Composition Software Advice

September 20, 2011 at 01:11 AM ·

I would like to purchase a compostition software for my 9 year old who plays advanced violin (HS level) and also piano as a Christmas present. Could anyone knowing please advise which program is best or possibly teaches composition basics also? Do we need a midi piano or is there a way to use our tradional piano for this software? She sits at piano for hours and comes up with marvelous ideas...I think she would REALLY dig this gift. Thanks.

Replies (32)

September 20, 2011 at 02:25 AM ·

I can highly recommend Sibelius, with MIDI keyboard input.

Please see HERE for a great deal ($99): Sibelius First + MIDI keyboard...

September 20, 2011 at 03:42 AM ·

I agree with Andrei; Sibelius is the way to go. It's an amazing piece of software, and I can't get enough of the intro music that plays whenever you run it. :)

September 20, 2011 at 05:56 AM ·

 Sibelius is brilliant, but there may be cheaper programs quite suitable for a nine-year-old. Finale comes to mind. Andrei's Sibelius First deal looks interesting, but I have no personal experience of what it does. Sibelius does special "educational" deals. If you are a pegagogue or buy via a school or teacher you might qualify for one when and if you upgrade from Sibelius First.

September 20, 2011 at 05:30 PM ·

I'd recommend Not only is it free to download and use, it has seen a lot of improvements in its user interface and features over the past year. I use it to teach numerous music technology classes about notation!

October 4, 2011 at 02:08 AM ·

Thanks to you all! I'm off shopping..

October 4, 2011 at 03:42 AM ·

 Sibelius is not really a composition program, it's main purpose is to print scores. I know many compose this way but it is no DAW (digital audio workstation). Look into DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Sonar etc. Most of these also have a score feature, though maybe not as sophisticated as Sibelius. With a DAW you will also be able to record multitrack audio and have all sorts of professional effects, sampler instruments, synths, etc. etc. You also have a piano roll view which allows for great manipulation of durations and velocities. I have known composers who have solely composed on Sibelius/Finale and the results can be very wooden. If you want great looking scores then Sibelius is great.

October 4, 2011 at 05:01 AM ·

Well, let's be clear here. None of the above mentioned are "composition" programs.

Sibelius, Finale, MuseScore, Lilypond, MusiTex, and others are notation programs that allow one to engrave a score and parts and print it.

Logic, ProTools, Digital Performer, Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, and others like them are audio recording, processing, and production platforms that also have the added benefit of using a variety of digital plugin software to accomplish a variety of tasks (like AutoTune, for example).

An actual composition program would offer a composer tools for generating musical fragments, motives, intervals, rhythms, etc.

October 4, 2011 at 02:35 PM ·

 The thing is we are basically dealing with midi. Midi is a very useful tool for composing and hearing what you have composed. Input can be notes on a stave or keyboard input in real or step time.

There is no one way to compose. The Sibelius way may appeal to people who compose the old way - through a written score, others may noodle around on a keyboard or even add audio tracks of actual playing. 

Logic, ProTools etc. are not just audio processing programs, virtually all of them now have the midi side too, often with score view. A lot of composers work solely with these kinds of software and never even use live musicians. Turn on your TV or radio and you hear it all the time. If they do use real musicians then they may export a midi portion of their project into a program like Sibelius in order to print a professional looking score or sometimes a printout from the score view of the DAW will suffice.


October 4, 2011 at 06:48 PM ·

This was a Christmas gift idea for a 9 year old advanced student of violin and piano. It is all sounding a bit complicated. I hoped to find something that she could experiment with while also learning composition skills. She comes up with hours of lovely shall I say diddles on the piano (really good sounding stuff) it would be great if she could advance this natural ability and learn more about the basics of the knowledge needed to advance.  I think it would inspire her to create more...The idea is to have fun and learn also all the while not being frustrated. Bach was a composer! it sounds like an easy street for the modern day composer. Yes?

Many thanks to all on suggestions...

October 4, 2011 at 07:16 PM ·

If you're keeping it simple, then the obvious way to go is MuseScore since that is a free download.  What you can do is help the child set up and use MuseScore, and then once they get a handle on how this kind of software works in general, then you'll both be at least minimally experienced and therefore better equipped to select a commercial program (which you would be committing to buying at the outset if the interest continues to develop).

And if she does a lot of doodling at the piano, then obviously you want the software that works the best with midi, and you need a midi keyboard for input.  That does open another can of worms, but maybe ultimately what you're buying is not the software (as I said, MuseScore is free, and it handles MIDI input), but maybe you're buying a keyboard.  Aim high on the keyboard.  You want something with a real-feeling keyboard and a good piano sound.  You don't need a lot of bells and whistles.  I think this might do it:

You'll need an amp to go with that, maybe one of those little Fender PAs.

