Tips for midi dumping into MuseScore

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I participate in a weekly music challenge where we alternate original composition and arrangement prompts. We need to submit both an audio render and sheet music for each prompt. Most people doing these challenges have traditional music training of some kind and often will compose directly in sheet music software like MuseScore.

I do not; I compose directly in my DAW, Ableton Live. This presents a bit of a challenge when I make my scores, so over the last year I’ve developed some techniques for creating scores in MuseScore from midi dumps. This should theoretically work with any DAW that allows you to export your individual tracks as midi files.

My process:

  1. Simplify song in a duplicate project file
  2. Import midi into MuseScore
  3. Convert drum parts
  4. Create a new score
  5. Format score

Simplify song in a duplicate project file

The purpose of your duplicate file is to simplify your song for export. I do this in a separate file so I don’t mess anything up in my song. A separate file is also good because you only need to worry about the note data.

When simplifying your file, you’ll want to:

  • Delete any unnecessary plugins so your file loads faster.
  • Quantize all of your tracks, especially if you played your parts directly into your tracks. MuseScore hates anything that isn’t perfectly quantized and will spit out some pretty terrible clusters of notes and rests otherwise.
  • MuseScore also doesn’t like it when notes overlap in the same part. If you have things like notes leading into other notes for pitch bending, either get rid of those or shorten them so there’s no overlap. You’ll notate the pitch bend directly in your score.
    • Note: if your specific track does need overlapping notes, you’ll need to do a lot of manual cleanup in MuseScore — sometimes that means just changing some voices, sometimes that means rewriting some sections. It’s painful, but I haven’t found a way around this yet. For example, see this before (top) and after (bottom):
  • Delete extra tracks, like duplicated pads, sound effects just there for ear candy, and anything that shouldn’t make it into your final score.
  • Finally, export each track as its own midi file.

Import midi into MuseScore

I have midi files set to open up in MuseScore on my computer by default, so I’ll usually just batch open all of my tracks and there they are, all lined up in MuseScore. I’ll do additional cleanup in MuseScore itself. Don’t worry if your tracks aren’t assigned to the correct instruments yet, we’ll deal with that later.

When you open up a midi file in MuseScore, a panel should be docked on the bottom of your screen with some settings:

I almost always uncheck “Clef changes.” And, if your instrument doesn’t use multiple staves, make sure “split staff” is unchecked. Depending on the instrument, I might also uncheck “show staccato.”

If your song is swung, use the “detect swing” dropdown so MuseScore knows how to handle your notes.

I’ll usually do a first round of cleanup in these individual midi files. It makes it easier to see the part I’m working on. If I need to pause and come back to it later, I’ll save the file as an .mcsz within my project folder, which is MuseScore’s native file format.

Some things I’ll look for when cleaning up my tracks:

  • Weird rhythmic translations; I don’t necessarily think in subdivisions when composing, which puts me at a disadvantage when making my score. I’ll go through and reassign the kind of note to make it read better, especially if I have a pause that’s not necessary, but just an artifact of how I was writing in my DAW.
  • If the rhythm is messed up enough, I’ll go back to my duplicated Live project and fuss with the note lengths to make sure everything is sixteenth, quarter, half, or whole, then re-export my midi file. I get in trouble a lot by making notes three beats long and then I end up with a million dotted notes and sometimes weird rests and it just gets messy.
  • Clean up or change voices, as needed.

Convert drum parts

If you have a drum part, RIP 🙏 💀 (jk jk). But this does get its own section because it is the most complicated issue I run into almost every week (since as a drummer, I like drums).

As far as I can tell, Live has no way of exporting drums to the correct midi channel that indicates to MuseScore that hello, yes, this is a drum part. So you’ll open up your drum midi and it’ll probably look something like this:

i-want-to-die.jpg

Yeah so that’s not very helpful.

You’ll want to do at least two things first: uncheck the “Split staff” option in the midi import panel (and optionally uncheck “Show staccato”) and click apply. Then, open up Mixer (F10) and check “Drumset.”

Now your score looks like this:

okay-i-can-work-with-this.jpg

Significantly more tolerable.

