Friday, September 3, 2010

Introduction to MuseScore for Musicians and Music Educators

Note: This article is the first in a series of articles on MuseScore. It originally appeared on Examiner.com

In the computing age, the ability of musicians and music educators to craft their own scores with the aid of a score writer is a must-have skill. Teachers make exercises that are custom-tailored to their student ensembles' needs. Band leaders need to fill in their arrangements with parts for their individual band members. And of course, studio arrangers must be able to quickly make scores for session musicians and ensembles to read from.

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.

Next week, we'll dive into MuseScore with a practical tutorial on its basic features. We'll be typesetting a Guitar Ensemble arrangement of Pachelbel's “Canon in D.” Stay tuned.


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