I'm starting to learn music. Complete newbie here. There is a plethora of formats for music sheets. I don't know which one to choose. My requirements are:

  • I must use to exchange music with friends, so it must can be exportable to a format that can be opened in the main editing softwares
  • Must have a beautiful output
  • It must export for PDF
  • There must be at least a software that people can use at no cost
  • The software must be reasonable easy to use, so non technical people (e.g., musicians) can work on it without much commitment
  • It must support all existent notation

Plus points for free (open source) software, multiplataform (Windows, Mac, and Linux) and easy to use interfaces to edit it.

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    Some of your requirements are more applicable to the editing software that handles the file rather than the format itself. Beautiful output, pdf exports, open source, and multiplatform execution are all aspects of the software, not the file format. As a hypothetical example, a free tool might work on a file across multiple platforms, but might create an ugly (but usable). Meanwhile a commercial tool might produce a much more beautiful result from the same file, but only run on a single type of system. All using the same format. – Caleb Hines Sep 4 '14 at 17:15
  • *Typo: I meant to say "an ugly (but usable) output." – Caleb Hines Sep 4 '14 at 18:22
  • Right, I'd interpret the answers below advocating for MusicXML as: "get software that supports MusicXML input/output so that you can use this relatively standardized file format to exchange data with other programs." – Dave Sep 4 '14 at 18:53

MusicXML seems to be what you’re looking for here. It is imported and exported by many softwares, including Sibelius, Finale and MuseScore (which is free software).

It is, however, more of an exchange format. I’m not sure any of these software can work directly on the format, and some information might be lost when importing or exporting.

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    According to my few tries nothing is lost during import/export. The decisions like beam grouping and stem direction are all explicitly expressesed in XML, so while the importing program might produce slightly different output, everything [beyond the used "font"] was preserved. – guidot Sep 4 '14 at 6:33
  • I think baselines or something like that are lost. I remember my father being annoyed that something important didn't get from Sibelius to MusicXML. – MadTux Sep 4 '14 at 11:56
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    It's worth noting that Sibelius has a free (gratis) reader program, Scorch. – Dave Sep 4 '14 at 18:55
  • I didn't know about MusicXML. It looks like the format is complete, but some softwares can loose some information translating their internal representation to it. The problem would be in the translation process, not in the format per se. Am I right? – neves Sep 5 '14 at 2:56
  • Well, yes, it is an exchange format. To my knowledge, there is no software that works directly on such files. – Édouard Sep 5 '14 at 10:16

Several people advise MusicXML here but I don't see that making sense. That is an exchange format, not a format to write music in. In practice, MusicXML export/import works rather tepidly between different applications.

I've seen "TuxGuitar" mentioned but the name would strongly suggest a focus on guitar I don't see in question or tags.

LilyPond is a rather good general-purpose free typesetter available for a plethora of operating systems. You'll likely want to employ the Frescobaldi editor for entry. LilyPond has plain text input: if you can get warm with that, it is a rather efficient use of your typewriting skills. Midi input is not really workable, MusicXML cannot be exported, MusicXML import is shaky at best. Midi export is good, PDF is excellent. If you want to share work with others, letting them work with anything but LilyPond is not realistic. LilyPond is the proverbial 500lb gorilla of free music typesetting. If you can get used to its workflows, you'll never need to look anywhere else.

Denemo is a GUI entry application with its own file formats and employing LilyPond as backend. It has Midi entry capabilities and I think that it has its own MusicXML import/export strategies. No idea about their quality. Since it has its own file format, smooth cooperation with others again makes it a good idea if they use it as well. No idea whether the chances of exchanging via MusicXML (for Finale/Sibelius) are better here.

There is also MuseScore, another graphical application that does its own typesetting. I think they have given up on offering LilyPond export by now. Its the main "competition" to LilyPond in the free typesetting applications since Denemo is more of a "coopetition". I think it has a pretty large user base as well.

