Music Notation Software for Linux: a Progress Report, Part 2

In this article, I conclude my status report on the development of some of the most active notation software projects for Linux.


In one sense, MuseScore is the "odd man out" in this article. It does not employ LilyPond in any way, but it does support MusicXML. That support gives it an entry into the LilyPond environment by way of LilyPond's musicxml2ly utility. However, MuseScore is intended to be a complete workspace for the composer who wants a true WYSIWYG music notation environment for writing and printing scores. The program thus supports the same range of features seen in other notation programs, but it handles its printing functions internally, without assistance from external applications or utilities. MuseScore supports an unlimited number of staves (with up to four voices per staff); note entry by mouse, keyboard or MIDI device; import/export of MusicXML and MIDI files; immediate audition and score playback; and extensive language integration (14 languages supported so far).

Figure 4. MuseScore 0.9.5

MuseScore is available in binary packages for Debian, Ubuntu and Windows. Program dependencies are not strenuous, but they include up-to-date versions of Qt, X11, ALSA and (once again) the cmake build utility. The fluidsynth soundfont synthesizer is required for internal playback, but it is not absolutely necessary. MuseScore is a GPL'd application, so, of course, the source code also is available (along with some helpful instructions on building the program on Ubuntu systems).

I apologize to MuseScore users for not going into the program in further detail. However, MuseScore is very easy to learn, and I found myself using it without consulting the documentation at all. Of all the programs presented here, MuseScore has a "look and feel" closest to the actual pen and paper process of score preparation, and it does live up to its description as a true WYSIWYG music notation editor.


Although Dr. Joerg Anders ceased development of his original NoteEdit, he eventually decided to revive his work toward a WYSIWYG notation editor for Linux. NtEd is the excellent result of those efforts.

As we might expect, NtEd's user interface is heavily indebted to NoteEdit. However, significant changes in the development track indicate that NtEd is its own project with its own unique goals. The GUI is now based on the Cairo libraries; MusicXML files can be imported, and a neat "floating toolbox" has been added for faster program operation.

Figure 5. NtEd 1.5.0

NtEd works more or less like the other applications profiled here. Symbols are placed on or removed from a staff with keyboard, mouse or file input, and scores can be printed directly from the program. Alternately, you can export your work to a variety of graphics formats (including SVG, PNG, PDF and PostScript) or as a MIDI file. And, of course, you also can export your work in the LilyPond file format.

The original NoteEdit neatly resolved the problem of working with multiple voices within a single staff. While editing, users can choose one of four voice selectors to create a wholly independent part—that is, symbols will have their own stem directions and other unique characteristics. NtEd is generally smart enough to represent difficult symbol concatenations, and, of course, its LilyPond export gives users the opportunity to fine-tune their publication-ready scores.

NtEd is available in packages for Fedora 9, OpenSUSE, Debian and Slackware. The source package requires no unusual dependencies and can be compiled easily on any mainstream Linux system with the libraries and development packages for GCC, ALSA, Cairo and GTK. The NtEd Web site provides complete instructions for building the program; see that site for the latest news regarding the build procedure.

This program is truly a superb work, representing the enormous efforts of its developer to provide a notation editor with high-quality features and an easily apprehended user interface. Version 1.5.0 continues to expand its already considerable feature set, and it appears that the good doctor has some fine plans in store for his creation. I look forward to seeing and using his improvements.


Just as I put the final touches to this article, fellow LAU member David Baron posted a message regarding Noteflight, a new Web-based music notation service. Alas, I was unable to test Noteflight, but I wanted to let my readers know about it. According to the Web description Noteflight is:

...a full-featured application that displays, edits, prints and plays back music notation in any standard Web browser. You can create your own scores, choose to share them with others, or publish them to Noteflight's browsable, searchable online library of music.

The software is already at release stage 1.0 and runs on designated browsers for Windows, Linux and Mac. Alas, it is not software libre, but it is available at no cost for individual users. One more thing: Noteflight's advisory board includes the legendary Donald Byrd, a famous name in the development of music notation software. With his imprimatur on the program, I'm inclined to look into it in some depth. I'll work up a report about Noteflight as soon as possible, but in the meantime, my readers should feel free to post their own reports in the Comments section below.


Although it may be argued that Linux does not yet have its own Sibelius or Finale, it must be admitted that Linux notation software developers are working overtime to address that need. The programs reviewed in this article are growing into wonderful applications, and I advise interested readers to try them all. If you're a power user of any of them, be sure to let the developers know what you'd like to see in their software. Who knows, we might wind up with something even better than those Win/Mac stalwarts—at least, that's what I'd like to see.

Next up: who knows? I'm looking at new developments in ecasound and a new version of Guitarix (complete with new UI for the latest version of the amazing jconv), and I'm still busy testing features in the latest and greatest versions of Ardour. By my next article, the Linux Audio Conference 2009 will have completed its course, so perhaps I can get some reports from presenters and attendees. You'll just have to check back in a couple of weeks to see what I come up with. Until that time, stay tuned, breathe, keep your gear clean and your powder dry.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.


