinion, Noteflight is the heavy duty app, with more functionality and features.  Flat.io has always been easier to use, but more limited in its features.  Of course, as time rolls on, both programs keep adding features, and it is always nice to read updates from the flat.io team.

I bought a one month subscription for my students to use the education version of flat.io last year—which worked well, even on iPad.  You can use flat.io on an iPad, but the app offers even more flexibility for the iPad user (Noteflight had discussed making an iPad app at one time, too).  The things I like about flat.io are its interface (which creates notes out of existing rests, like Sibelius), its connections with Google Apps for Education (any time you take away the need for yet another password, you make my life as a teacher easier), and flat.io’s ability to embed musical scores into a Google Doc (something new in 2017).  That will revolutionize music education papers at the college level in the future (and something I am eager to interact with when I teach at the college level).  I also like the flat.io doesn’t hide features if you don’t pay for the service.  They give you three private scores for free, but if you go beyond those scores, your scores are public unless you upgrade.  However, you have full access to all features and instruments in all of those scores.  And of course, you can import existing MusicXML files and export MusicXML files (into an app like Notion, for example).  The only feature I would still love to see added is the ability to have chord diagrams as chord symbols.  Right now, only letters appear as chord symbols.  If you love Flat, they have a one time lifetime purchase option that leaves you as a member forever, and they have been known to offer a discount on that purchase at various times, such as Black Friday.

The classroom version was wonderful…easy to assign a template to all students, and they only had to join their class with a “join code.”  It was easy for students to work on their assignments as well as to turn them in—and easy to correct them and give feedback.  It cost $100 to give 350 students access for a month.  There is a cheaper plan to give access to your students for a year ($1.50 a student), but I didn’t want to spend $525 on the service when we were only going to use it for the month.  If I could find a way to make composition a part of our course throughout the year, that $525 would be well spent.

There are benefits to Noteflight as well—but this post is about flat.io.

It is FREE to start a flat.io account…you can login with your traditional Google account…and the Flat – Music Notation app for iOS is free.   So…why not take some time over the remainder of your holiday weekend and see what flat has to offer?


Preparing a score for accompaniment files…

It has been a while since I have talked about my process of taking an existing score and preparing it for an accompaniment file or a rehearsal file. I just prepared ten scores for our district’s high school choirs (three high schools) who hold an October joint concert.

Step 1: Obtain the music. It seems obvious, but for my process, you need music IN HAND, not a PDF.

Step 2: Scan each page (each song separately, of course) with NotateMe, using the in-app purchase of PhotoScore. Why NotateMe? It scans nearly as accurately (sometimes more so) than the desktop version, bringing in most lyrics and diacritical markings. Suggestions: scan with a white background, and then use a flash. The better the camera, the better the scan…so think about using a late model iPhone or Android device.

Step 3: Rename the file in NotateMe and export using MusicXML via e-mail to myself. To be honest, my one major gripe of NotateMe is that I just can’t use “Open In” to open the MusicXML file directly into Notion for iOS.

Step 4: Import the MusicXML file into Finale on my MacBook. I actually can edit notes/rhythms easier in Notion (Mac or iOS) than on Finale, but Notion tends to not be so good with lyrics. I like to have the lyrics when I create a choral score…it makes a number of things easier (following a score, going back to edit later, etc.). This is also good if you later plan to export a MusicXML file to a red note/green note program like SmartMusic, PracticeFirst, or MusicProdigy. If I have to arrange something, I use Finale as my primary tool as it has a explode/implode feature. As a tip…voice parts should all have their own line without multiple notes. So, if you have an SSAATTBB score….there should be eight vocal lines, not four. This will save you trouble later!

Step 5: Edit in Finale, or your notation App of choice. If you are a band/orchestra director, you will want to enter percussion parts at some point, as they just don’t scan right.

Step 6: Export at MusicXML file to Notion on Mac. I do most of my note/rhythm editing in Notion, which allows me to swap voices anywhere (not a whole measure) and also shows measures with too many notes. While in Notion, make sure sound assignments are correct. You can name the files correctly and later add a “switch instrument” command to make vocal parts sound like a piano versus a choir “Ah.”

Step 7: Save the file in my Notion folder in iCloud Drive. Notion for iOS uses this folder. So if i have something saved in this folder, it shows up on my list in the Notion for iOS app.

Step 8: Final edits on Notion for iOS (this is a great place, with an Apple Pencil, to add any missing diacritical markings. Make sure tempos are where they should be; create tempos and ritardandos as necessary for proper playback. Why Notion for iOS? The sounds are good, and exporting is incredibly easy. The full sound library is also less expensive on Notion for iOS than any other program (with the exception of MuseScore, of course).

