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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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.