October 5, 2011 at 12:46 PM ·

 I mean, if you have the budget for a $1000 keyboard then fine! However, that is a good idea to give some kind of controller keyboard. A lot of the keyboards for under a hundred dollars have bundled software. The question is, what is your budget?

I deal with a musical equipment company called Sweetwater ( and find them very helpful in their advice. Why not give them a call and ask their opinion and find out which controller keyboards have bundled software suitable for simple composition?



October 5, 2011 at 04:14 PM ·

I think the best thing would be to get a simple recording program like Garage Band if she wants/needs one, and a simple notation program like finale Print Music. You need not even get a MIDI.

Logic, Cubase etc. are for recording and producing music and you need to be very good with computers to use them. I don't think anyone needs them unless they plan to make an album. If your daughter needs to record an audition tape or composition, you can always borrow equipment and get help. Garage Band doesn't make amazing recordings but it is good for recording ideas before you forget them. But a tape recorder (or ipod) would work just as well. (Zoom and Tascam make cheep little recorders but I don't know if they are any good.)

Finale and Sibelius are for making sheet music, but you can hear what your notes sound like and make mp3 recordings with the computer instruments. However the full versions are very expensive and have many features that only advanced composers would use. If you get a lesser version you should make sure it is not too basic.

I haven't tried any of the free downloadable programs, but I have had Finale Print Music and have tried Allegro. I think Print Music or a similar program (Notion, Sibelius First,) from another company is a good start. It helped me learn how to write down exactly what is in your head or you just played. I use it to experiment with orchestral compositions.

Oh, I just remembered that the sibelius and finale companies will let you download trial versions for free, and later buy the full versions of their programs if you want. You can also upgrade your more basic programs to higher versions (turn printmusic into allegro for example.) you might want to dowload a few and see how you like them.

October 5, 2011 at 04:30 PM ·

if you got a MIDI and a notation program, then the computer could write down and record the notes for whatever your daughter plays on the keyboard. This is a good shortcut, but I would advise against it because then your daughter would not learn how to write music without the program.

MIDI's make a notation program much easier to use but I think they should only be used as tools to learn notation, and print scores. There is the danger of getting in the habit of using MIDI's and software while you write music, and I am of the opinion that the old fashioned way is the best.

October 5, 2011 at 06:16 PM ·

Forget the trial or stripped down versions of Finale and Sibelius. is a free, full-featured, open-source alternative that will serve the majority of student needs with no issues. After taking the pencil and paper route, it is a powerful but free way to easily generate a score and parts. It is easy to learn, the tutorial resources are extensive, and it exports to a variety of formats (including MusicXML).

You don't need GarageBand (or a Mac for that matter) to do a recording. As long as you have a microphone, the free software Audacity ( works wonders for recording audio.

MIDI is a standard used by electronic music devices to communicate and synchronize with one another, and something entirely outside the scope of "composition."

October 5, 2011 at 07:42 PM ·

Gene, I agree with everything you just said except for the part about MIDI being "outside the scope of composition."  The person who made the original post said that his daughter picks out melodies at the piano.  Capturing those fleeting, improvised musical ideas by interfacing to computer software via MIDI strikes me as a very efficient way for this particular individual to "compose."  I'll bet if Beethoven had a Yamaha Stage Piano and a laptop running decent software he'd have written twice as many sonatas.

October 5, 2011 at 08:27 PM ·

MIDI is great but inputting it introduces the problem of dealing with rhythm quantization.

I've had a number of private students who have composed by recording the output from a MIDI device and while it's fantastic for playback, the conversion into a written format that can be read and played by others leaves a lot to be desired.

Of course, if one is unconcerned about producing a written score, then it doesn't matter.


October 6, 2011 at 03:13 AM ·

Gene -- Okay I wasn't aware it was that troublesome.  Maybe some softwares do this better than others?  I'd like to know because I'm curious about this too.

October 6, 2011 at 07:14 AM ·

As an longtime midi user (since the midi stone age back in the 80s) I can clearly state that Beethoven would have finished only half of his works, if he had used computer technology. The composing process took place in his mind, and fiddling with computers would have cost him time.

There are two methods of "composing". The common one is noodling around on an instrument and fishing for nice passages. The other one, which was the method of the real greats like Beethoven an Mozart, was to create music in their mind and then write it down.

Using midi for the writing process requires playing strictly with the built in metronome, so the software knows the time position and lengh of any note. Some programs have fine algorithms to produce a useful notation, some don't. The notation segment in Apple's Logic is very good at that, but it has not been maintained for a long time, and the graphical output is not useful for publishing, although it is perfectly readable. Logic is very fast for putting out scores and parts in a working process like producing film music or studio work, once you mastered how to use it.

For most music typesetting and printing musescore is the best choice. It delivers  almost the same functionality like Sibeliusor Finale, but does many things better, and it's free. (And it's not to be compared with the crippled versions like notepad, but with the full version.)