Step 9: Adjust the mixer bar in Notion for iOS to make playback files. For example, bring soprano up above the median line, bring piano below, bring altos, tenors, and basses all the way down. Instant soprano rehearsal track.

Step 10: Export to iCloud Drive as AAC file.

Step 11: Open up iCloud Drive and rename each file (e.g. Song Title Soprano. Otherwise Notion saves them as Title 1, Title 2, Title 3…)

Step 12: Repeat steps 9-11 for each part, as well as a piano only part.

Step 13: Distribute parts as necessary. These can be copied to Google Drive, Dropbox, opened in forScore or unrealBook, and so on.

This sounds like a lot of work, but an average song can have all rehearsal tracks created in a much shorter time than sitting down to play parts. Additionally, you will always have the tracks in the future and that file can always be used again. It is smart to keep the files in multiple organized places, as accidents do happen.

One other note: should you learn that a software program will be discontinued, you should open all of your files (over time) and export them as MusicXML files so as to be able to use them again someday. You could actually do that at the end of your process as Step 14, just to be safe.


Compose Leadsheets (New App for iOS)

The concept of written notation to digital notation, or handwriting recognition for music, has blown up over the past few years. I still remember the very famous video from ThinkMusicTechnology back in 2013 that resulted in a lot of excitement about the possibility:

ThinkMusic iPad App Kickstarter

It was a great idea, but the Kickstarter failed. Since then, there have been a number of handwriting apps…I will see if I can put them into chronological order (and I am sure I am missing some):

I do know of some other notation apps that are bringing handwriting soon.

When I see a new app that is entering an established field (looking back to 2013 in this case), I always ask: “What is unique about the app that makes it unique/easier/better/more powerful to use than other apps?” Hopefully every app has an answer to that (it is something that I like to ask on the podcast) rather than to be an alternative. For example: Finale has always been about the power user. Sibelius has always been about power and easier to learn. Notion has always been about high quality sounds and logical keyboard commands. MuseScore is always improving and Free. Dorico is focused on quality engraving and logical keyboard commands. As you think about notation apps for tablets and phones…what is the specialty of each of these apps?

I have a bias here, and I want to be clear about it: I find it easier to compose, arrange, and edit with a mouse/trackpad, QWERTY keyboard, and MIDI keyboard. I used Finale throughout college, and continue to use it–and I also use Notion on most projects (they both get used), both the desktop and iOS versions.

I find handwriting to be best for writing short sequences of notes (e.g. A sight reading exercise) versus an entire song. I love and adore NotateMe, and would have paid far more for it (it is $70 with the scanning IAP), but I don’t do any editing or writing in NotateMe–I use it for the PhotoScore and export features.

I do find handwriting to be the very best way to add diacritical markings…as these are a pain to add with most desktop/notebook programs, even knowing the shortcuts.

When I watch StaffPad’s videos of people collaborating on a composition to be played moments later via a WebCam connection with StaffPad, I feel the frustration that process would actually take (the first time, it would be fun. The second time…give me Finale or Notion…or MuseScore, or Sibelius, or Dorico…)

So, please be aware of my bias. That said, I realize there are a lot of people–music educators included–whose minds melt with any notation software, and handwritten solutions may be the only solution that works for them.

As a result, we have six solutions for iOS (with more on the way), all that work. The latest of these is Compoze Leadsheets, which is coming from a freemium approach. You get three lead sheets for free’ additional lead sheets cost most, and unlimited lead sheets cost $50. The program works like many others, with some very good integration (so far) of repeats and multiple endings. Other features, including export, are coming in the future…some included with the unlimited version.

My advice? Download it and try it, as you start for free. It works well, and if you haven’t tried handwriting notation, it is worth a shot (no Apple Pencil needed). That said, the program itself isn’t of much benefit to me as I need–from Day 1–the ability to have lyrics and to be able to import or export via MusicXML.

I also struggle with the idea notation apps that are in the $50 range or are subscription based, particularly when there are apps like Notion, where the base app, and all possible in-app purchases are $50 (this gets you a rather extensive sound library AND handwriting in Notion). I’m not against people making money…but $50 apps and subscription models (particularly those without an education version) are a very tough sell for schools.

If you download Compoze Leadsheets, you should also try some of the other handwriting apps, such as NotateMe Now (also free). In 2013-2014, I used NotateMe to have my students compose short compositions in class, and that was a successful unit. There are better solutions in 2017, such as the education versions of web based apps like Noteflight and Flat.io. I am particularly interested in trying Flat.io’s new assignment feature.

I also want to make it very clear that Compoze Leadsheets is BRAND NEW on the App Store–and it should be given some time to mature. As I mentioned, download it, and see what you think. Check in occasionally to see what they add.