For students: Notation software and when (not) to use it

What follows is a section of my Introduction to Composition syllabus that I’m adding this year. I get questions about software a lot from my students. (Poor things don’t know what they’re getting into by asking me such questions.)

tl;dr: I recommend you invest in Dorico Pro if you can afford it, with MuseScore as a temporary solution if you aren’t ready to spend the cash.

When starting a new composition, it is important that you begin working using pencil and paper, even though your final work will usually be completed in software. This is to avoid the many assumptions that software will make for you. In the early sketching phases of a composition, it is important to not be bound to these assumptions. I expect all students to be prepared to show handwritten sketches of their work.

When it comes to completed projects, composers present their works in computer-notated/engraved form. It is no longer common (and in most circumstances, no longer acceptable) to supply performers with hand-written manuscripts. Students in this class may choose to use any of the following applications to prepare their assignments:

  • Dorico Pro
  • Sibelius Ultimate
  • Finale
  • MuseScore

MuseScore is free, but the quality of the finished product is not as high as the other three commercial applications. I will accept work completed in MuseScore for this class. However, students who are planning to major in composition or work professionally with notation should plan to purchase one of the professional applications and begin learning it. I know these are expensive, but these are the tools of our field, and it’s worth learning them sooner, rather than later, and while you have access to the very steep student discounts. Beginning with 400-level composition lessons, you will be required to work with one of the commercial applications, so it might be worth starting to learn it now.

When it comes time to select from those three, which you choose is ultimately up to you, but I generally recommend Dorico Pro, as I think it has the brightest future of the group (reasons for that determination are beyond the scope of this syllabus, but I’m happy to discuss it sometime). While there are still many pros who use it, I do not recommend new users invest in Finale. When purchasing your software, keep the following things in mind:

  • Get your student discount! This will save you hundreds of dollars.
  • Get the professional “tier” of whatever product you select. Both Dorico and Sibelius come in cheaper, feature-limited “lite” versions. For the kinds of things you will need to do in this class, you will end up being frustrated by those limits, and there is often not an easy way to upgrade to the pro tier without paying all over again. If you’re not ready to invest in the pro tier, stick with MuseScore while you save up. It will be worth it in the long-run.
  • Be patient with learning it. These are professional tools, which means they’re complicated. They need to serve as wide a variety of musicians and musical traditions as they can. Think about it a bit like investing the time, care, and money into learning a musical instrument. It’s hard at first, but with dedicated practice you can make it work for you and create something amazing with it.