After this, I usually copy the whole piece, press “i” to pull up instruments, and search for the drumset instrument under “Percussion – Unpitched.” Then I’ll get rid of the piano from my instruments list, and paste my drums into the new drumset staff(this just makes all the future drum formatting a little less weird, and you’ll eventually be pasting it into a drumset staff anyway).

The next task is figuring out what pieces of the kit are actually playing. I’ve found some VSTs assign different parts of the the kit to different notes, so I spend a lot of time flipping back and forth between my project file and my score to match up the parts. In this case, despite what the score is telling me, the first four bars are playing kick (correct) and cross-stick (incorrect), with a two-tom fill (incorrect) at the end. The next section has a kick (correct), cross-stick (still incorrect) and now some closed hi-hats (incorrect).

This is where a lot of tedious work comes in. I’ll select each note for a particular drum kit piece, then press up/down on my keyboard until it’s assigned to the correct placement on the score. MuseScore will play the sound associated with each note so you can do it pretty much by ear, and if you’re not a drummer and struggle with any of the sounds, you can click an individual note head and the drum name will appear on the bottom of the UI:

You might have to do this for almost every note in your drum staff and yes, it sucks.

Unless I’m doing something really simple with just a bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and occasional crash, I’ll also split my drum part into two voicings: one voice for foot parts (bass, hi-hat pedal) and one for hands. This is also a pain and takes a lot of manual work. As you split your staff into two voicings, you’ll also start getting a lot of extraneous rests. I guess it’s best practice to hide them all by selecting all of the rests (right click > select > all similar elements in same staff) and pressing “v,” but that still shows them grayed out while I’m editing my score. I find that annoying, so I just delete them.

You might find yourself with some sharp or flat accidentals still hanging around from your initial import; I select the entire staff (cmd/ctrl + a), then tap up on my keyboard, then down (to bring all the notes back into place) and it gets rid of all the accidentals.

My final output looks something like this:

Create a new score

Use MuseScore’s setup wizard when creating your score, instead of the blank file that appears when you first open the software. The wizard lets you choose specific instruments to add to your score, puts them in mostly the agreed-upon correct orchestral score order (according to my servermates), and pick the key, time signature, and tempo for your piece.

Once your score is set up, it’s pretty easy just to copy and paste your individual tracks into their respective instruments. If I forgot one or need to add/remove staves, pressing “i” will bring the instruments menu back up.

I’ll do any remaining cleanup I didn’t do in my individual midi files and then move to formatting.

Format score

As someone with no classical training, I know very little about writing good sheet music. Everything I know I’ve picked up because of these weekly challenges, whether that’s asking other folks on the server, or asking my music teacher about specific items. Here are some common tasks I do once all of my parts are in place, using the palette menu (F9):

  • Adding any missing braces to instruments that share staves, and brackets to group sections (like strings)
  • Barlines and rehearsal marks (under “text“) to denote sections
  • Lines like slurs and hairpins, dynamic markings for volume, and articulations (like accents) to direct players on how I want the piece played
  • 8va/8vb for any sections where an instrument goes really high or low, in comparison to other sections. This just means “this part is played an octave higher/lower.”
  • Breaks & spacers to shift my sections around so nothing gets weirdly cut off or to prevent a new section from starting on the last bar of a page. 4 bars per line (or other powers of two) are generally the recommendation, and you might need to add breaks to make that work.

I have not yet graduated to being comfortable using things like repeats and voltas because I am a coward and there’s a whole lot more I’m still missing (like piano sustain pedals; how do they work?) but these tips have been enough to keep me in the 3/5 range for my score ratings each week which is at least like, a passing grade by American standards.

After that, I’ll make page style adjustments like flipping to landscape or changing the page size to fit the number of instruments and staves in my score. It’s not like anyone is actually going to print these, they’re just for practice and for show, so I can crop them however fits the piece best. I might also fiddle with staff spacing depending upon how loose or cramped my score is.

Finally, I’ll export to pdf, and boom, done! One score, ready to be uploaded to my weekly prompt.

Hope this helps anyone else looking to make sheet music from midi in MuseScore!

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