Today’s release of MuseScore 4 is a major update and quite possibly the most significant one in the open-source application’s history since the release of MuseScore 1.0 in 2011. It includes major improvements to the user interface, layout, engraving, and playback features.
MuseScore 4 is delivered via a hub which installs both the MuseScore scoring application and the orchestral plug-in Muse Sounds. The MuseScore application can be downloaded separately, as well.
Not coincidentally, this is also the first major version of of MuseScore to be released under the product leadership of Martin Keary, Muse Group’s vice president of software (Tantacrul). Coming nearly two years after the last MuseScore update (3.6) and nearly four years after the release of MuseScore 3, Martin told Scoring Notes today that, “I’ve worked on a lot of complex creation software and this is the largest release I’ve ever put out,” including the launch of Paint 3D and a variety of PS3 games.
One of the first changes to MuseScore that users might encounter is a new way to install the application to begin with. Muse Hub is a small utility application, which — as its name implies — brings together many of Muse Group’s software products in one place.
From the menu bar (macOS) or System Tray (Windows), you can install MuseScore 4, as well as other applications like Audacity, and even content for these audio applications, like audio loops, effects, and virtual instruments (more on those later).
Muse Hub may seem extraneous at first, especially if you only use MuseScore, but I suspect that as the content libraries grow and the Muse Group family of applications matures, it will be a utility that offers quite a bit of, well, utility. You don’t need to keep Muse Hub running in the background to use MuseScore, and it is possible to download and use MuseScore separately without installing the Hub at all, if you don’t want to use Muse Sounds (more on those sounds later).
User interface overhaul
The next update users will encounter is the completely rebuilt MuseScore user interface. Things are mostly laid out in the same ways as they have been in MuseScore 3.6, but with an updated, flat style. The team has rebuilt it using more modern technology, which allows for much greater flexibility and customization.
I’m quite fond of the new theme options, which allow you to work in dark or light mode, and select an accent color. But the real fun (and utility) comes from the customizable tool layouts.
The main note input toolbar across the top of the MuseScore window is probably the thing users interact with the most when working with MuseScore, especially new users who are still learning keyboard shortcuts. Not only is this deeply customizable in MuseScore 4, it’s easy and obvious how that works.
Click the gear to bring up a long list of everything that can appear in this bar, and hide, show, or reorder to suit your needs. For example, I don’t remember the last time I entered a 64th note, so I can just hide that until I need it. Also notably, some of the default tools here have changed, including the addition of common articulations, which had previously been hidden away in the Articulations palette. (That’s one fewer excuse my composition students will have for leaving them out!)
Panels in MuseScore 4 can be moved around much more freely as well, including the handy ability to stack them on top of one another, and quickly switch by clicking tabs across the top. This is a really nice way to get quick access to some less frequently used panels without having to keep them on the screen all the time or return to the View menu.
Speaking of panels, I want to call out the two most notable updates among them. First is the Properties panel, which replaces the old Inspector panel. It has most the same functionality, but has been completely reorganized and redesigned. Now when you change a notehead, you do so from a graphical list, rather than a dropdown of inscrutable names like “With X”. In MuseScore 3.6 the Inspector felt a bit like editing a spreadsheet. In MuseScore 4, it feels like working with music.
The Mixer panel has probably received the most attention of all. It now looks much more like the kind of mixer you might see in a digital audio workstation (DAW), which is to say it looks more like a hardware mixer. It also docks nicely to the bottom of the window, much as in other music and audio applications. The Mixer panel now also includes a track for the metronome, as well as a visual volume meter for each track, something that the MuseScore 3.6 mixer lacked.
I’ve described just a fraction of the updates that have come to MuseScore’s user interface. Some are more superficial like the welcome new note entry icon, while others are much deeper and function-altering — be sure to explore the revised New Score dialog(!). As a whole they really make MuseScore look like a modern application for the first time.
As lovely as the new user interface in MuseScore is, I would argue that it is far less consequential than the updates that have been made to the functionality of the application, starting with engraving.
MuseScore 3.6 already took major strides with the implementation of a new SMuFL-compliant music font called Leland, which was a dramatic improvement over the previous default, Emmentaler. While the font was an easy target when identifying the limitations of work produced in MuseScore, it was — if anything — of less concern than issues of collisions and spacing.
