MuseScore: Free Is Good

By Rob Darby on October 13, 2014


Back in the 1980's, when I was studying music in college, I went through quite a bit of staff paper and innumerable pencils. I'd scribble out my assignments until the were right, then copy them carefully using legible handwriting. The results were so pleasing to my teacher, that he announced to the music theory class that other students should consider paying me to re-write their finished assignments. I declined any such requests, as just the thought of all that copy work caused my writing hand to cramp. It was painful and time-consuming enough just to write out my own work, so I eventually went on to get a degree in theology.

Flash forward to the 21st century, and we have several alternatives to wasted paper, worn down pencils, and sloppy musicians' penmanship—all of them computer-related. The biggest problem with many of them is found in the numbers that follow the dollar sign. So I began searching for free programs, and eventually I stumbled onto MuseScore.

MuseScore is a free, open source music scoring program available for download from While the download is free, there is a link for making donations to the project if one desires. “Free” is a much friendlier price tag than one might find on professional programs such as Sibelius(about $500) or Finale(about $400), but, as might be expected, MuseScore has some limitations. However, the limitations are minor when compared to what the program can do.

I'm a hobbyist composer who has used MuseScore for a couple of years so far, and my one big complaint is that the built in sounds are weak. In fact, they're pretty pathetic. It would be helpful to link MuseScore to something like Kore Player or Garritan's Aria player, or even import some good virtual instruments. It would be helpful if it were possible. It is not. The user is stuck with sounds that make the cheapest kid's keyboard sound good. However, these sounds are adequate for hearing how well the parts of your composition work together, and it must be remembered that this is their real purpose. There are ways to make your music sound better, and I'll touch on that later. Remember: MuseScore is not a a music production program; It is a composition tool, and it's FREE. Let me tell you a little about it.

When starting a new project, MuseScore prompts the user to choose a score template or create a customized one. MuseScore 1.3 (the latest fully-functional version) includes 14 pre-sets, including “Choir,” “Chamber Orchestra,” “Jazz Combo,” and several others. If you don't see what you're looking for, you can always create your own, choosing instruments from all the major orchestral categories and more. You can score for drum kits and even bagpipes. Recently I've been writing for what is traditionally called a “Flute Quartet,” in spite of the fact that it contains only one flute. For this cause I need the following: Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello. As I add my instruments, MuseScore automatically assigns the correct clef and loads the appropriate pathetic sound from its sad library. If you have completed your layout, and you realize you've made a mistake, MuseScore is very forgiving. Almost anything you would need to change—time signature, clef, key signature, etc.--can be dragged from a drop-down menu on the left, and dropped in the appropriate place. This is a very user friendly program.

As for composing itself, there are a variety of ways to enter notes. From a menu bar near the top, you can choose the duration of the note you want to play (whole note, half note, etc.) either by clicking on it with your cursor or by using the number keys on your computer. Once you've chosen the desired starting measure, you can then place a note by using the cursor/click method, hitting the note letter on your computer keyboard, or by hitting the desired note on a midi keyboard(it has to be connected to your computer, of course). Whatever method you choose, it becomes habit very quickly. If you run into difficulties, the website has tutorial videos and a users' forum to help out.

When all of your notes are inputted, you can drag dynamic markings from the appropriate drop-down menu and drop them on the desired measure. You can also drop repeats into place—including such things as DC al Coda,and (of course) the coda. MuseScore will read these markings and play back the piece with the repeats and dynamic changes. The dynamic changes get the point across, though they are really just a change in the midi velocity message.

What is really impressive to me is this: If you save the project as a midi file, and then you open it in another program, all of your repeats will still be there! And this brings us to the cure for the pathetic instrument sounds.

First, always save your project as a MuseScore file. If you want to do some production on a piece, then also save it as a midi file. What follows in my approach to the production of pieces composed on MuseScore.

Having saved the project as midi, I then import it into Cubase 4 LE. Each instrument shows up on its own channel. If I want full control of the dynamics, volume, and effects (which I always do), I have to bring each instrument up in the midi editor, call up the “main volume,” “pan,” “effects 1,” and “effects 2” editors (one at a time, of course), and erase the midi message from the bottom part of the editor.

Now I'm ready to add sounds—better ones than what MuseScore offers. I set up Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 as a “vst” (virtual instrument), and assign the appropriate instrument to each midi channel. At that point, I'm ready to do the final “tweaking.”

Now, back to MuseScore: As pleased as I am with Garritan's sounds, I'd love it if some conductor, or producer, or whoever might hear one of my compositions and contact me with the overwhelming desire to bring it to life with real musicians. If such an unlikely opportunity were to present itself, I'd be very glad for this: MuseScore not only allows you to print your full score, but it also you to very easily extract individual instrument parts from the full score.

I've only touched on the features, but overall, MuseScore is one impressive program. It's really rather intuitive, extremely flexible, and saves a lot of paper and pencils—not to mention that the price is unbeatable!


PS: In case someone reading this might ask, “How much would it cost me to use programs like “Cubase LE” and “Garritan Personal Orchestra?” here is the answer. Garritan Personal Orchestra(GPO4) can be purchased from their website, or from just about any musical instrument seller, for about $129. Cubase LE7 is free with the purchase of many different items, including this $60 Audio interface: If you already have a DAW that allows you to use vst's, then all you need is GPO.

Ingrid Wood, Brielle

Ingrid Wood Flag
almost 8 years ago

Rob, thanks for the free info! Putting the article on the homepage. (Am running a bit behind, can you tell :)? )


Frank1957 Flag
about 6 years ago

Thanks for that in-depth article. Musescore is great !