Professional grade score writers are not cheap. An entry level license for Finale® costs $449.00US (from discount retailers—MSRP is $600.00!) unless you're a teacher, student or church musician. Sibelius pricing is similar. There are other “levels” of these products available for less, but they come with less functionality. And there are cheaper alternatives, but Sibelius and Finale represent the gold standard for scoring programs. But lately, open-source developers who happen to love music are catching up to the rest of the open-source pack, developing great software that's immediately useful “out of the box.” Meet MuseScore.
Originally part of MusE (a GNU/Linux only music sequencing program), The MuseScore team has been developing it independently since it was cut out of MusE in 2004. MuseScore is now a standalone, WYSIWYG score writer available for Windows and Mac OS X, in addition to Linux. Recent releases of MuseScore have garnered very positive feedback, and the program is now comprehensive enough to meet the demands of some schools and institutions of higher learning. With the release of version 0.9.5 in 2009, its download stats exploded and are currently holding steady at well over 30,000 individual downloads per month (with nearly 42,000 for June 2010). The current stable release, 0.9.6.1 boasts a faster, more stable user interface than its predecessors. In addition, the artwork (splash screen, icons, user interface elements) is undergoing a major revision and some of those improvements are visible in the new release.
MuseScore contains loads of professional features common to top-rated scoring programs, and even a few that the front-runners don't have. For example, users of other scoring software will find the “Create New Score” wizard intuitive and familiar. Users can choose between point-and-click note entry and MIDI step-time input. Scores can contain an unlimited number of staves and display and print in concert pitch or orchestral transpositions. And, impressively, you can change the color of virtually any score element. That's great for elementary school music teachers. MuseScore can import MIDI and MusicXML for converting scores written in other programs. It can also generate MIDI output, and export to a range of formats including MusicXML, PDF, various graphic formats including SVG, and audio formats like WAV. MuseScore can also export scores to LilyPond, a very mature text-based program that produces excellent results.
Typography nuts will be thrilled with that last export option, but there's plenty of reason to like MuseScore's default output. For starters, MuseScore uses LilyPond's Feta Font for scoring elements. It's a softer typeface which aims to mimic the look of hand-engraved music of the past. This, by itself, strongly differentiates MuseScore from its commercial competitors. Also, its spacing is generally as good as other score writers, although it doesn't rival some of LilyPond's finer nuances. But if the default isn't up to spec, then it can be easily modified in most cases. The placement of most elements can be fine-tuned using the mouse, and score layout can be optimized by adding line breaks and adjustments to the staff spacing. And of course, the size and placement of text can be customized.
Although MuseScore's capabilities are more than adequate for most users in an education setting (and even surpass some commercial programs for many uses), there are some areas where it doesn't yet measure up against the major competitors. One feature that's not quite ready for regular use is the ability to print single parts from a score. MuseScore can do it, but the extracted parts require heavy formatting after the fact (which is to say, they require even more formatting than Finale's extracted parts). This lack can be a strike against MuseScore's viability in a professional environment, so naturally, the developers are working on it. Support for Guitar Tablature is almost completely absent (you can select a “TAB” clef from the “Clefs” pallette, but that's about it). However, Guitar/TAB being such a popular notation format, the developers are taking up that issue as well. But while MuseScore has some ground to cover to catch up to the top dogs, it's clear that it's made substantial and impressive progress over the last 18 months of development. With the release of version 0.9.6.1, it's clearly ready for deployment in music education departments far and wide.
MuseScore is available for Windows, GNU/Linux and Mac OS X and can be downloaded from the MuseScore website.
To begin your score, launch MuseScore in whichever way is easiest for you. The “Promenade” from Moussorgsky's famous Pictures at an Exhibition suite appears. Click the “X” in the tab above the score to close it, and then click the “Create new score” icon on the top toolbar, all the way to the left (or, type Ctrl+N, or choose “New...” from the “File” menu). The “Create New Score” dialog appears. Fill in the text fields with the relevant information. Make sure the “Create new score from scratch” radio button is selected and then click “Next.”
Now, enter the instruments for your new score. Select an instrument from the left pane and click the “Add” button. Alternately, you can double-click on the instrument name in the left pane to add it to your score. If you need to change the order of the instruments, highlight the instrument you want to move in the right pane and use the “Up” or “Down” button to adjust its position. If you add a wrong instrument by mistake, highlight it in the right pane and click the “Remove” button. When you're finished adding instruments, click “Next.”
