Digitizing Musical Scores

Jump to: Windows | Mac | Multi-Platform | Image Editing

As technology continues to progress it is incredibly important that we as humans do not lose the music of previous generations. Fires, rot, misplaced papers, faded memory; many things can sweep away our history. Countless guzheng creations were lost this way. Thankfully we now have tools to preserve our music for future generations.

I know of two English-Language Jianpu / Chinese Cypher notation programs that are free and readily available, both of which I have used to type music from hand-written scores. There is also a third in development. Beyond these, you can always scan copies. I have a guide at the end to help you do just that. 

For Windows


Windows has the Simplified Musical Notation Input System, SimpErhu for short. It plugs into and requires Microsoft Word: http://simperhu.weebly.com/download.html It's a macro-enabled template you can add to Microsoft Word that gives you shortcuts and additional menus to create cipher notation, staves, and the various glyphs and 汉字 comments. Instructions are provided in English and Mandarin.

Technically this works on Macs as well as it does plugin to Microsoft Word for Mac, but the only version I have tested it on is 2011. I imagine it would work better with Office for Mac 2016 / Office 365 but I can't confirm.  On 2011 only half of the functions and glyphs integrate. It's still useable, but there are many hotkeys that conflict with the defaults in Mac OS.  

Summary: SimpErhu is fast to get started in and easy to navigate, but is limited to transcribing existing scores. Requires Microsoft Word.

For Mac


MAC OS has the powerful NoteabilityPro. Originally a multi-hundred dollar composing suite created by a partnership between a composer and a programmer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, it has now been released for free. Download it before they change their minds!!! http://debussy.music.ubc.ca/download.html I joke, but this is some seriously capable software. It's everything you need to compose full scores and will even play the music back to you. This, for me, has been huge. Suddenly I can practice multi-part pieces even when other musicians aren't available!

A major caveat: Noteability Pro spaces notes based on duration- just like in staff music, a whole note has more space after it than an eighth note. Most jianpu scores I have seen group notes based on beat - so regardless of duration, all notes that fill out a beat are printed together. There is not currently a way to adjust that spacing.

Summary: NoteabilityPro takes more time to get started in but it rewards you with far more features. Chief among them: you can listen to your score, allowing you to catch transcription errors you might not have otherwise noted. And you know, everything else you might need to create 80-staff compositions!

Multiple Platforms - MuseScore

This is in active development. When I first wrote this page in 2017 MuseScore was unable to create cipher notation. As of May 2018 a great deal of work has been done, making this something to watch. I have not yet had the chance to use the new version that includes jianpu support, but you can get it free here. You can get a look at its development on Github here. There is also a plugin, though I am unsure how it relates.

For Everybody - Scanning and Editing with GIMP, Photoshop, and others

Taking scans from this:


To this:


Another great way to digitize scores is to use a scanner and image-editing software. You won't have the ability to edit it as easily as the above options but at least you'll have a nice copy. GIMP is a powerful free image editing solution; Photoshop is the famous, expensive alternative. The general workflow goes something like this:

  1. Scan the sheet music. If it's in good condition you could use an Automatic Document Feeder (ADF) to scan a whole stack quickly. Otherwise, use a normal flatbed/plate scanner to scan each piece of music one at a time.

    1. As you are scanning, adjust the options to make the notation as clear as possible while picking up as little of the background of the paper as possible. Options vary system to system, but they might include brightness, contrast, and threshold.

    2. Pick a reasonable resolution in Dots per Inch, (DPI) for your scan. If I am scanning a document without changing its size, I'll scan at 300 DPI. If it is a small scan you want to make bigger, or there is fine detail you can't see, you may want a higher DPI - like 450 or in really sensitive cases, 600 DPI. Be careful though, as file sizes get much larger as you increase DPI. Big files take longer for your editing software to load. Waiting for your software to churn through huge files is tedious.

    3. Pick your file type. I recommend the "TIFF" file type, which most scanning software should know how to create. The files are bigger but they retain more of the original information. If you can't create tiff files, don't worry. PNG or even JPEG files are usable

    4. I highly recommend performing the scan in Grayscale or as some scanners call it, "Black and White". This will give you much smaller file sizes, which is super good, and will make document cleanup easier.

  2. Once you have good scans of your music make backup copies of your scans, then open the files in your editor. As GIMP is free and works on most computers, I'll write the steps for that software. Photoshop has similar functionality but the tools will have different names.

    1. With your file open, check to see if the scan is tilted. You can do this by enabling grid lines and comparing them to things that should be vertical or horizontal, like the lines at the ends of measures, or the bottom of every numeral or note.

      1. In GIMP, Turn on grids through View > Show Grid. Change the grid on this particular file through Image > Configure Grid. Change the way grids first appear on every image through File or GIMP > Preferences > Default Grid.

    2. If your scan is tilted, straighten it with an automatic tool (Photoshop has some) or manually by selecting the Rotate tool (Tools > Transform Tools > Rotate). Scans are typically less than 1 degree off, in my experience, but that's noticeable.

    3. Now that everything is straightened out, it's time to remove any background color that came through on your scan. This is the magic step that will make other people go "wow".

      1. Get the "Select By Color Tool" through Tools > Selection Tools > By Color Select.

      2. In the Tool Options panel, found on the right side by default or through Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Tool Options, change the threshold of this tool. The default seems to be 15; I found 30-60 proved the most effective.

      3. Click on the center of one of the notes, characters, or numerals of the music. In GIMP you'll see dotted outlines dancing around everything that's a similar color. Hopefully, that includes all the music on the page!

      4. The selection won't go all the way to the edge of the numbers/notes/characters, so expand the selection to include them. Do this through Select > Grow. I find between 1-3 pixels of growth typically grabs everything I need.

        1. Pro tip, if your previous selection picked up lots of specs in the background of the scan, and you don't want to change your selection threshold level to get rid of them, you can use Select > Shrink by 3 pixels to eliminate many of them. Then Select > Grow by 3 or more pixels and you're back in our flow!

      5. Almost done! Go to Select > Invert and press delete. Now all your document has on it are the notes/numerals/characters you selected!

        1. If your document turned black, your background color was set to black. Undo your delete (Edit > Undo Clear), then click Tools > Default Colors. Try your delete again. The page should show up white!

        2. If your document has a checkerboard pattern in the background, it means the background is transparent instead of white. To fix this go to Layer > New Layer and make sure the fill type is white. Everything whited out? Good. Select Layer > Stack > Layer to Bottom. Your music should now be visible.

      6. Save your document in whatever file format you wish. If you want to do more work on it, keep it in GIMP's default XCF file format. If you are happy with it, export it as whatever format you wish. GIMP also has a shortcut where you can overwrite the original file you opened. That is found in File > Overwrite.

  3. Success!

And turned it into this:

The process is powerful. It's taken sheet music that looked like this: 

Before editing a messy scan.

Before editing a messy scan.

After editing a messy scan!

After editing a messy scan!

Summary: If you have access to a scanner and computer you can scan your sheet music and use an image editor like GIMP to remove the excess noise.

Let me know if you have other free software you recommend!