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.

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