Many of us who are songwriters have little use for reading or notating music, and why should we? Jot down a chord progression, add some words and a melody, and there you are. But let’s say you wanted to add a horn part to your new song. Though you could play your idea on a keyboard for your saxophonist guest, writing out the section is far more efficient. But unless you’re very skilled, putting the notes on paper, complete with all necessary rests, repeats, sharps and flats, could be quite challenging.
With music notation software, your computer does the job for you. This kind of software turns everything from simple solos to entire horn sections into high-quality printable transcriptions, allowing you to share your music with others in a flash. Good software packages offer a number of methods for getting the notes onto the page. For instance, you can enter the notes manually, using a keyboard or mouse. You can connect a MIDI instrument directly to your computer and play the passage yourself, or output the part to be transcribed from pre-recorded audio (that has been saved in MIDI format). And like a word-processing program, notation software allows you to make edits and other adjustments to your work once the passage has been entered into the computer, such as relocating notes on the scale or transposing entire sections should you choose the wrong key.
Not to be confused with music-production software packages such as Digital Performer or Cubase (which are mainly used for the processing of instruments and sounds), notation software serves as a “virtual music typewriter,” says Tom Rudolph, director of music for the Haverford School District, Haverford, PA. “Notation programs have many helpful tools for creating scores and parts such as adjusting the look of the printed page, adding text, lyrics, chord symbols, changing the size and shape of the music, creating guitar tab, scanning in printed music and much more.”
Two of the more popular notation software programs are Sibelius from Avid Technology and MakeMusic’s Finale (the newest version, Finale 2010, was released this past June). Others include Encore, Notion and Overture. Some packages come in “entry-level” or “lite” versions, though may not include many of the top features found in the original. Most are compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems.
Using the computer’s keyboard and mouse is the easiest way to get started with your notation software. In Finale, for instance, a “Simple Entry Tool” lets you key in notes one at a time, as well as adding rests, grace notes, accidentals, time signature and other fine detail. Once your notation is complete, you can hear it back using the desired “virtual” instrument (most programs come with a library of different instrument voices); you can also isolate individual parts for playback as well. If you make a mistake, you can easily adjust the part by grabbing the wrong note with your mouse and moving it into the correct position.
To get the job done even faster, enter the notes from a MIDI-equipped keyboard, or any instrument that uses an external MIDI interface device. Using this method, your music appears on the page instantaneously as you perform the part (again, you can make adjustments afterwards using the keyboard and mouse, if necessary). The latest version of Finale allows brass or woodwind players to enter notation by playing the part through a microphone, and with no MIDI interface required.
Though it is a convenient and flexible tool, notation software, like all computer aids, shouldn’t be considered a substitute for acquiring and developing basic ear-training and music-theory skills. While learning the software, take some time to refresh your understanding of alternative chord voicings, root inversions, relative minors, and related concepts—all of which can only help you broaden your perspective as a songwriter.