If someone wants to compose, I strongly recommend he learns how to imagine and define the music in his mind first, then translate it into notation ("is this a quarter note that I hear"), then write it down by hand (an instrument may be helpful here). After that it's ok to use notation software, but not the other way round.

October 6, 2011 at 12:04 PM ·

 As a composer myself I say there are no hard and fast rules about how you compose. The old idea that you have to be able to hear everything in your head before you write down a note is not a prerequisite for composing and is certainly not the way every composer composes. Even before computers, composers relied heavily on the piano to hear what they were composing. If you hold the ideal of a perfect realization of the music in your head and dictate to everyone that dabbles in composition to only do it that way then a lot of people are going to miss out. Like it or not, midi and computers have democratized composing enormously.


btw. Most midi programs have a quantize function that puts your noodlings in time. Further tweakings can be made in the piano roll view to make something that conforms to a good written score.

October 6, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

 During the past eight years at the Orange County High School of the Arts, I've taught a Music Technology course that has included a composition component.

Rather than using traditional music notation, or hardware that involves MIDI, I have kids compose original Techno music using a sequencer called Renoise (you can try it out free at Since it's done using a vertically scrolling page format that defines pitches, duration, and effects even students who have no music background can create using the program.

It's very eye-opening experience for a bunch of conservatory-oriented students, all with extensive traditional training in the classical music idiom, andt offers budding composers yet another way to come up with new music.

October 7, 2011 at 07:25 AM ·

It would be a question on its own whether producing techno tracks is "composing" in the same sense like composing a sonata or a fugue.

I endorse every activity that leads to creativity, but I think that the two methods are not comparable. (I personally am familiar with both ways of creating music. I have studied classical composition, and I spent many years coaching young bands and musicians including the use of modern technology.) "Composition" originally means creating according to a plan. Playing with software lacks the plan, and the results may be nice, but they are random. Good music needs a mix of intuition and intelligence, and where the rules and methods are not available the results are limited. Many talented rock stars created fascinating music, but in the long run their output became boring. Trained artists last longer.

October 8, 2011 at 03:49 AM ·


It is all I use now.

November 26, 2011 at 05:03 AM · Okay,back on this comes Christmas!

An awful lot to think about...

Need to choose an economical route, so first checking out the Musescore.

Many thanks to you all. Any ideas on finding a midi that is decent and comparable to the piano without paying an arm and a leg?

November 26, 2011 at 07:12 AM · Just out of curiosity, what is "a midi"?

(Midi means "musical instrument digital interface", and is for connecting computers and electronic musical devices).

November 29, 2011 at 01:23 AM · I am a parent of a young musician...not a musician! I thought midi was a type of piano/keyboard that connects to the computer. Looking for a decent brand of this device not too pricey that uses with 88 keys.

November 29, 2011 at 01:23 AM · I am a parent of a young musician...not a musician! I thought midi was a type of piano/keyboard that connects to the computer. Looking for a decent brand of this device not too pricey that uses with 88 keys.

November 29, 2011 at 01:23 AM · I am a parent of a young musician...not a musician! I thought midi was a type of piano/keyboard that connects to the computer. Looking for a decent brand of this device not too pricey that uses with 88 keys.

November 29, 2011 at 01:23 AM · I am a parent of a young musician...not a musician! I thought midi was a type of piano/keyboard that connects to the computer. Looking for a decent brand of this device not too pricey that uses with 88 keys.

November 29, 2011 at 01:02 PM · Try

Call them, they are very helpful.

November 29, 2011 at 08:01 PM · Thank you!

March 19, 2012 at 08:55 PM · I know this is late, but I recently came across a program I wanted to share. It's called Ludwig, and its current version is 3.0. Searching for "Ludwig 3.0" will get you to the developers' site.

It enables you to enter a melody and to specify which chords you want. Then you can use the program to make arrangements for a lot of different ensembles or bands, in several styles.

You can download the program to try it out for free. It's fun!

March 20, 2012 at 04:54 PM · > Playing with software lacks the plan, and

> the results may be nice, but they are random.

I'm not exactly sure where you get the concept that my students were "playing with software without a plan." And their product is not random in any way, shape, or form.

To create their pieces, they use a variety of composition techniques, including diagramming the flow of harmony to determine a desired sequence of chord progressions, as well as inputting melodic lines from written material they have generated independently of the technology.

The whole point of introducing them to a sequencing software where they were forced to deal with sound in terms of waveforms, frequency, and effects is to pull them away from notation, and teach them a different approach to generating *sound*.

Your experience with Techno music seems to be drastically different than mine. In the context of what I use it for in teaching music technology, it's simply a genre of music that relies on a specific group of instruments/sounds and a very unified set of rhythmic patterns. These limitations force the students to be creative in presenting their ideas through the structures common to the genre.

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