In the next dialog, choose the starting key for your score, and then click “Next.” In the final dialog, choose your values for the starting time signature and enter the number of measures for your score. I've started with 50 measures. Don't worry if you don't know how many measures your score is—you can add or subtract bars later if you need to. When you're done, click “Finish.” A new, empty music sheet appears with the instruments and title info you just provided.
Now we're going to play with MuseScore's default page and layout dimensions, so go to the “Layout” menu and choose “Page Settings...” MuseScore sets up new scores on the A4 paper size. Here in the States, we use Letter size for everyday documents so I chose “Letter” from the drop down menu in the upper left-hand corner of the dialog. Also, go ahead an untick the “Two sided” checkbox beneath the page dimensions fields. (These defaults can be changed for future documents by going to the "Edit" menu, choosing "Preferences..." and then clicking on the "Score" tab.) Under “Scaling,” notice the value for “Space.” This value sets the size for staff spaces (the space between staff lines). In Music Engraving, the staff space is used as a unit of measure for adjusting the size and placement of score elements. 1.764 mm yields a staff height of almost 9 mm, which is a little large for standard parts, so go ahead and enter a value of 1.4 mm for a staff height of 7 mm (which is about standard size for parts). Note: even thought we're typesetting a conductor's score, we're initially using a staff size for standard parts. You'll see why in part two of this tutorial.
I also adjusted the margins by choosing “inch” for my measurement unit, and then changing the margins to 0.5 inches for left and right margins and 0.75 inches for top and bottom under the “Odd page margins” section. Click “Apply” to apply the changes and then “OK” to return to your score.
Before we begin entering notes in our new score, let's bracket the guitars together so that they appear as a section. If the Palette isn't already displayed, choose “Palette” from the “Display” menu, or press the “F9” key. From the Palette, click on “Brackets” (about halfway down) to expand the Brackets area of the palette.
Drag the bracket from the palette onto any measure in the top-most Guitar part. A bracket will appear to the left of the top guitar staff on each system. Now, double-click the bracket. It lights up blue and a handle appears at the bottom. Use the handle to drag the bottom of the bracket down past the bottom of the third Guitar staff. If you drag it too far, don't worry. MuseScore will automatically adjust the bracket to display correctly once the screen is refreshed. Let's also fix the instrument names and short names. Double-click the word “Guitar” to the left of the top guitar staff and edit it so that it says “Guitar I.” Then, fix Guitar II and Guitar III as well. For the short names, we'll use “Gtr. I,” “Gtr. II” and “Gtr. III” for the Guitars and “Vc.” for the 'Cello.
Now we're ready to start entering the notes. In MuseScore, there are two ways to enter notes. The “point-and-click” method uses the mouse, similar to other score writing programs. To begin, Click on the large “N” above the score (or, press the “N” key on your computer keyboard). Then, select the note value from the available choices along the top. Using the mouse, move the pointer over one of the staves. MuseScore helpfully highlights the pitch of the note you're about to enter. Click the left mouse button and a note appears in the score. If you make a mistake, just press the “Backspace” key. Continue until you've entered the first two bars of the 'Cello part.
Pointing and clicking is rather slow and can quickly become boring. Fortunately, MuseScore can also enter notes with a MIDI keyboard (a music engraver's best friend). So make sure your keyboard is hooked up to your computer and that all your gear is set up properly. In the MuseScore window, make sure the “Enable MIDI Input” (along the top) button is engaged. Click somewhere inside the beginning of the measure you're going to start entering notes in. A blue box appears around the measure. Now, press the “N” key on your computer keyboard to activate “Note input mode,” and see the blue carat which denotes the point of entry. Choose the appropriate rhythmic value on the toolbar along the top, either by clicking with the mouse or by using the number keys on your computer keyboard—4 for eighth-notes, 5 for quarter-notes, 6 for half-notes, and so on. The numeric keypad will work as well. Once you've selected a rhythmic value, you can enter notes by playing them on your MIDI instrument. Start entering the notes for the Guitar I part.
To change note values, simply use the numeric keypad on your computer keyboard. Keep playing until all of the Guitar I notes are entered (or until you get tired, in which case, take a stretch break).
Close to the end, you'll notice that you're running out of measures, even though you have music left to enter. To add measures, click on the “Create” menu and choose “Measures>Append Measures...” In the “Number of measures to append” field, enter the number of bars you need to add. Then, you can continue to input notes until you've finished entering Guitar I.
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