GIMP: The Photoshop Alternative to Manipulate Sheet Music?

by | Jan 24, 2018

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a free and open-source photo editing software that is compatible with almost all operating systems, such as GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows.

In the program’s creators own words, “GIMP aims at creating a high-end image manipulation application that is free to use”.

So the question is, can music librarians really use this free image editor as an alternative to the costly Photoshop software (please read our review here)?

We turned to our graphic designer, Chloé Wartowski, Photoshop expert, to understand whether GIMP really does the job.

1) Importing the Scores

After importing my scanned PDF score, I quickly realized that in cases where the PDF is not high quality, GIMP does not treat pixels as well as Photoshop does (see image below).

Import scores GIMP Photoshop comparison

400% zoom-in to the same piece in GIMP (left)
and Photoshop (right)

However, when the scanned piece is more than 600 DPI or when the PDF is generated directly from a notation software, GIMP offers similar results to Photoshop.

My first recommendation would therefore be to use GIMP only when the original file is in good condition and doesn’t require to be enhanced.

Next, let’s have a look at the main features offered by GIMP that are useful when preparing music scores.

2) Rotate

The Rotate basically works the same way as in Photoshop. You can rotate the page by installments of 90°.

GIMP also offers users to make a smaller rotation by converting the file into grayscale, thereby adding more data to the pixels. Users can then use a grid or a ruler to slightly rotate the file, or play with the corners of the page to manually rotate it.

GIMP rotate tool

3) Crop & Resize

The Crop tool is easy to use and very accurate. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the Automatic Crop option, which automatically crops the page by selecting and removing the largest possible area according to pixel color. You can then easily resize the file.

GIMP crop tool

Lastly, you can also add white margins to the file.

GIMP margins tool

4) Move Elements

The Select tool allows users to select an area and move or duplicate elements. You can also use the Magic Wand tool for a more accurate selection.

GIMP select tool move duplicate elements

5) Edit Symbols

It is also possible to edit the shape of an existing symbol. That said, the method is rather counter-intuitive and yields inaccurate results. For example, to reduce the size of a symbol you’ll have to increase the square area.

GIMP tool edit symbols

6) Erase Markings

As with Photoshop, you can either use the Eraser tool or the Select tool to select and cut a specific area.

7) Align Symbols

Since GIMP works with layers, it also offers the option to create and then align two different objects.

Align symbols GIMP tool

Basically, GIMP offers all the useful features for music preparation that are found in Photoshop. As a graphic designer, I was quite frustrated by the quality of pixel treatment, especially when compared to the high quality offered by Photoshop. That said, if the original score has a good resolution, the difference in pixel quality between both software is barely visible to the human eye.

I also want to emphasize that I found GIMP to be a bit laggy (slow, in other words) and not as powerful as Photoshop when used on my Mac. That is because GIMP was originally designed for Linux-based systems, and therefore works at its best when operated on Linux.

I found that GIMP’s main drawback was that it did not allow me to record multiple actions (you can install an extra plug-in, although it is neither convenient nor easy to use). Whereas you can crop, straighten and center one page in Photoshop with one single click, the process is much longer in GIMP.

To conclude, I believe that GIMP is an extremely helpful software if you need powerful tools for image editing purposes on an occasional basis. It’s free, takes up very little space on your computer (25MB) and offers all the necessary editing and processing tools, including edits that Acrobat and other regular PDF editors do not offer. However, users who extensively edit and process images on a daily basis should consider using Photoshop.