An Overview for Music Teachers

When people talk about creating music using a computer, it can mean a few different things: composing music or producing music, or both.  In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the types of software used in creating music. There’s another category of software for editing sound and music, but I’ll leave that for another article.

The Two Mindsets of Music Creation Software

There are two mindsets of using software to help in the creation of music:

1) Producer mindset, in that you are capturing recorded music – a song or demo for perfecting or even as a final mix.  

2) Composer’s mindset, where you are capturing written notation – sketching out ideas on electronic score paper and then printing out sheet music to try out with live musicians.  

The two worlds have started to merge and collide with faster computers so pretty much all modern software can do both.  The difference is in their original design and can affect your workflow.

Composer’s Mindset

One has a composer’s mindset, starting with notes on a page, ideas written down, phrases manipulated by inversion, transposition, etc.  This is more like a word processor for a composer, getting the ideas down in written notation.  The software for this began as a way to quickly output easily affordable high quality sheet music. It is called music engraving or notation software and began in the 1980’s when personal computers started to arrive.  Before this, only major music publishers could afford to print sheet music using mechanical and plate engraving and then moving to lithographic printing presses.

As modern computers have begun to get faster with larger hard drives, some of these software packages are now able to record high quality scores using sampled instruments.  As a result you can easily start a composition, hear it back with samples and even output to a full high resolution mix. 
Today there are a few options in this camp.

Modern Engraving/Notation Software and Apps

  • Finale – It’s robust, deep, and professional, but expensive
  • Finale Notepad – I found this one fun, but limited
  • MuseScore – Windows only and open source so I haven’t tried it
  • Sibelius – It’s more user friendly than Finale (in my humble opinion) and similarly pricey, but it’s the one I use most 
  • Noteflight – This one is accessible online through your web browser!  It’s great and allows you to share compositions online and even host your entire studio.  I bought it for all my students.
  • PreSonus Notion – This looks super cool and is featured in an Apple commercial.  It will take some time for me to really learn this, but I do have it on my iPad now.

Producer’s Mindset

The other mindset is from the producer’s view, recording music without much thought about the written notation.  It’s all about capturing the sounds and editing and thinking along the lines of a music producer or even a movie director/editor.  It’s all happening “in the mix.”

Music Sequencing

Back in the day, 1980’s, there was music sequencing software, and it all began with Atari home computers.  Basically, it was a way of composing music by programming a sequence of notes and chords to play via electronic instruments that were connected via MIDI.  The music sequencer was a big part of early electronic music and all rap and hip/hop.  It was available as software computer programs and then dedicated sequencer machines.  

Early Atari home computer with a midi keyboard setup. Image from Wikipedia

Over time, the sequencer was able to not only control instruments, but also record digital audio along with the sequence of notes.  Today, the sequencer is now part of a full digital audio workstation (DAW) and these are both available as computer software programs you install as well as dedicated machines with sequencing and recording abilities built right in.

A peculiar thing I noticed was that so many of these software companies originate from a small area of Germany.  When I was a guest speaker at a film festival in Frankfurt, I asked my hosts: “why is all this software and why are all the great composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) from Germany?” *See below for their answer.

Top DAWs on the market now

  • Logic Pro X (Apple) – It used to be called Emagic Logic and this is the one I use and love
  • Cubase (Steinberg) – I started on this in the 90s and it remains a leading DAW
  • MOTU Digital Performer – It is very popular and has great features, but I was already on LogicPro
  • GarageBand – This is free from Apple and it’s amazing that you can use it on an iPhone!
  • Reason – There are many fans of this, but I’m not a fan of the interface
  • Pro Tools – This one started as a sound editing package and now has sequencing
  • iMaschine 2 – My son has spent hours creating tracks on this iPhone app. It is amazing and only $6.

Fun fact:  I started college at NYU in 1983 and attended the first ever MIDI conference sponsored by Yamaha.  They were showing off a hot new item, the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer with full MIDI capabilities!

The groundbreaking Yamaha DX7

The modern DAW (digital audio workstation) even has the ability to notate sheet music. However, because of the mindset/paradigm of this software interface, it is not an ideal solution for creating sheet music.  It can be a great way to record high quality backing tracks for your students to practice along with at home or make recordings as part of your songwriting class.

As a teacher, I find it super powerful to be able to fire up Sibelius and write out a quick simplified notation for my students.  Sometimes, just removing a note from a chord or making a left hand part a single bass note instead of a chord enables the student to make it through and retain all the enthusiasm and excitement music should have!

How do you incorporate computers/apps into your music?
I hope this helps you understand the wide world of music software.  What tools are you using?  Do you have a favorite?  Any tricks to share?  Would you be interested in a video tutorial using one or a few of the above software? Please comment below.  

*They surmised that it could be the language.  German is so precise with so many ways to say very specific things – much more than other languages!  If language is the operating system of the mind, then maybe we should all learn German?



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  • I want to compose songs for students and print them out. I currently have:

    – Yamaha YPT-300 (about 8 yrs old) with midi in and midi out (they are round with “spikes”)
    – Midi cable (UMOneMk2 – Roland 1×1 USB MIDI Interface).
    – I imagine when I play, it will automatically go into a Modern Engraving/Notation Software program I choose and open up, and it will have the capability of printing out.

    I haven’t been able to do this. Is this possible?

    1. Hi Mary, Yes this is possible. Pretty much any of the engraving/notation and sequencing programs have this ability. You will need to play in time to a metronome and it will capture your performance pretty close. Usually you will need to make some edits to fix minor errors. Sometimes it’s easier to record it into smaller parts – like right hand only, then left hand. Or break it up into multiple voices before recombining. There’s also a function called quantize that automatically will shift your notes to the closest note of your selection, say eighth notes or sixteenths. This cleans it up considerably.