Open Source Musical Notation Software

Compose your own music with these free music software apps

Close-up shot of sheet music

Blackred/Getty Images

There's ane overlap between open-source hardware and software enthusiasts and amateur musicians. While some musicians make music using the "let's see what that button does" method, you might be interested in composing music the old-fashioned way—by digitally producing paper-based music sheets.

Whether you're writing music for the guitar, learning how to improvise jazz solos, or writing entire music scores, chances are one of the pieces of open-source software listed here can make the process a little easier.

Generalized Music Notation Software

If you're interested in arranging, composing, or transcribing music, these are good resources to keep handy.

Denemo

Denemo
What We Like
  • Multiple input methods.

  • Hear what you're working on as you work.

  • Transcribe PDF.

What We Don't Like
  • Computer keyboard input can be awkward.

  • Interface feels complex.

Denemo is a music notation program that lets you input music using your keyboard or a MIDI controller or by plugging a microphone into your computer's soundboard. Then, you can edit it using your mouse. You can take advantage of the audible feedback to hear what you've entered, and when you're done tweaking, Denemo creates printable and shareable music sheets.

In addition to supporting MIDI instruments, Denomo imports PDF files for transcription, creates musical tests and games for educators, uses LilyPond for its output files, and lets you create functions using Scheme.

Denemo is released under a General Public License and is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

LilyPond

LilyPond
What We Like
  • Excellent output support.

  • Multiple notation systems, including tablature.

  • Simple interface with editor.

What We Don't Like
  • Only command line without external editor.

  • Fairly strict about input.

LilyPond is a music engraving program that generates high-quality sheet music. LilyPond can input music and text through ASCII input, integrate music into LaTeX or HTML, work with OpenOffice, and can be integrated into several wiki and blog platforms. It can be used for all sorts of musical styles, including classical music, complex notation, early music, modern music, tablature, Schenker graphs, and vocal music.

LilyPond is released under a General Public License and is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

MuseScore

MuseScore
What We Like
  • Great interface design.

  • Convenient templates to start with.

  • Multiple controls to set up your music.

What We Don't Like
  • Requires more music knowledge to use.

  • Can't directly convert existing music.

Another generalized piece of music notation software, MuseScore provides customization options, for example, to set up your score using common templates, such as chamber orchestra, choir, concert band, jazz or piano, or start from scratch. With MuseScore, you have access to an unlimited number of staves, and you can set the initial key signature, time signature, pickup measure (anacrusis,) and the number of measures in your score. You can also import your music or enter it directly into MuseScore, and you control the end look of the notation.

MuseScore is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License and is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

Guitar-Specific Notation Software

If you're focused on writing music for the guitar, the following software programs were created just for you.

Chordii

Chordii
Johan Vromans - Chordii Developer
What We Like
  • Simple to use and direct.

  • Excellent for guitar chords.

  • Easy to convert and set up guitar music.

What We Don't Like
  • Command line only.

  • A little too minimal.

A re-release of software originally published in the early 1990s, Chordii creates a music sheet with chords and lyrics from a text file—title, words, and music. It uses the ChordPro format for the import, and it supports, among other things, multiple columns, a songbook index, configurable fonts, and chorus marking.

Chordii is released under a General Public License and is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

Impro-Visor

Impro-Visor
What We Like
  • Full featured and supports multiple styles.

  • Great interface.

  • Built for education.

What We Don't Like
  • Can be overwhelming.

  • There's a definite learning curve.

Originally created to help budding musicians learn how to improvise solos in jazz music, Impro-Visor has been extended to include more than 50 music styles. According to the website, "The objective is to improve understanding of solo construction and tune chord changes." The features list includes optional automatic note coloration, a chord roadmap editor, harmonic note entry option guides, audible playback, and MIDI and MusicXML exports.

Impro-Visor is released under a General Public License and is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

Music Theory Software

If you're learning about music theory, there's a piece of open-source software that can help with that.

Phonascus

LenMus Phonascus
What We Like
  • Training exercises.

  • Learn various aspects of music.

  • Customizable.

What We Don't Like
  • Requires time to acclimate.

  • Only really for learning.

  • No instrument specific coverage.

Phonascus was designed to help music students practice reading music, improve aural recognition, and learn music theory and language fundamentals. For example, the software includes customizable aural training exercises that cover the identification of intervals, notes, chords, scales, cadence, and tonality along with music theory exercises that cover building key signatures, reading clefs, and building and spelling intervals.

Phonascus is released under a General Public License and is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.