Making great scores with LilyPond

Software debates: Finale vs. Sibelius vs. Dorico

For many years, one of the main “debates” for composers was Finale vs. Sibelius. Now that Sibelius has been incorporated into AVID (which owns Pro Tools and other programs), I see the name less. The original Sibelius team moved on to create Dorico, which seems to be a popular growing upstart.

I’ve been a contrarian in these “debates” (scare quotes fully intentional). They really are up to personal taste. I felt that Sibelius was more intuitive than Finale, and stuck with that. Yet, I’ve taught students how to use Finale several times…

A software contrarian

In 2012 or so, I went really contrarian and started using the free platform LilyPond. This is less of a “notation program” than a “markup language” like HTML or LaTeX, and it creates really beautiful-looking music.

The visual appearance is the selling-point for this free software.

I hear less and less about Lilypond these days; I think it’s mainly used by computer geeks who dabble in composition, rather than composers who dabble in computer geekery. (Say hi in the comments if you use LilyPond!)

How do you use LilyPond?

Let me reiterate: LilyPond is a markup language, so it works very differently than Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore, etc. You can’t click on a staff and make a note. You type it all out.

That may sound cumbersome, but it’s not, necessarily. I think I’m just as fast typing in notes by text than I was when I typed in notes on Sibelius. The codes are pretty intuitive:

What I typed was: ees4-.\p r4 r2. fis4(\mf g2)

Natural notes are just their letter names. Flats add “es” and sharps ad “is”. Articulations are a hyphen and a similar glyph. -> is an accent. Ties are ~ and slurs are ( )

LilyPond is for engraving, not for composing

Writing directly in LilyPond would be a pain. I’ve never done that. I always sketch by pencil beforehand, then enter the notes all at once. I tend to print out that draft, mark it up in red pen, then enter my edits.

Where I usually run into trouble is taking out measures and adding text across all instruments. On a score, you could add tempo markings to the top staff, and it will look fine. But when you make parts, the lower parts won’t have these markings. So tread lightly.

One last quick recommendation: Frescobaldi. This is a LilyPond editor, which highlights bits of code in different colors, shows you exactly where your errors are located, and shows the score on the side (you do need to save and recompile to see changes).

LilyPond resources

LilyPond has a lot of documentation, and I’ve learned a ton from message boards and snippets. If you’re new to this, maybe try one of my files and poke around. The three pieces below should demonstrate a lot of the things you might want to do.

Free LilyPond score files you can adapt

These are .txt files, so to use in Frescobaldi, change the extension to .ly or copy/paste the entire text. WordPress doesn’t like .ly files.

  • Blocks for String Quartet – very standard score, so maybe the best place to start. Includes time signature changes, articulation, dynamics
  • Komorebi for solo piano — includes pedal marks, tuplets, cross-staff notes, chords, 8va, rolled chords, hidden rests.
  • Object for small orchestra – includes multiple parts in “families” (brackets), meter and tempo changes, text indications (e.g “st. mute”), diamond noteheads.

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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