It’s worth getting into why this is a big deal coming from MuseScore 3.6. For me, horizontal (rhythmic) spacing has long been the most glaring weakness of MuseScore’s engraving features. Depending on the content, MuseScore would space some measures too tightly and others too loosely. In any place where there were different rhythms happening at the same time, it nearly always created inconsistent, hard-to-read notation.
Unlike collisions, which are usually obvious errors, it can be hard for new users to identify bad spacing, to say nothing of knowing how to correct it. For MuseScore’s user base, which is includes many who are new to music notation and engraving, this presents a particularly acute issue. That’s why I think it is so important to see the improvements in MuseScore 4.
Here is a very simple example of a passage that MuseScore 4 handles much more gracefully than earlier versions.
Most obviously, notice that MuseScore has given the whole notes a lot more space, and even the eighth notes have slightly more space. The whole notes are less cramped and read more like the long sustains that they are. There is also extra space for the eighth notes, which is more subtle and allows room for small adjustments to distribute them optically evenly. Notice that 3.6 appears to give a lot more extra space to the flat sign and a little bit less space to the ledger line, which makes the D look much longer than the C before it. MuseScore 4 makes this rhythm appear as consistent and steady as it sounds.
Another spacing issue in MuseScore 3.6 that is corrected in 4.0 occurs when different parts play conflicting rhythms. This is particularly apparent when tuplets are added, as in this example.
Notice that previous versions of MuseScore gave rather sporadic spacing to the consistent tuplet rhythm to make it align to the simpler 3/4 rhythm in the upper voices. In MuseScore 4, this is corrected and both rhythms are now spaced proportionally.
The other major update to MuseScore’s engraving ability comes in the form of collision detection, especially for slurs and ties.
Not only does the rhythm spacing make this first slur very difficult to read, the second slur cuts through the natural sign. The ties in the chord at the end cut awkwardly through the space of the dots. MuseScore 4 brings a much more sophisticated system for identifying and automatically correcting these kinds of errors.
You can read in great detail about all of the engraving improvements in MuseScore 4 on the MuseScore site.
All-new playback system
I’ve already mentioned the Mixer’s new look, and it’s not just prettier. It’s also more functional.
In addition to the new volume meters, you’ll also find new playback sound options. MuseScore 4 is now capable of working directly with VST3 instruments, so you can work with your favorite sounds from Kontakt, Spitfire, EastWest, etc.
VST3 support also extends to effects plugins. There is a new FX insert on each channel in the mixer. Just like a DAW, you can add any chain of effects to an individual instrument channel or the master channel. I do wish it was possible to reorder the effects chain after I’ve started, and I have experienced a lot of speaker pops and artifacts when adding and removing effects, which I expect to be ironed out soon.
The playback system is completely rebuilt from the ground up to support modern audio tools and workflows. One notable addition is the support for the playback of accelerando and ritardando lines, a “hallelujah” moment, according to Martin.
In addition to this new audio engine, Muse Group has also produced a new set of virtual instruments to go with it.
For all the improvements to interface and engraving, and as welcome as all those changes are, it’s really Muse Sounds that steals the show here.
In May of last year, Muse Group acquired StaffPad, an application perhaps best known for two things: handwriting input and excellent audio. Leveraging the expertise of StaffPad’s development team, MuseScore has developed and built its own system for playing back real recorded samples in a similar way.
These brand new instrument samples, recorded by StaffPad founder David William Hearn, are downloadable for free within Muse Hub and usable immediately from within MuseScore 4 without any configuration. You can download individual instrument families as needed from the following:
- Muse Brass
- Muse Choir
- Muse Harp
- Muse Keys
- Muse Percussion
- Muse Strings
- Muse Woodwinds
Even if you — like me — decide to download the whole collection, it comes in at 14.4 GB, which is svelte for such an impressive sound library. The way these are named, as well as the connection to StaffPad, makes me wonder if there will eventually be a way to purchase sample libraries from the likes of Spitfire, CineSamples, and Orchestral Tools.
These sampled instruments sound great, especially for the cost. For users who are used to working with thousands of dollars worth of sample libraries and massage MIDI data in a DAW, these samples may not be sufficient. However, for users like me who usually take whatever we can get with a minimal amount of fussing in a notation application, Muse Sounds represents a major leap forward for free. I think it’s particularly good in chamber settings where synthesized instruments often fall short.
Take a moment to listen to the demo above from the Muse Hub YouTube channel and hear for yourself. I have paid a lot more for sounds that are not this good. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Muse Sounds is comfortably the best first-party playback available in any notation application at any price.
In his post announcing the release of MuseScore 4, Martin Keary said, “Please note that we will be building additional tools, like automation and MIDI mapping in later releases.”
For those not wanting to use MuseSounds, there is the option of using a basic playback profile.
MuseScore has long had some of the most robust support for common accessibility features like screen readers, and MuseScore 4 extends its accessibility even further.
The color themes I mentioned above aren’t simply aesthetic. There is also a high-contrast mode (as well as each color being individually changeable) which can be a huge benefit to colorblind and low-vision users.
A new format option has also been added to the Export dialog to convert staff notation to braille music notation in the form of a standard BRF file, which can be read by braille embossers. In other major notation applications, as well as previous versions of MuseScore, this would have required exporting to MusicXML (already a lossy conversion) and then converting it using another application (another lossy step). I can’t vouch for the quality of the braille, as I don’t read braille, but I do see a lot of value to having this conversion contained within the notation application like this.
Saving and publishing
Not to be overlooked is the tighter integration with musescore.com, the rapidly expanding commercial side of the MuseScore project, where users can upload scores, share them, and obtain other scores. Within MuseScore 4 is an option to directly Save to cloud, so that you can publish your work on musescore.com. Like YouTube and other content-sharing sites, you can first set the visibility to Private and then later make it publicly available if you so choose.
Availability and system requirements
MuseScore 4 is available now from musescore.org.
Links are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. System requirements for Windows are Windows 10 and higher; for Mac, it’s macOS 11.5 (Big Sur) or higher. Linux users need to click the “Download AppImage” button to install MuseScore, and also the text link “Muse Hub (for Muse Sounds)” directly below in order to get Muse Sounds.
The recommended method of installing MuseScore on Windows and Mac is to use the new Muse Hub; however, it is possible to separately download the MuseScore application, and links are provided.
MuseScore is available free of charge, as it has always been.
It’s worth noting that there are certain features in MuseScore 3 that, for the moment, are not available in MuseScore 4, according to Martin Keary: “There are other features that have not played nicely with our new systems at all, and which will need to be replaced in later releases, namely: the plug-in creator (which we want to rewrite completely as a priority), the score comparison tool and the ‘Documents side-by-side’ feature.”
I have often said in the past that the best and most important feature of MuseScore was it’s price: free. I meant that unironically. The price of the Big Three commercial applications is a major deterrent to many users. Being free actually is huge. Until now, I could not really say that it beat any of the Big Three in any other feature.
But now, I can honestly say that MuseScore has the best built-in audio playback. I have paid a lot of money for virtual instruments that do not sound as good as the free Muse Sounds. And it’s worth noting that these sounds are built on top of a completely rebuilt playback engine, so I suspect we’ll see more virtual instruments added to the Muse Sounds collection regularly. This is all in addition to the ability to bring your favorite VST3 instruments into the mix as well.
The layout and engraving features of MuseScore have long made it possible to make presentable scores, but it required a lot of manual tweaking and a lot of specialized domain knowledge that, most MuseScore users (and frankly most notation software users) simply have not had to learn. MuseScore 4’s updated collision avoidance, rhythm spacing, and other positioning algorithms have positioned it much closer to the commercial applications. In some cases, like the positioning of ties, slurs, and accidentals, MuseScore now does at least as well—if not better—compared to it’s competitors.
Even so, I still think it is a long way off from competing with the best automatic spacing and layout features of the commercial applications. Some of the quirkier default score settings remain unchanged. For example, the MuseScore projects I see in my teaching often end up with staves crunched far too close together. Vertical staff spacing in MuseScore 4 remains unchanged at 3.5 spaces, which is half the default in Sibelius (7 spaces) and nearly half the default in Dorico (6 spaces). While quibbles like these are extremely minor in light of the drastic engraving improvements in this release, they do add up. However, I trust the team at MuseScore and Muse Group to address these moving forward.
MuseScore 4 is a thoroughly impressive update, and one that promises great things for the future both of MuseScore and Muse Group.
Corrected on December 15, 2022 to remove inaccurate characterizations about a software hub as implemented by other companies.
For the latest information about compatibility for Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, and MuseScore, as well as links to the latest news and reviews about product releases, please see the Scoring Notes Product Guide.