There are a couple of basic kinds of music software. One is used most in popular music and the other in classical. The sequencer is a kind of software that can record, edit and play back music. The data can be entered via a MIDI keyboard (standing for Music Instrument Digital Interface) or other MIDI instrument. You can use a sequencer to create things like drum tracks or other synthesized instruments and with a modern Digital Audio Workstation, you can create synthesized tracks and record tracks of conventional instruments alongside them. A DAW is what is often used nowadays to create whole soundtracks for television shows or motion pictures.
That is about all I can say about sequencers because I confess that I have never used one though now that I am working on an iMac, I may fool around with GarageBand, Apple's proprietary digital audio workstation to see how it works.
What I have used for the last twenty years is music software categorized as scorewriter software. Though there is more and more overlap between this kind of software and sequencers, they have a different emphasis. Scorewriter software uses conventional music notation which is only one option with a sequencer. Typically you can input notes into a scorewriter program either with a computer keyboard or mouse or with a MIDI keyboard.
There are two wonderful things about scorewriter, or as I prefer to call it, music notation software: first of all, after you have entered a score it is up to the standards of a professional engraved publication. Yes, it's true, way back in prehistoric times, that is, before the 1980s, musical scores were physically scratched on copper plates in order to be printed, though this was being quickly replaced by professional copyists who worked with ink on paper which was then photographically reproduced. Music software changed all that. My first book, a technical manual for guitarists, was full of musical scores and examples, all created by me in a program called Encore that is now largely fallen out of use. I would create a score then turn it into a graphic version and insert it into the book. I actually used three different programs: Encore for the music, Word for the text, and Pagemaker for the layout. I did all this on a Mac Plus with a 9 1/2 inch black and white screen, four megabytes of RAM and a 20 megabyte external hard drive (as the Mac Plus did not actually have an internal hard drive)! Scrolling was an amazingly slow process!! I am writing this post on an iMac with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 1 terabyte hard drive!
Oh, I also used some graphic software for little things like drawings of fingernails and a little graphic of a guitar, but I don't remember what program I used. Here is a page from that book:
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Pretty good for being created on a Mac Plus! I also did another book of Bach transcriptions, but that was on a newer Mac. Encore was a useful program, easy to use and it came with symbols for the strings of the guitar, which was handy. It also had an unfortunate propensity to crash whenever certain symbols, such as the arpeggio sign, were used. Oh, and by 'crash' I mean crash the whole computer, not just the program.
In 1997 I bought my first version of Finale, a very full-featured professional notation program. It had the amazing ability to play back whatever score you put into the computer. I have upgraded a couple of times since then as the program improved and became a little more user-friendly, that is to say, intuitive. Early versions of Finale had a very steep learning curve and doing the simplest things were often very complicated. I have just been writing a piece for orchestra on Finale. Here is the first page:
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What you are seeing is a very clean, professional score, with all the little markings needed for a performance. Once you understand the program it is very easy to input. What is really amazing is that Finale understands the notation as sound, not just as visual symbols. In other words, where it says trumpet or flute or cello, Finale will play back those lines with the synthesized sound of the correct instrument. It even does the loud and soft dynamics and things like staccato or accented notes. What it doesn't do is rubato, but you can't have everything. When Finale plays back this piece of orchestral music, it sounds quite good, considering.
Music software like this takes away the need to play compositions through on the keyboard, which is very good news for me as I always resisted learning the piano because it made my hands feel bad. The only downside with these programs is that you can't sketch in them. You have to write everything in precise notation. Sometimes you just want to sketch out some hazy ideas, only clarifying them later. Can't do that with music software. So for that, you have to go back to pencil on paper...
Let's end with an overture for orchestra. Here is The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture by Felix Mendelssohn: