MuseScore first engraving impressions: Part 1

• Jul 1, 2020 - 10:31

So, here I am on my first day with MuseScore! I took the first page of Harrison Birtwistle's piece Angel Fighter that I set ten or so years ago in SCORE, and set about recreating it in MuseScore. The first stage was to see how close I could get with basic input and style modifications, i.e. before getting stuck into manually tweaking fine details. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons I can't post the page here, though it's viewable on the Boosey & Hawkes website (you do need a free account there to log in, though).

This was also my first time using MuseScore, so it was a chance to learn how it works, and also document some of my first impressions. As such, some of the problems or shortcomings I encountered might have easy solutions that I just haven't discovered yet.

Creating the score

I avoided the orchestra templates and added the instruments manually. For now I kept a separate stave for each instrument rather than combined staves for pairs of instruments (Oboes, Horns, Trumpets). I changed the music font to Bravura, as it's generally very good.

When the score opened, there were no staves or empty bars visible. The preview shown in Format -> Page Settings revealed that they seemed to begin on page 2. Presumably because of the title text on p1 they wouldn't fit there. To match the original, I changed the page size to A3 and the stave space size to 0.875mm for a 3.5mm stave. (I've not encountered stave size being described in terms of the size of a space before. It would be good for it to be specified either way.)

Now the staves appeared, and this highlights the first problem: the lack of automatic bracketing for instrument sections (and barlines extending through sections), and the rather unsophisticated instrument labelling ("Flute 1" and "Flute 2" rather than "Flute" between the two staves, and the numbering 1 and 2 on each stave, for instance).

I could add the brackets manually, but it was amusing to have to switch to the Advanced workspace to even get access to them, as they are really not an optional aspect of the notation, if we're aiming to have a score that looks remotely professional. I also set the barlines to extend through the sections, though this was rather tedious with the "span to next stave" option, even though it can then be set as a default. I feel it would be better to define ranges of instruments that should be barred through. (SCORE has a good system for this which we might explore later.)

The lack of brackets for the instruments, and the crude labelling (e.g. the labelling of "Flute 1" and "Flute 2", rather than having "1" and "2" on each stave, with "Flute" between them) was the first problem, so I set about fixing this. Brackets should be applied automatically; it also seems odd to have to switch to the Advanced workspace to be able to even add them myself - as they are not really an optional part of the notation. Similarly, barlines should be extended through relevant sections of the system. Having to set this manually with "span to next stave" is tedious and cumbersome, though at least this can be set as a default. (I feel it would be better to define ranges of staves that should be barred through.)

I also think that the staves should be vertically justified to fill the page. The options suggest that a page with more than one system would adjust the inter-system spacing to achieve the right bottom margin, but I haven't explored this yet. (Again, SCORE has a good system for vertical justification.)

A detail I noticed: in printed music, clefs with octave signs are very rarely used for e.g. double bass and piccolo. MuseScore applied one to the double bass part. Tenor (vocal) parts are the one exception to this.


I proceed with the input and made a note of what I noticed. The holy grail of music notation software is to have everything look perfect without requiring any manual adjustment; though this is probably not ultimately possible (music notation is just too complicated and so many things are dependent on context), it should be possible to get very close, and therefore minimise the amount of the time the user needs to spend on tweaking; and if they don't even care about that aspect, it should still look excellent without any adjustment.

One thing which it would be very good to have happen automatically in input: when a fermata is added to one part it should be added to all parts. This is a VERY common problem with parts produced by composers at school/music college (or even later...) and it causes a huge amount of confusion and wasted time in rehearsals.

In rough order of importance, here are some things I noticed (I can't post the whole page, again, but can show some details.) It's obviously not comprehensive, as this is just a single page, but this does identify some key areas to look at, as well as various other avenues that one might go down.

Slurs and ties (always the most challenging aspect, in whatever software)

Default endpoint positioning needs to be improved. Endpoints should avoid being on stave lines, as should the middles of ties especially. Collisions with augmentation dots must be avoided (see cello 1, bar 4).
Slurs should clear beams (clarinet 1, bar 3), tuplet numbers (bassoon 1, bar 7), and pretty much everything else.
b3cl1.png b7bn1.png
Ties should be broken when passing through time signatures.
Slurs and ties at the end of a system should stop before the final barline - relevant here as there is a cautionary time signature after the final barline.


The second most challenging aspect, usually! Slants and positioning need a lot of attention. This is a big subject.

System markings

These (tempo markings, rehearsal marks, etc) should be repeated above the strings. It should be possible to specify that system markings be repeated above any instrument, for example above the piano in a piano trio. Maybe this is an option I just haven't found yet.

The note symbols in metronome marks are much too small relative to the text.


