All About Digital Music Formats

by | Dec 20, 2017

There are so many different music formats out there: from notation to exchange and graphic, it can be difficult to determine which format is best and for what purpose.

Therefore, we have collectively gathered a list of the main formats and invite you to come and share our knowledge and expertise.

I) Notation Software Formats

Each notation software has its own native format that can only be opened in that same software. Below is a list of leading computer software for music notation:

If Sibelius and Finale are the most established notation software on the market right now, Dorico is the exciting new kid on the block. Launched in 2016 and crafted by the original team behind the development of Sibelius, Dorico is owned by Steinberg Media Technologies. Dorico has an incredibly comprehensive and elaborate software with a great potential to dominate the market in the coming years.

Musescore is a free notation software and online community where musicians can share their creations.

Recently, promising iOS notation apps such as Symphony Pro and MusicJot have started to appear on the market. They still can’t compete with computer software but are a good solution for musicians looking for a mobile solution.

All of these native formats either export the composition as exchange formats such as MusicXML or graphic formats such as PDF or images.

II) Exchange Formats

To create a bridge between all these notation software/apps, universal formats were created:

  • MusicXML (Music Extensible Markup Language) – .xml / .musicxml

The Music Extensible Markup Language is the recommended format for sharing sheet music between different software. It is read and write supported in more than 230 software/apps.

  • Compressed MusicXML – .mxml.

Creates smaller files than the regular MusicXML. This is a newer standard and isn’t as widely supported by older score writers.

  • MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) – .mid / .midi / .kar

The MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) format is compatible with virtually any sequencer, notation software, but is also used to control hardware instruments (especially synthesizers).

MIDI does not contain any audio information, but rather transmits data (pitch, velocity, note length, etc …) about how a specific sequence should be interpreted by the receiving software/instrument. The MIDI file is then interpreted by the audio rendering engine of the software/instrument, so the results might differ depending on the quality of the audio engine of the software you are using, as well as its specific sets of rules regarding display and pagination for instance.

Although LilyPond and MEI are also considered as universal formats, they are not compatible with the main notation software; therefore, we did not take them into account.

III) Graphic Formats

PDF (Portable Document Format)

We highly recommend using PDF (Portable Document Format) for viewing, distributing and printing sheet music scores and parts.

Here’s why:

  • PDF is the only graphic format that can contain multiple pages.
  • It integrates various types of content — text, images and vector graphics.
  • It displays the exact same content and layout no matter which operating system, device or software application it is viewed on.
  • Most users have a PDF viewer on their computer/mobile device, so extra software won’t be required to open it. Some of the PDF viewers generally found on most computer are: Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, Preview, Adobe Reader, Evince and Microsoft Reader.
  • PDF can easily be edited with PDF editors such as Adobe Acrobat Pro.

However, despite all its advantages, PDF has one major flaw. Once a music score has been exported as a PDF, it can’t be re-imported into a notation software for deep editing.

Development of optical music recognition (OMR) techniques aim to bridge that gap and make PDF editable, but when it comes to complex systems the results are far from perfect.

PDF Exported From A Notation Software:
If the sheet music is extracted from a notation software it will contain all the elements as vectorial drawings (staves) + music characters (music symbols).

PDF export from Sibelius

PDF Generated From A Scan:
If the sheet music is scanned, the generated PDF will be displayed as one single image.

Scanned PDF

The two main differences between a scanned PDF and an exported PDF are:

  • The scanned version will blur and pixelate if enlarged, whereas the exported PDF is vector based. This means that users can zoom unlimitedly without losing quality.
  • The exported PDF is much lighter than the scanned version.


All other graphic formats are mainly used to export a graphic section/area within the score (a symbol, bar, system, page, etc.), similar to taking a screenshot or a picture. These formats don’t allow users to manage multiple pages.

The main ones are:

  • JPEG – .jpeg
    JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) applies lossy compression to images, which significantly reduces file size and quality. It’s important to keep in mind that the compression ratio can be adjusted allowing users to choose their desired quality level.
  • PNG – .png
    PNG Portable Network Graphics) is lossless. It uses surface recognition to compress images. In other words, a black square shape – which in reality consists of many dark pixels with different intensity values –will be encoded as a black square of set dimensions, without picking up on every single different pixel. As a result, the file size will be significantly smaller than JPEG.
  • TIFF – .Tiff
    Of all the graphic formats, TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) produces the largest and highest quality images, by preserving all their original characteristics. However a TIFF file sizes are very large and therefore more difficult to share.

Digital Music Format-Table

NOTATION SOFTWAREPreserves all the music information and score layout, and is editableN/A
MUSICXMLCan be shared from one software to another while preserving a maximum amount of information Doesn’t preserve the score layout
PDFEasy to view, distribute and print Doesn’t allow users to make hard edits of the score content
JPEGIdeal for photos & covers Loss of quality
PNGIdeal for monochrome pictures Less useful for photos & covers
TIFFGreat for Photoshop edition Files are too heavy to easily share and send