At the Sounding Edge: LilyPond, Part 1

An introduction to this music notation software for Linux.

Judging from the response to last month's column, it seems that many readers are interested in applications and utilities designed for practicing musicians. One reader brought up the subject of scoring software, which are programs designed for formatting music notation for printing. This month's column looks at music notation software for Linux, with a special focus on the LilyPond project.

First, a few remarks concerning the subject of music notation. Modern Western music notation is the result of hundreds of years of evolving practice. From its beginnings as a means of notating plainchant the system has grown to accommodate a bewildering array of symbols, signs and objects, all intended to convey a more or less accurate set of instructions describing a performance of the composer's musical intentions involving possibly huge instrumental and vocal resources. Learning to read and write standard Western music notation is a non-trivial task, and real fluency requires considerable effort.

Alas, the computer can't do your sight-reading for you yet, but it can relieve many burdensome clerical aspects of notation, particularly in regards to manuscript preparation and score printing. Programs are available that act as virtual manuscript paper, presenting the user with a palette of conventional music symbols such as staffs (or more pedantically, staves), clefs, time signatures, key signatures, notes, rests, articulations and so forth. The composer selects what he needs from the palette, beginning with staff definitions, and proceeds by freely adding and deleting elements to the staff(s). Typically, notes can be auditioned when placed or moved on the virtual staff, and the entire work or any part can be played at any time. When the composer is satisfied with the appearance and sound of his work, he can save or export it in a variety of formats, including MIDI files and PostScript graphics. The Linux applications that belong to this music software category include the MusE and Rosegarden audio/MIDI sequencers and Joerg Anders' NoteEdit program (see Resources).

Music typesetting software is another category. A music typesetting system is designed for formatting publication-quality output files. These systems typically work with a text-based interface (a language) and a compiler or preprocessor (the program). The user writes a specification file in the system's language and processes it with the typesetting program. Output usually is a scalable graphics format, such as PostScript or Adobe PDF, that can be printed with the common Linux printing tools. With a powerful enough language, every detail of a score's appearance can be customized for perfectly readable and beautiful printed music. Linux music applications in this category include MusiXTeX, Mup, abc and LilyPond.

A music specification language may seem like an odd way to deal with something so visual as music notation, but preparing a music manuscript is not necessarily a straightforward process. Note groupings, placement of accidentals, beaming requirements, necessary stem directions and many other factors influence the appearance and usability of the printed score, and the variations of those factors cannot be predicted and accommodated easily by formula. Even the most flexible notation GUI is not quite WYSIWYG, and the underlying program logic must make decisions that may not create optimal output. By contrast, a specification language allows a degree of output customization not commonly encountered in programs dependent on graphic interfaces. Which brings us to LilypPond.

"The name is Pond... LilyPond"

So say Han-Wen Nienhuys and Jan Nieuwenhuizen, the principal architects of LilyPond. They are very clever and articulate fellows, so I'll let their capsule description of LP speak for them:

"Scores made with computers almost always look bland and uninspiring, but for what reason? Machines may be mechanical, but why should their products be? With that thought in mind we started programming seven years ago. We have tried to capture the rules of good music engraving in a program, and that program is called LilyPond. We built it like we expect software to be: robust, open and flexible. The best is that you can create beautiful sheet music comfortably with LilyPond."

Bold statements, indeed, but they're backed by solid programming skills and deep research into the chosen subject. This rest of this article gives you a glimpse of LP's capabilities. If you are a musician wanting to create publication-quality scores of your music, I hope you will be inspired to try LP yourself.

Its Web page refers to LilyPond as an automated engraving system, a software music typesetter designed to create beautiful readable output. Set to its defaults, LilyPond automatically formats most music for excellent printed output, at the same time permitting highly detailed customizations to accommodate virtually any music scoring requirement, including unusual and idiosyncratic notations.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.


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Re: At the Sounding Edge: LilyPond, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Musical Notation has not only evolved over centuries, it is also facing numerous dilemmas: Instruction to the performer vs. compositional concept, difficulties with tuning systems, and so on. I own about 6 kilograms of books about the subject, so I am not surprised that there can be fiery discussions about notation programs.

My favourite tools for notating music will always be some sheets of paper and a 4b pen, and I will never touch an eraser when composing or arranging.

Author's reply

Anonymous's picture

I agree, music notation has become a wildly tangled garden, and it is indeed a difficult thing to come up with a program that could satisfy all possible demands.

Btw, your last comment reminded me of Morton Feldman's statement that he always composed with pen & ink. He claimed it made him really think about whether he should write down what he was considering...



Re: At the Sounding Edge: LilyPond, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

An archive of folk tunes in LilyPond format is at

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Anonymous's picture

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LilyPond formated archive

Anonymous's picture

Unfortunately, the site owner at no longer provides songs in the LilyPond format.