Automatic positioning is somewhat erratic. Accents mostly seem okay; but, for example, the tenuto in trombone 1, bar 4 does not clear the tie; and the harmonic circles in the double bass are weirdly high.
b4tbn2.png harm.png


On vocal staves, dynamics (and expression) should be set to appear above the stave by default. It would also be great if a common baseline could be set for dynamics so that they vertically align - see the oboe and clarinets in bar 3 for instance.


Tuplet numbers are too far from beams (bassoon 1, bar 7).

In bar 1 the 'auto' option didn't give me a bracket on the tuplets on the third beat in the bassoons; in my view it should. Ideally the basson 2 tuplet bracket should extend to the implied) third note of the triplet, i.e. it would align with the bracket in bassoon 1. (I find the shoulders on the bracket too high, too.)
The diamond noteheads for the harmonics in the cellos and violas are wrongly sized and placed - this seems to be a Bravura issue as the other fonts seem okay. But it throws off the ledger lines, which in turn causes collisions with accidentals and so on, so is quite a nasty graphical issue.

Some things I couldn't do (but perhaps could, with more investigation)

  • Big time signatures above staves. Perhaps this could be faked by hiding them on all staves except those where I want it, then adjusting the size and positioning.
  • Italic non-bold c in the metronome marks.
  • The vertical text label for 'C H O R U S'.


It's too early for any grand conclusions here, but there is a lot of potential here, and also a huge amount of work to be done!


For slurs and ties, some of what you describe is easy, some not so much. Tweaking the end points across system breaks is simple enough. Dots can potentially be handled a couple of different ways. Collisions involving chords with seconds in them is rather harder. I wrote some of that code for MuseScore 2 when things worked differently, then with MuseScore 3 much changed and we were able to simplify much of what I wrote. Very possible handling dots and seconds is easier now than it would have been back then.

Regarding automatically adding fermatas, a complication is figuring out which note to add to if each staff doesn't have a note on the same beat, and/or if multiple voices are involved. But in principle, if a good algorithm can be described for this in English, it can probably be implemented.

Size of the note symbol in tempo markings is a problem indeed, we've tried to deal with before but things have shifted a bit over time. There are something like three or four different font codepoints that can potentially be used (one for Unicode, two or three for SMuFL) and they all have advantages and disadvantages, Some are sized right but positioned poorly, some are the other way around. If we do design our font, hopefully this is something we can get right without needing any hacks like changing font size mid-marking.

For dynamics, I'd love to see staff-specific overrides for position. Ideally it would be possible to specify other things per-staff that currently are score style settings only, but this is the most obvious. Regarding alignment, note we do align a direct sequence of dynamic - hairpin - dynamic - hairpin etc, but not two independent dynamics with no hairpin between them. That's because the alignment code is within the hairpin layout code. No particular reason it couldn't be done the way lyrics or pedal markings are, except my sense is it would be pretty uncommon to want this applied so broadly - literally aligning all dynamics on a system. Seems it's usually more piecemeal than that. But maybe there needs to be a way to define ranges for this? Or even just a command you could apply after selecting a range that says "align all dynamics in this range" and it would just apply manual offsets where needed. You might then need to rerun the command if you made significant changes later. But to do this completely automatically would be creating a way to define the range to align. Some new invisible score element, I guess?

A non-bold italic 'c' in a tempo text is possible: put it into edit mode (i.e. double click it), select the c and in the text toolbar at the bottom of the screen deselect bold and select italic.
Prior to that in Inspector use the "reset custom formatting" on the tempo text and the quarter note will be bigger (this seems with an issue, you're not the first to complain about this, but so far nobody bothered to put it into the issue tracker)

The "span to next staff" option can be set once for each staff necessary and then carried over the rest of the score by using the "Set as staff default" button

In reply to by hofe

Somehow I missed that this was an issue Simon had. He may have found it by now, but the most efficient method currently is to click on one barline and them drag down the bottom end to extend it through as many staves as you need. The other barlines immediately follow suit.

I started with number 3 in this series but I'll once again say you have found many things I've wished were better in MuseScore for some time. The things you needed to learn have already been discussed.

The only impossible thing you mentioned is the vertical section label. Everything else can be fixed by manual adjustment.

One thing you mentioned is that octave transposing clefs are rare outside of the guitar and tenor voice part. I agree with you on this and is what I get when I create scores. If you are seeing others then you are probably seeing them while concert pitch is turned on. This makes sense to me because the bass clef with an 8 below tells the actual note being played on a bass (electric or contra-) just as the 8vb treble clef is used for Tenor sax and Bass clef is used for Bari sax in concert pitch. I'm fine with these since concert pitch isn't designed to be printed for the most part. People have no doubt seen exceptions to this but they are not common and the user has the ability to change clefs for a score like this.

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