Hey MuseScore… Where Are We Going? (MuseScore 4.1)

Posted on July 16, 2023

 musescore 4.1

I need to start this post by making something very clear: I’m extremely, outrageously grateful MuseScore exists. It works much better than its competitors, while being much cheaper (i.e. free instead of an exorbitant amount of money). As such, it’s my notation software of choice. It always has been. That being said, I’m growing a bit... concerned about the direction of its development. 

MuseScore just got another update this past week. Version 4 came out at the end of last year, and was chock full of both new features and bugs. A small update was released a few weeks afterward which didn’t fix much, so this latest version (4.1) has been a long–awaited one for me. Over the last few months of transcribing, I’ve been adding a somewhat obnoxious section to my posts called “MuseScore 4 Bug of the Week”.

Despite the fact that a laundry list of improvements was published (with many bugs that I’ve never encountered myself), most of the things I complain about have not been fixed.

The most depressing problem is shortcuts for changing text: ⌘B and ⌘I. They don’t do anything in version 4. Well, they don’t do anything when text is highlighted that is. Otherwise, ⌘B is supposed to add an extra measure to the project. The deft balance of two ⌘B shortcuts was once mastered by the program, but no longer.  

I know this seems like a nitpick since it’s easy enough to change text manually... but for god’s sake, these shortcuts are described by some as “sacred”, and they’ve been around forever. I could forgive eschewing these shortcuts if your software isn’t a WYSIWYG editor that concerns text (e.g. Logic Pro), but typesetting is an important element of sheet music.

To add insult to injury, ⌘U still works to underline something, although this is perhaps the most useless of the bunch; you should rarely underline text in the digital age because someone might mistake it for a link. The only time you should really underline is if you cannot italicize something.

Here’re some other blunders: searching for font families still doesn’t work, and may instead trigger random shortcuts; copying text from MuseScore and pasting it outside the software continues to spit out the text in a markup language. The measure width shortcut remains broken (BTW, measure width in the inspector is called stretch in the menu for some reason, which just makes things seem even more slapdash).

When going in and out of note entry mode, MuseScore continues to forget what drum you had selected, requiring you to reselect it (this is slowing me down horrendously). And after starting playback on a pitched instrument, the first few notes often won’t be played (by some miracle this doesn’t seem to be a problem at all for drum scores).

Something that’s really driving me crazy comes when you try to open multiple scores at once. Instead of using multiple tabs, the software just launches itself twice. 

Now, this might not be a glitch per se — I tracked down an explanation from MuseScore developer Marc Sabatella, who pins the problem on Apple:

The technical reason to want separate instances is so you can have different sounds loaded for each — something not possible in MU3. Not a huge limited [sic: limitation?] when all we had was soundfonts, but not really viable anymore. Unfortunately, macOS doesn't handle this well like other systems do, so workarounds are being investigated. But I think all macOS users should petition Apple to support this better.

Honestly, that’s cold comfort. I guess it would be more comforting if I actually cared about the way MuseScore sounded. But I don’t. I need MuseScore to look good and work good, not sound good. First and foremost, I need MuseScore to be a notation app. But now it’s trying to be some sort of a hybridized DAW.

Indeed, a considerable chunk of 4.1’s announcement video is devoted to showing off new things like a reverb plugin and some sends/busses which have been added to the mixer:

And I just don’t care. Not when basic keyboard shortcuts have been neglected. If I really wanted my digital symphony to sound good, I would just throw the MIDI into Logic, and work on the audio there. 

But that’s the problem. I don’t want to sound indignant, and many people do value these new features. Many people don’t have Logic. The only well–known and truly free DAW is Audacity, which I wouldn’t even describe as a DAW; it’s more of an audio editor. 

Nonetheless, I’m struggling to understand the priories here. MuseScore still doesn’t have good support for notation elements like over–the–barline tuplets and alternating time signatures. Niche tools for sure, but what’s taking precedence here? Allowing people to use these notation tools in your notation program, or adding reverb to your fake orchestra so it sounds less fake?

If we’re so concerned about playback, built–in ghost notes that affect velocity would be nice, as would the ability to use a pitched clef in percussion scores for notating cues — a reasonable feature that’s still nowhere to be found.

Again, I don’t want to come across as ungrateful here. MuseScore could be much less usable (I know as much because MuseScore was much less usable when I started using it ten years ago). MuseScore could have sold out and become another extortionately priced and bloated piece of music software (its license would generally prevent this, but anything is possible if the price is right). The developers are free to go in any direction they want to. This is their vision, their creation. Ultimately, MuseScore does the job I need it to do, as painful as the process can be.

When it comes to bugs that have been ironed out, the only one I’ve seemed to have found is that, when opening up a project from a file browser, MuseScore launches (or relaunches) and then properly opens the file. Before, it would just launch, and then nothing would happen. 

As far as new features that actually concern me, MuseJazz now has a bold font face, although it’s a bit ugly (like smushed ink), and only seems to work when it feels like it.

For example, bold:

Not bold:

Of course, we have some new bugs. Opening up an older project in version 4.1 will reposition/reset elements like articulations. Well, using X on the keyboard to vertically flip an element does not work if MuseScore has automatically positioned it. If you manually flip the element, the shortcut starts working, although that kind of defeats the point of the shortcut.

What’s confounding is that, when you come across something strange in MuseScore 4, it can be tough to tell if it’s a glitch or if it’s just a new feature that’s been implemented poorly. For instance, many people are bewildered by the new “Auto Mute” feature: when clicking on a staff in a score, MuseScore will mute everything but that one instrument when you start playback.

Most people don’t seem to like this, and I highly doubt anyone even asked for it. To quote one MS4 user, “It’s really frustrating when I just want to set the playhead and hear everything.” I can’t say if this is intuitive or even sensible. In any case, the logic doesn’t apply to the rest of the program. If you click on voice 2 in a staff, should you expect only voice 2 to be heard during playback? Well guess what... that doesn’t happen.

If you have the mixer open, you might be able to catch what’s going on more quickly, but many people don’t work with the mixer open since MuseScore is a notation app, not a DAW. Perhaps I should introduce the dev team to Mackie’s “Rude Solo” light if nobody has heard of it already.

I haven’t spent any time transcribing with 4.1 yet, so I don’t know how well it handles. From what I’ve heard so far, the lag is the worst it’s ever been. There are supposed to be some engraving improvements, but I don’t even know what to make of those anymore. For all the hype around version 4, it still did some silly things, like this tie from “Rock is Too Heavy”:

It’s tough to know if this was a shortcoming of MuseScore, or just some of the problems unique to drum notation (I plan to write more about those problems in the next month or so).

I’m not aware of any major usability upgrades, and there’re still some upgrades to be desired. Here’s one: why is the ridiculous header and footer syntax still around? I’m talking about the way you add certain text to the top/bottom of your score:

BTW, this tooltip thing on the right goes away after a few seconds — hardly enough time to read it. So you’ll have to constantly mouse away from the window and back again to keep reading it. Surely someone on the development team must think there’s room for improvement.

I simply can’t handle new features if they come at the cost of the app either stagnating or noticeably regressing in other areas. In fact, I feel the need to add a page to my site that keeps track of every day MuseScore has not had the ability to make text bold with ⌘B, Zero Dark Thirty style. I know I keep harping on that shortcut, but it really does sum up the whole situation for me.

(Of course, I won’t make such a page, because I don’t want to seem like a totally ungracious jackass.)