Software suggestion – Lilypond

I figured I should start things off with an informative post. That way I can at least pretend that this blog has a useful function and isn’t just a space for me to splatter my creations, blab about myself, or beg for work.

I’m here to type about a piece of software that I personally like to use for music notation called Lilypond. At this point, you may skip my lengthy explanation and simply click on this link to go directly to the website, where you’ll find download instructions and tutorials. If you’re still with me, read on.

As a big fan of open source software, I always try to find alternatives to mainstream software. My reasons being that open source software is free, usually lighter weight, and satisfies the techie in me. I say this because sometimes open source software requires a little tinkering around or has a bit of a learning curve. Lilypond is no exception, but once you learn how to work with it, you’ll quickly see the benefits.

If you do any digital music notation, you’re most likely used to products like Finale. I do own Finale (the PrintMusic version) and I’ve used it extensively. I have hundreds of Finale files filled with tons of ideas, ranging from little 2-measure ditties to multiple-paged orchestration scores. It is incredibly easy to use and has an intuitive graphic-user-interface. However, it can be a bit pricey, you have a limited number of computers you can install it on, and it may or may not be compatible with your operating system.

This is where Lilypond comes in. The notation input is actually text-based. In fact, with Lilypond, an entire orchestra score can be stored in a single text file. Yes that’s right, in its simplest form, Lilypond has no graphic user interface. Instead, you type out your score in a text file similar to typing programming code. To some people, this can be very off putting, but to others, like me, I saw it as a new and capable approach to scoring music.

After you install the program, all you have to do is open a text editor and input something like this:


c’ e’ g’ e’


You then save the file with the extension of “ly”. For example, you could save the text file as Then you run Lilypond using that file (the way this is done varies by which operating system you use. In Linux it’s done with the command line and in Windows you just drag the file on top of the Lilypond icon. I haven’t tried Lilypond on Mac, but I’m sure it’s very easy). Nothing will pop up, but Lilypond will generate a few files in the same folder that the file is in. One of those generated files is a PDF containing your music. With the above example, the following would be created:

Lilypond example

For this incredibly simple example, all Lilypond did was generate a single measure containing the notes c, e, g, then e again. It automatically assumed we wanted treble clef and that we were in common time, both of which could be changed if we would like. The apostrophes next to each letter determine which octave the note should be in. I could take a lot of time explaining how this works thoroughly, but I’d rather just point you to the already-made Lilypond tutorial here.

Once you really dig into the syntax of Lilypond you’ll find that it is 100% customizable. You can add instruments, change the time signature, the clef, the spacing of the notes, the types of barlines, etc. One of the greatest things about this software is its versatility. Just by adding a few lines of code, you can make your sheet music look exactly the way you’d like. Here’s an example of a guitar arrangement I put together for Moonlight in Vermont, made entirely with Lilypond. Just click this link to download the PDF.

Moonlight in Vermont

You can also include a few lines of code in the text file that tell Lilypond to generate a MIDI file along with the PDF. This allows you to listen to your beautiful work of art. There is a fairly large list of instruments you can choose from for you MIDI output, but don’t expect a glorious, lush grand piano or a buttery, rich cello. Yes, its still MIDI and it’s not the most amazing sounding output, but this software is more about making some sweet sheet music eye-candy, not a FLAC file that’s fit for commercial release.

Of course, in my opinion, that is one limitation of Lilypond in comparison to commercial software like Finale. In Finale you can easily play back the music you are working on with a simple click of the play button. With Lilypond you need to compile the file, open the MIDI, then seek out the portion of the song you want to hear. So as far as working on music that requires constant trial and error and real time editing, I’d say that Finale is a much easier option. That being said, there is software being produced in the open source world (such as Rosegarden) that contains a GUI for Lilypond, which would make it easier to do this kind of work. However the last time I gave it a shot it was a task and a half trying to get it to work, though it may have come a long way since then.

I would have to say that one of the best things about this software is what it takes to run it. Since there is virtually no GUI and the files you work with are literally text files, you can run this software on just about any computer. Regardless of whether or not Lilypond is installed on a computer, you can still work on your Lilypond files, as long as you have a text editor (such as Notepad for Windows, TextEdit for Mac, or gedit for Linux).

So in summary, here are the pros and cons:


– There is a learning curve.

– Lack of GUI (graphic user interface) makes it a little hard to work with for visual people.

– Not the best for real time music composing that requires constant playback.

– The quality of the MIDI output is nothing to write home about.


– Highly versatile. You can make your sheet music look exactly the way you want.

– Sheet music produced looks professional and official. Software like Finale produces sheet music in a somewhat blocky, unnatural format, in a way that makes it obvious that it was created with Finale.

– Lilypond files are text files, so the space they take up is miniscule and they can be worked on with virtually any computer.

– It’s open source and FREEEEEEEEE!!!!!!! 😀 Which is just awesome enough in itself. You have nothing to lose to give it a shot. I mean, I guess you have time to lose, but I’m sure you’ve wasted your time on much more useless things.

EDIT: Check out my more recent post on a program called Frescobaldi, which enhances the Lilypond experience.


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