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How To Make Your Own Sheet Music with LilyPond

Simon Slangen 01-01-2010

778195_music_1Writing, or rewriting, your musical scores digitally can be a tedious business. It takes a lot longer than doodling with pen and paper, but is infinitely tidier and more accessible – in a way, you’re making it timeless. In this time and age, it’s simply not done to compose your scores on a napkin. Sure, it makes for great storytelling, but you’re up for a redo if you want any credibility.


You could use application suites of considerable pricing to make your own sheet music, but with a ridiculous amount of shortcomings – in the end, you’ve wasted even more time on realigning notes, spacing and special characters, and the like.

Earlier this week, we already explored several freeware alternatives with 3 Tools To Write Your Own Sheet Music Online 7 Sheet Music Maker Apps for Writing Music Anywhere Are you the next Mozart? Do you want to pen the next global hit for your band? If so, you need some tools to write sheet music. Read More . However, with the notable exception of Noteflight, these were more fit for ‘casual’ use, rather than intensive composing. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out; It’s the first half of these article series.

Today we’re going to focus on Lilypond, an offline, cross-platform application to make your own sheet music; and one that works from a very fresh angle.

LilyPond (Mac, PC, Linux)

LilyPond is a very special application, and not just because it’s available on all the popular operating systems. There’s a reason why I’m not showing you a fancy screenshot below. You see, LilyPond doesn’t have a GUI – Graphical User Interface. In other words, it’s completely text-based.


Please stop screaming, and allow me to explain.


Text To Notes

LilyPond – which, once you get used to it, is in fact just as pretty as the picture above – converts text to musical notation. The reason why LilyPond hasn’t released a Graphical User Interface, is because it isn’t necessary – by far. You just drop your text document on your application shortcut, et voila, a PDF pops up – with all the perfect alignment and spacing, so you don’t have to worry about it.

Scripting Language

This text input obviously cannot be random. ‘I want Für Elise, but with a Blues tone to it” will be met with a sad smile and frown. To append structure, LilyPond uses a sort of scripting language. It’s a bit like programming your music, with the exception that this language is very intuitive and easy to learn.


Screen shot 2009-12-31 at 18.10.48

With it, you can compose almost any thinkable score of music. Incomprehensibly difficult arrangements will be lined out automatically. And you can do it from Notepad, Open Office, or Microsoft Word!


To demonstrate how to make your own sheet music using this software, the above score is generated by LilyPond, from a purely textual input.


Incredibly Fast

Of course, LilyPond focuses on a very specific niche of composers. For simple, casual use, I would not recommend it. However, if you’re looking for a extensive application, with the power of a bulldozer and the delicacy of a feather, LilyPond is what you’re looking for.

Yes, it takes a bit of time to get it down, and it won’t be anything like those other applications. But the next step, of course, is profit!

With LilyPond, you can write down your music almost as fast as you type. That is to say, quite fast. Compared to other music writing applications – and a lot of you will recognize where I’m coming from – the difference is astonishing.

In short, LilyPond is what you get when you cut off all unnecessary corners. No more time wasted with the visual aspects of your score. Just give LilyPond the input, and you’ll have a great-looking score within seconds.


Quick Start & Tutorials

I couldn’t have explained everything in about LilyPond in just one article. Luckily, LilyPond has a ready arsenal of tutorials to hold your hand while you venture off in the scripting. Check out their Introduction Crash Course, or really get to speak the music with their Extensive Turorial – an extensive guide, teaching you all you need to know.

What are your personal thoughts on LilyPond? Or do you know of any other great, (free) musical notation software to make your own sheet music? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  1. Server Acim
    January 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I am a Turkish composer who uses LilyPond. I am using "Frescobaldi LilyPond Editor" and also Turkish translator of "Frescobaldi LilyPond Editor". You can get more information about it from here:

    I am going on to write "LilyPond Guide" for Turkish composers who want to meet with it.
    [Broken Link Removed]

    After finishing the composition, I used Frescobaldi LilyPond Editor to copy my work. Than I added my work into to Internet Archive.

    You are right. LilyPond doesn't need an GUI. It is very satisfying for me as an composer.

  2. John
    January 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Seems very utilitarian...makes me wonder what use, if any, someone such as Mozart could make of it and how much more music he could have pumped out in his short life with a tool such as this.

  3. Matt Smith
    January 3, 2010 at 6:41 am

    hmm, seems very tedious.. Why not use a front-end like Rosegarden?

    • Simon Slangen
      January 3, 2010 at 11:54 am

      Because once you've got this down, it's way faster than any front-end, and you don't need to worry about arbitrary things like alignment.
      If you plan on writing a lot of music, the 'pain period' is well worth it.