  • MuseScore 1.3, the most recent stable version, offers Lilypond as one of the target formats in its save file dialog box. – O. R. Mapper Sep 4 '14 at 18:37
  • @O.R.Mapper: From Musescore docs: LilyPond export is currently incomplete and experimental – neves Sep 5 '14 at 2:37
  • Your was the most informative answer, but I'm getting to a different conclusion :-) I've found this post MuseScore after LilyPond where an ex-developer of a LilyPond plugin advocates the ease of use of MuseScore. It looks the answer would be something like: "Use MuseScore and exchange the sheets with anybody using MusicXML". I can always convert the file to MusicXML and export to LilyPond. Do you have any reference of the LilyPond editors easy of use? – neves Sep 5 '14 at 2:51
  • +1 for MuseScore as editor. It is multi-platform (I use it in both my Fedora and Windows, although the Linux version is somewhat lagged behind the Windows version) and it has a reduced mobile version, where you can open, read, and play scores. – justhalf Sep 5 '14 at 4:37
  • While I agree, that MusicXML provides only a small contribution (the main focus being score typesetting), the headline as well as the first enumeration point justify mentioning it. – guidot Sep 5 '14 at 6:42

The format of choice is MusicXML, which is understood by nearly every program. My favorite program is lilypond which creates really nice scores, is free and multi-plattform but being a music programming language without any GUI, fails in respect to ease-of-use. There are some frontends for it, as can be seen here, but I have no experience with them.

  • Most of the lilypond front ends you mention are actually specialised text editors ; they don’t prevent you from typing code. – Édouard Sep 4 '14 at 6:19
  • I'm a software developer and can easily use LilyPond. Unfortunately it doesn't look like my amateur music friends wouldn't dedicate the necessary time to learn it. How good are the GUIs to LilyPond? Would you recommend any of them? – neves Sep 5 '14 at 2:58

The folk musicians I deal with tend to use ABC Notation which is free and has software to convert to PDF. Additionally, when you get familiar with ABC, you can write tunes in raw ABC notation.

  • +1 for ABC! It's a great little text-based format. Easily editable by hand if needed, works a number of other programs, and there's a number of homegrown tools to work with them as well. – Caleb Hines Sep 4 '14 at 17:17
  • As a counterpoint, though, I'll add that it's not completely standardized around the edges (at least the last time I looked at it). So different programs might support slightly different "extended subsets" of the language. – Caleb Hines Sep 4 '14 at 17:20
  • ABC, or the support for it, has progressed a lot since the question was asked. It is very suitable as a writing tool nowadays. Would strongly recommend. – Alen Siljak Feb 22 at 20:34

Use TuxGuitar, it fulfills many of your requirements take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TuxGuitar Not just for guitar, it also supports MIDI, openSource!!!. enter image description here

  • Sadly TuxGuitar doesn't seem to be updated anymore... – Julien N Sep 4 '14 at 10:09

As everyone has previously mentioned, MusicXML will give you portability between editors however it should be pointed out that MusicXML is exported and interpreted differently between vendors even though it's a standard. Not everyone accepts all the tags and/or parameters or renders them differently.

I have written applications that read and write both MIDI and MusicXML and in that practice own around half a dozen or more MusicXML applications used for debugging. I can take MusicXML written to full spec from my applications and they come out drastically different between various commercial apps. I can export something created in one commercial package to another, then back, and lose stuff in the process. None of them handle the files the same way. Welcome to the world of standards! :)

To be fair, most of the time it's layout more than the actual midi-level performance but expect deviations. There are some apps out there that will take a 100 bar piece and try to cram it on one page. Strange stuff out there. If nuance is critical, your best bet is to settle on one vendor for the application and share the native file or the MusicXML import/export from that tool.


If you want to exchange scores with friends who use different score-editing programs, so that they can continue working on it, your only real choice is to exchange MusicXML files. But the only way you'll send them EXACTLY what you design is if you both use the same program and use its native file format.

If they don't need to continue editing the score, just send a PDF of course. Any score editor can "print" a PDF.

The cheapest program for YOU to work in (you can't get cheaper than free) is MuseScore. See if it does what you need. If not, look at Sibelius or Finale.

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