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Open sibelius files in ubuntu?

Farmers's picture

Thanks for the great article Dave!

I have recently switched over to ubuntu, but was using a dual boot to use sibelius 2 (I know I'm a bit out of date but can't afford to buy the latest version) however have now lost the ability to boot into windows so now have lots of .sib files that I can't do anything with.

Does anyone know of a way around this?


P.S. Sorry if I've posted this in the wrong place, but I'm getting desperate!

I have high hopes for Noteflight

ozob's picture

Unfortunately, MuseScore is perennially cumbersome, buggy and unstable on my system. Not to mention frustrating to work with. I love the concept and interface of NtEd, but it too has stability issues on my system. Which leaves me with Noteflight. Right now, I would consider it "under-featured" (e.g., no trills, double-dotted notes, etc), but it is popular, very easy and streamlined to use, and the developers are very responsive to community feedback:

I am hoping that Noteflight becomes the "google docs" of music: offline use, automatic sync, lilypond typesetting. I could care less about midi features, since keyboard entry is pretty fast, and midi is no substitute for the "print and proofread" process.

Web 2.0 and fuzzy online/offline computing (e.g, with Google Gears) may ultimately be the development that closes the gap between Linux and Mac/Windows. As opposed to competition in the traditional realm of purely offline computing (e.g., with MuseScore).

Thank you for keeping tabs on these exciting developments!


gh's picture

On a whim I installed MuseScore (Ubuntu 8.04) as I was too lazy to write down the bass line by hand (my writing stinks and no one can read it if I don't do it very slowly). After an hour I figured out much of the system, except one thing (and the documentation being what it is...): for the life of me I am unable to delete pieces (notes, pauses) of a bar (I can easily delete the whole bar). The reason seems to be the otherwise nice feature which keeps the time correct (simple 4/4 here). Making a mistake at the end of the bar - say putting in a 1/16 instead of an 1/8 - and completing the bar means it is impossible to change it to an 1/8 without spilling into the next bar even though I could shorten a note before, theoretically. But in practice,doing that produces a 1/16 pause next to the shortened note and that time seems to be impossible to move to the note that needs it. And all that is really needed is deleting a 1/16 pause at the beginning, shifting everythinng left and increasing the last note.

This is a longish description intended to show a possible problem. It may also be me (after all, I have only used the software briefly). But since I am not a professinal musician, being able tocrrect silly mistakes easily is important and here it seems to require rewriting the whole bar (granted, in my case it is not long, but Bach might have hated it).

Otherwise I think the program will be great for my purposes.


Another web based offereing

Anonymous's picture

There is a site like noteflight called ComposeItYourself, that lives in a browser and does not even require flash.

Take a look at

Noteflight link wrong

Joel Buursma's picture

Thanks for this article & your continued attention to this subject matter!

When I click on "Noteflight" above, it takes me back to this article. This appears to be the proper link:

Fixed the link.

Dave Phillips's picture

Thanks for the heads-up, Joel. :)



Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Expressive playback

Toby Haynes's picture

One feature of Sibelius which really impressed me a long time ago (we are talking Sibelius on the Risc PC here) was its expressive playback. When I've dabbled in creating music with a note editor, the playback has often left me uninspired within a few minutes. Mechanistic, completely accurate and completely flat playback robs even great pieces of any musicality.

Now, Sibelius (being written by a pair of near-virtuoso pianists) fixed this issue by putting some expression into the music. Bar times were observed, emphasis added to first beat of the bar, repeating notes generally got a little quieter on subsequent plays, phrasing was observed (even when only implied). The result was something that, while still a little underwhelming, at least gave some insight into the music beyond the notes. The last time I played with Sibelius, it had just got support for Swing-time playback and I dare say that it understands more musical styles now.

I've seen various experimental music departments at Universities publish papers on musical playback of scores. I've not seen any programs on Linux that offer anything in this area. If anyone can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.

Till then, I'll stick to playing back my dabbles on my Clavinova.


Alex Stone's picture

Toby,a good point about Sibelius. I used it in conjunction with another engraver app from its inception to version 4. The degree of expressiveness was competent enough to give a fair indication of what was written, in a 'human' style.

But the other app still stood head and shoulders above all others (imho), and that was Igor Engraver. The playback in IG was excellent, and very user oriented for implementing 'human playing'.

A good benchmark for any aspiring developer, when thinking of coding a notation/engraving app.


Chord Charts

scribe63's picture

In the past i have tried out the notation features of rosegarden, muse score, and the original noteedit, to produce chord charts without success.
Which of the programs in the articles can produce Chord Charts from a midi file, or played from a midi keyboard.

NtEd: on Mandriva also

cjcoats's picture
# rpm -q nted

I'm using the x86_64 version, from Mandriva Contrib...

I think Musescore can save

rozea's picture

I think Musescore can save with lilypond file extention

Lilypond export

Thomas Bonte's picture

Indeed, MuseScore has lilypond export on board, although it's not full featured yet as explained by Olavgun.

See all the other export formats:

Nice article Dave!