Inspirazione! : Techno-Singer: Music Notation Software

Last month we discussed one of the challenges singers face by carrying their instruments around at all times, namely having to use them for everyday speech. The upside of being such a low-tech sort of musician is that we don’t have to worry about not being able to perform because we left our midi adapter cable at home or because our hard drive was wiped out with the click of a mouse. However, because technology isn’t necessarily at the core of what we do, some singers may fall into the category of the technologically challenged. Classical singers are analogue, not digital; unplugged, not amplified. Think old fashioned, natural, and organic; not hardwired, programmed and digital.

While the world of musical equipment (gear, not instruments) tends to be pop/rock and male-dominated and that culture may be intimidating or alien to a classical singer, it’s worth wading into the unfamiliar waters to fish out some of a host of tools (from digital voice recorders to websites and computer programs) that can help us do everything we need to do, including publicizing, recording, and even learning our music. This month we’ll take a look at the software tools of music notation and scanning.

Before we embark on that task, here are a few notes on buying gear. If you’re going to buy software programs online you can certainly save money by shopping at one of the EBay stores, however make sure you’re getting a brand new product in its original box that you can register. If you are not a properly registered user, you won’t be able to get tech support or upgrades when the time comes. If you want more personal service and have a lot of questions, make sure you buy from a store with an 800 number, or even go to a store to speak to someone in person. You might pay more to buy from these sources, but if you want more personal service and advice it’s a good way to go.

In all the above scenarios haggling over price is definitely allowed! Above all, doing your own research at your own pace can help to ensure you don’t spend time and money on features you don’t need or can’t use. Trying online demos is a good way to see if the program will work for you.

Now let’s look at some of the sheet music software on the market these days, what it costs, what it can and can’t do, and why you might or might not want to add it to your toolkit.

Notation, Scanning or Both?

Before buying anything, you’ll want to have a clear idea of what you want the software to help you accomplish. If your main goal is creating music from scratch (this might be writing out vocal exercises for yourself or your students, writing out cadenzas for your arias, or composing music), then you’ll want notation software. If your main goal is transposition or editing existing scores, then you’ll want one of the programs that focuses more on scanning. Both kinds of programs offer playback of the music with what are called midi voices from your computer, and transposition once the music has been entered into the program.

The industry standard for music notation is a product called Finale, which is made by the company Makemusic. There is also a product called Sibelius and you can find passionate discussions online as to the pros and cons of each, similar to the debates one hears frequently on the west coast about the merits of Peet’s Coffee vs. Starbuck’s. I’ll leave that debate to the online ranters and just say that most of the composers I know use and recommend Finale.

Finale can be used with Mac or PC and has a whole line of products from the free download (yes, Free!) called Notepad to the top-of-the-line Finale 2007 that plays back using samples of real orchestral instruments and can create high end music publishing. Finale does have scanning capabilities and, according to its specifications, has the ability to scan and transpose, but as we will see, there are some real limitations to this feature. For more accurate scanning you might want to take a look at SmartScore, a scanning and editing program we’ll discuss a bit later.

Of all the options in the Finale line the midlevel product Printmusic will do most things a singer might want. It lists for $99.99 (as opposed to several hundred dollars for the top-of-the-line Finale 2007) and can help you to create, playback, and print music with up to 24 staves. This program includes something called “SmartScore Lite” and you can see from the examples on page 48 that the scanned music is not able to bring text into Finale, and is missing some expression marks and accidentals, so you would need to allow time to edit those. The more complex the music, the more time consuming that will be. Still, if you’re wanting a playback of a simple piano part, it certainly is enough to give you an idea of the sound. For creating new music scores, it is possible to enter data just with a computer keyboard but for fastest results, you’ll want to work with an electronic keyboard with midi capabilities (which begin at about $69.99) and something to interface with your computer. I recommend a product from a company called M-Audio called the USB Uno and retails for $49.99. (You simply run the cable from your keyboard to your computer.)

These notation software programs are wonderful tools. If you want to write exercises, for example, you simply enter the scale or exercise once and then the software can transpose it into various keys. You can then give the printed music to your students, or if they don’t play piano they can use the program themselves to actually playback the exercises when practicing. Printmusic cannot burn CDs, but you can create an audio file which you can send into any CD burning program (iTunes, for example) and burn a CD there. Again, it could have wonderful applications for creating a practice or study CD for times when you’re away from the piano.

To give you some idea of the time involved, entry of a detailed page of vocal music with slurs, text, and expression marks by someone very experienced with the program can take about a half an hour. Simpler things, such as exercises or scales, can be much faster because in essence, you only have to enter a phrase one time. If you aspire to any crossover rep, entering in a vocal line and chord changes for a jazz pianist to read is a breeze and a quick way to get music of songs in your key.

If your primary goal is working with existing music or you want more accuracy, including automatic text entry, you’ll want to take a look at SmartScore from Musitek, retailing between $99 and $399 depending on the edition you buy. It seems that this program has great potential for someone with limited keyboard skills because it can scan a piece of music and play it back, but this is one I haven’t tried for myself. This software requires that you use a clean source of music (not handwritten or ancient) and according to Musitek, works best with the right type of scanner or other images (digital or pdf) if they are created “within the right parameters.” Two of the company’s preferred brands for scanning are Epson or Canon, and they suggest, if possible, that you stay away from all-in-one printer/scanners. With Finale you’ve also got to have the right kind of scanner and save the files the right way. I experienced some bugs with my all-in-one scanner and had to get my files—called Tiff files—from another source.

The software doesn’t automatically notate alternate noteheads (like an x for spoken notes, which can be entered manually), and may require some editing or correction once the music is scanned. The company claims about 99 percent accuracy. The program has full editing capabilities, so once it is scanned you can do anything from changing note values, adding or omitting text, to moving bar lines or adding harmony parts, whereas in Finale you must first transfer the score into a Finale file, again leaving time for corrections, before being able to edit. SmartScore has the ability to playback the music and burn CDs.

Also, using these tools is certainly not an either/or proposition. SmartScore files can be exported into Finale, so if you started with Finale but found the scanning inadequate, you could add Smartscore. At a minimum, a free download of Finale’s Notepad might give you a fun afternoon of writing out scales, cadenzas or song charts. (Also, for sharing music, Printmusic files can be read by Notepad.)

This really is the tip of the iceberg as far as these sorts of programs go. There are many other types of scanning and notation software available and more is being developed all the time. But as great as they are, it’s most
important to be mindful of the balance between the learning curve and the payback. If it doesn’t end up saving you time, improving your musical abilities, or offering you real enjoyment, then it’s probably not of value and might even detract from your life as a musician.

One software review I read pondered: “Just imagine if Mozart had had these capabilities!”

I’m dubious as to whether or not that would have been a good thing. Yes, he might have been able to write faster, but on the other hand he might have spent half his short life on hold with tech support.

Sing your best and then let it go. And remember what Mom always said, “Don’t put your light under a bushel!”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at