Tech Toolbox: Notation Software

Tech Toolbox is my series of posts on what I feel are the essential tools that every music educator should have at their disposal to both create music and materials that support and engage their students.

Notation Software

As with any of the tools that I talk about in this series, I am not advocating for one particular brand of tech tool over another – there’s more than one brand of hammer out there and they all do pretty much the same job. That said, each person has their personal favorite for their own reasons. I’m going to share what I do with notation tools and why I think they’re important, and I’ll give a few examples. It will be up to you to decide which one you want to really become comfortable with and use as your go-to program.

Online vs. Installed

I said I wouldn’t talk about specific notation software options too much but it’s worth noting that there are significant differences in the software out there. Some are the more traditional model of software – you pay for it (or more likely these days they want you to pay for a subscription – another rant for another day) and install it on your device. Some are internet-based – you pay for a subscription and there’s nothing to install, but the files live in the cloud (which is to say someone else’s computer). Each one has its pros and cons, but it is up to you to decide which is right for your needs.

If you’re in education and your students are 1:1 with tech, your IT department will probably love you if you go with an online option – it’s one less thing they have to manage, install, troubleshoot, or keep upgraded. However, if you have a more high-powered, dedicated music/tech lab at your disposal, you may want a more high-powered program installed on those machines.

Some Music Notation Software Options
Online Software OptionsInstalled Software Options
Noteflight, Flat.ioPaid: Finale, Sibelius, Dorico
Open Source: MuseScore, LilyPond
Not a comprehensive list. Contact me if you have some favorites I should add!

Basic Notation Tasks

As musicians, we should all be comfortable with at least one notation software because we should all be able to type up our work much in the same way anyone turning in a paper for an English class is expected to turn in their assignments “typed in Times 12 point font with one-inch margins.” Whether we are composing something for potential publication or reading by an ensemble, or we are just writing out quick exercises for our students we should be able to make our work look professional. We should be able to recreate with the software to do all the things normally seen in music – like dynamics, repeat signs, metronome marks, etc.

More than just being able to input a part or score, we should be able to do it quickly. Whatever your notation program of choice is there are probably two ways of inputting notes: the point and click with the mouse method, and some version of keyboard shortcuts type-in method. Whatever the keyboard shortcut method is, learn it! It will save you so much time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to make a part in less than a prep period and been able to because I was quick in the program.

Images/Screenshots

One of the things that I use notation software all the time to do is create images using screenshots for use in my lessons. Combine your knowledge of screenshots with your notation software to make a custom library of images for any and all of your needs. I personally have made a screenshot of each note on the staff ( both treble and bass clef) and keep them in a folder for use whenever it may come up. It’s also very helpful for small excerpts of music to input into tests or quizzes.

Audio/MIDI Export

One of the slightly more advanced things that you might find yourself doing is creating practice tracks for your students. Most notation editors can easily export both audio and MIDI files. By adding a few measures for a count/click off you can create custom tracks at any tempo very quickly for your students to practice along to. Unless you have some real quality instrument sounds, the timbres probably won’t be the most authentic, but these files could be great for learning vocal harmonies, marching band parts, and anything in between. You could always take this a step further and import the audio or midi into a DAW and further customize, compose or arrange your work.

Special Education Accomodations

If you start to dig into the features of most notation editors there are a lot of great features that can be used to make accommodations for students that need them. At a basic level, you can input an ensemble part and make it visually larger, displace octaves, or alter some rhythms. For students who need a reading accommodation, you could use note coloring tools (think boomwhacker note colors) to make things easier to read. You could also use the audio/MIDI export features to create custom part or accompaniment tracks for the students that really need to learn their part with auditory cues.

Online Assignments

Education software has been moving online more and more, and music software for the classroom is no exception. There are a few options out there such as Noteflight and Flat which allow students to create scores in the cloud and share them with other users. Flat works in real-time like Google Docs while Noteflight does not – meaning users have to save and sync up. Both allow for LMS integration with the major LMS platforms like Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, Moodle, etc. For those of you teaching a theory or general music class, implementing an online notation tool is a fantastic way to create assignments that work their way up the SAMR framework. Right away you are augmenting beyond paper music assignments by allowing students to hear what they do immediately.

You can use the notation editors to create all kinds of templates for things like melody writing, figured bass, or analysis. Both editors also allow you to sync a Youtube video or recording to the file so that you can see the score as you hear audio playback. Noteflight even allows you to record yourself playing along to the score like a basic DAW.

Noteflight has a much more robust education tool called Notelflight Learn. It has entire libraries of music available in the Learn platform that can be used for assignments. Noteflight also has Soundcheck which allows for students to play and be assessed on how accurate their performance of the music is – something that can be done with any score. *Note the Libraries and Soundcheck cost extra.*

I should say that I am a Noteflight Learn Certified Educator and really like what their product is capable of in the classroom. No matter what program you’re going to implement, be sure to learn it well and take a class or two if they’re out there. It helps to see the program used to its fullest potential and you’ll no doubt get some ideas on how best to use it in your situation.

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