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Different scorewriters

A scorewriter, or music notation program is software for creating, editing and printing sheet music. A scorewriter is to music notation what a word processor is to text, in that they typically provide flexible editing and automatic layout, and produce high-quality printed results.

The very first modern score manipulation program was Mockingbird, written by John Maxwell and Severo Ornstein at Xerox PARC in 1980 on a Dorado computer. It preceded MIDI so an electronic keyboard had to be modified to enable interaction (input and playback) with the program. The WYSIWYG program was envisioned as a composer's amanuensis, but as it was an experimental program it never reached beyond PARC, though it influenced commercial programs which soon followed.[1][2][3][4]

Most scorewriters, especially those from the 2000s, can record notes played on a MIDI keyboard (or other MIDI instruments), and play music back via MIDI or virtual instruments. Playback is especially useful for novice composers and music students, and when musicians are not available or affordable. Several free programs are widely used, such as MuseScore. The three main professional-level programs are Finale, Sibelius and Dorico.[5]

Comparison with multitrack sequencer software

Multitrack sequencer software and scorewriters typically employ different methods for notation input and display.

Scorewriters are based on traditional music notation, using staff lines and round note heads, which originates from European classical music. They use symbols representing durations in sound and silence, dynamics, articulations and tempo. Some also allow users to import and/or create their own symbols. Multitrack sequencer software typically uses a multitrack recorder metaphor as the main interface, with multiple tracks and track segments. Individual tracks can be edited using graphic notation in the form of a "piano roll"-guided input for the control of MIDI-based hardware and software instruments.

A third approach has also emerged that combines the first two input methods into a digital audio workstation, allowing users to score parts using traditional notation, the graphic notation of the piano roll, and recording acoustic or electronic instruments in real time alongside the existing scores. With all three methods, the computer keyboard, mouse, and a MIDI musical keyboard can be used to enter music that can then be edited with traditional or piano-roll-based notation.


The rapid growth of desktop computers in the 1980s saw the creation of dozens of early scorewriters (see list of scorewriters). They were a boon to young composers, music educators and composition students, providing a much less expensive way to create scores and parts for orchestral music and other works. However, they were hard to use; and while scores were readable, they did not look like professionally engraved scores or parts. An exception was SCORE notation software. Developed in the late '80s, it was used mostly by commercial publishers, as its price put it out of the reach of most non-professional composers/copyists.[6] During the 1990s, many of these early programs, such as the Mosaic notation program, fell into disuse, as newer programs surpassed them in ease of use and output quality. Finale and Sibelius were released, with high-quality output and a wide range of sophisticated features that made them suitable for almost all kinds of music applications.

By 2000, the market was dominated by Finale (particularly in the US) and Sibelius (which had dominated the UK since 1993, and expanded worldwide after its Windows release in 1998). Inexpensive programs such as capella gained a significant share of the market in some countries.[7] Sibelius and Finale still dominated the market as of 2012.[8]

In 2006, Sibelius was purchased by Avid. In a 2012 restructuring, Sibelius's London office was closed and the development team dismissed. In February 2013, Steinberg announced it had hired the former Sibelius team to create a new scorewriter,[9] Dorico, which was released in October 2016.[10] The trio of Finale, Sibelius and Dorico are today's leading professional-level programs.


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All scorewriters allow the user to input, edit and print music notation to varying degrees of sophistication. They range from programs which can write a simple song, piano piece or guitar tab, to those that can handle the complexities of orchestral music, specialist notations (from early music to avant-garde), and high-quality music engraving.

Music can usually be input using the mouse, computer keyboard, or a MIDI keyboard. A few allow input by scanning scores using musical OCR; by playing or singing into a microphone; or by using a touch screen.

Most scorewriters also allow users to play the music back, using MIDI or virtual instruments such as VST instruments. The screen can show at one time both the score and, by changing the colour of keys on a virtual piano's keyboard, the notes being played. Although sequencers can also write some musical notation, they are primarily for recording and playing music. Scorewriters can typically write more complex and sophisticated notation than sequencers can.

Some scorewriters allow users to customize and fine-tune the printed output to a considerable degree, as is required by publishers to produce high-quality music engraving and to suit their individual house style.

A few scorewriters allow users to publish scores on the Internet, where they can be (for example) played back, transposed, and printed out, perhaps for a fee.

Most scorewriters provide other musical functions such as transposing; producing separate instrumental parts from a full score; or applying musical transformations such as retrograde. Some can automatically create instrumental exercises and student worksheets. Some support plug-ins, often developed by users or other companies. Other features may include version control, change tracking, graphics import and export, Post-It-like sticky notes, etc.

File formats

Almost all scorewriters use their own file formats for saving files. Hence, in order to move notation between different scorewriters (or to/from other kinds of music software such as sequencers), most scorewriters can also import or export one or more standard interchange file formats, such as:

This Comparison of scorewriters details which score writers can import and export to PDF, text (ASCII), picture (PNG, SVG, EMF) and sound (Vorbis OGG) file formats.

There are also human-readable text-based formats such as ABC notation, LilyPond, ASCII tab and NoteWorthy Composer text files. These are easily rendered as speech by screen reading software. The Score extension to MediaWiki can render, and generate an audio preview of, the first two formats.

See also


  1. ^ Maxwell III, John Turner; Ornstein, Severo M. (January 1983). Mockingbird: A Composer’s Amanuensis (A "Blue and White" Xerox PARC research report). Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. CSL-83-2.
  2. ^ Maxwell III, John Turner; Ornstein, Severo M. (January 1984). "Mockingbird: A Composer's Amanuensis". Byte. Vol. 9, no. 1. McGraw Hill.
  3. ^ Ornstein, Severo M.; Maxwell III, John Turner (1980). "Mockingbird—A Musician's Amanuensis, lecture by Severo Ornstein and John Maxwell". YouTube (Extended demo / lecture). Computer History Museum. Retrieved June 19, 2024.
  4. ^ Ornstein, Severo M.; Maxwell III, John Turner (Oct 30, 1980). "DigiBarn TV: Initial Demo of the Mockingbird Composer's tool at Xerox PARC Forum (Oct 30, 1980)". YouTube (Extended demo / lecture). Dr. Bruce Damer. Retrieved June 19, 2024.
  5. ^ Cliff, Tony (1 December 2019). "Tech Reviews: Dorico Pro 3". Music Teacher Magazine. Rhinegold Publishing. Retrieved 6 June 2021.
  6. ^ Selfridge-Field, Eleanor (1997). Beyond MIDI: The Handbook of Musical Codes (1st ed.). Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 252. ISBN 978-0262193948.
  7. ^ "Model Based Systems Engineering | Capella MBSE Tool". Retrieved 2023-10-06.
  8. ^ Richard Sussman, Michael Abene, Mike Abene (2012) Jazz Composition and Arranging in the Digital Age p. xlviii
  9. ^ Kirn, Peter (20 February 2013). "FEB 20 2013 Sibelius Core Team Now at Steinberg, Building New Notation Tool". Create Digital Music. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
  10. ^ Arblaster, Simon (20 October 2017). "Steinberg's Dorico software promises to be the most flexible scoring application there is". musicradar. Retrieved 2017-01-07.
  11. ^ "MusicXML Software". MakeMusic, Inc. 7 July 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
  12. ^ Belkin, Alan (NIFF coordinator) (February 1992). "The Current Status of NIFF". Archived from the original on 2007-10-31. Retrieved 2007-11-06. Niff has now been superseded by MusicXML.