Free & Open Source Software (or FOSS for short) is software that allows the user the freedom to analyse and modify its code.
There are all kinds of different FOSS programs and apps out there, from web browsers to office suites, editors to full blown operating systems! Of course, there is also loads of great software for musicians out there too.
For this list I have only compiled software that is cross platform (with the exception of the first entry). Everything on this list can be installed and run on at least Windows and Linux (with only one entry having dropped support for macOS).
Whilst there is far more great music (and musician helping) FOSS software out there than I could list, what I have listed here are some of my favourites that I use myself.
Type: Operating System
Based on: GNU/Linux
Similar to: Windows or macOS
Does putting an entire operating system in here count as cheating? Ubuntu Studio is a distribution of GNU/Linux designed specifically for Musicians and other artists. It is based on Ubuntu (which is based on Debian) and has loads of musical and artistic software preinstalled.
So, what makes Ubuntu Studio different from other operating systems? Is it the same as Ubuntu with extra software preinstalled? Why would this help a musician?
Well Ubuntu Studio comes preconfigured for audio work. For example, it uses the low latency version of the Linux Kernel. Latency is the enemy of any recording musician, it is the delay heard between a recording device (like an audio interface, or midi keyboard) and your computer. Anywhere you find audio latency you must eliminate it, Ubuntu Studio’s kernel being low latency gives the user an advantage in tackling this. It uses the lightweight Xfce as its desktop environment which allows you to focus your computers resources more on music software, and less on your desktop environment. As mentioned before it also comes with loads of audio production (as well as graphic design, video editing, 3D rendering, publishing etc) software preinstalled.
- Low Latency Linux Kernel.
- Ubuntu/Debian based.
- Full music suite preinstalled.
- Other useful software preinstalled.
- Will not have/has limited access to more popular music programs, such as Pro Tools or Sibelius.
- No LTS (Long Term Support) releases currently.
Also consider: KXStudio or AV Linux.
Type: Notation Software
Similar to: Sibelius or Finale
It is in part through written notation that music from hundreds of years ago is still played today. Music notation is one of the most important parts of playing and composing music, and with music notation software anyone is able to compose, arrange or edit written music on their computer.
MuseScore is a fantastic piece of notation software, perfect for composing, arranging and reading music. It has very similar functionality to programs such as; Sibelius, but in a FOSS format. So, if you are familiar with programs such as Sibelius or Finale, or you have been considering getting a copy of either, have a look at MuseScore first, you might just like what you see.
Further to MuseScore’s functionality it also has a strong community of composers and arrangers who post their work to MuseScore’s website for others to download, play and edit.
- Powerful notation software with a lot of instruments to write for.
- Compatible with lots of (but not all) notation formats.
- Access to lots of scores from their website.
- Can export to PDF.
- Not compatible with 100% of all formats.
- Not as widely adopted as programs like Sibelius.
Also consider: TuxGuitar (Even though that’s more guitar orientated. It’s more like a FOSS version of Guitar Pro).
Similar to: Pro Tools or Logic Pro
As mentioned earlier written music has been one of the most important parts of musical tradition for the past few hundred years. However, in the past century music recordings have taken over, and have become the standard in which most music is produced, sold and consumed.
For this reason, to most musicians a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is one of the (if not THE) most important piece of software they can own. It is the software that allows you to record what you play so that it can be saved, shared and sold.
Much like its contemporaries, Ardour is a powerful DAW that includes all of the features the modern recording artist has come to expect. This includes; the ability to record, edit, mix and master audio. Compatibility with multiple audio interfaces, and file formats. Ardour also has access to useful plugins, the ability to work on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and it does its best to adhere to popular music industry standards. Ardour features a video timeline, similar to Pro Tools. In short Ardour is a fully professional grade DAW.
Ardour does have one minor caveat that the other entries on this list lacks; Ardour costs money. Ardour can be downloaded and used for free, however, the audio will go silent after 10 minutes. To enable its full feature set you must pay (it can be as little as $1). This grants you full access to Ardour and you will also receive minor updates. Major updates cost more, or if you paid $45+ in the first place you will have access to the next major update. Ardour also features a subscription system if that is more your thing. Although for the most part in FOSS we have become accustomed to getting our software free of charge, it is not at all unreasonable to charge money for one’s hard work. When compared to other DAW’s such as Pro Tools or Logic Pro, Ardour is very cheap and affordable.
- Powerful DAW.
- Built in audio latency tester.
- Compatibility with a vast array of hardware and audio interfaces.
- Not as widely adopted as other DAW’s, such as Pro Tools or Logic Pro.
- The price can put some people off, but when compared to the cost of other DAW’s Ardour is rather cheap.
Also consider: LMMS.
Similar to: Cubase
We have all probably used Audacity before and been quite underwhelmed by it too. Well Audacity is far better than you think and used correctly it can work wonders, maybe it’s time to give it a second look.
Audacity is a far simpler DAW than Ardour. This can be both a blessing and a curse; for intense workloads it would make more sense to opt for something more powerful. On the other hand, it is a blessing in its simplicity for the user, and also in how it can be run on even very weak hardware.
For more serious work I would recommend Ardour, that said Audacity is perfect for when you need to quickly record something in a pinch. It also works well for contingency recording. If you were to record a screen capture for example, a lot of people who use programs such as OBS will record their voice on Audacity as well, just in case OBS fails to record the audio properly.
I personally use Audacity if I need to edit up some simple audio (audio that doesn’t need mixing or mastering, just cutting and pasting), it is nice and light and allows me to do these quick edits with little headache. It is also the perfect tool for converting audio into different formats in case you are having difficulty with formats on other audio programs.
Audacity has access to a lot of plugins which make it far more usable than most people give it credit for. In fact, it is fantastic for vocal recording. For a full musical project, I would recommend something like Ardour instead, but for spoken vocal audio Audacity works wonders. It is also very useful for audio spectrum analysis.
Recent versions of Audacity have even had an updated user interface (UI). Audacity now looks slick and modern (before it looked like it was stuck in the year 1999), and even features a dark theme perfect for working at night, as a lot of us find ourselves doing.
- Great for recording when in a pinch.
- Can be run on very weak hardware.
- Audacity isn’t the most powerful DAW.
- I have occasionally had trouble with some audio interfaces and Audacity.
Also consider: Ardour or LMMS.
Type: Music Programing
Similar to: ?
Truth be told, I don’t personally use SuperCollider. I have almost no coding experience, and I prefer to write music using traditional notation, or by recording myself playing a physical instrument. However, SuperCollider was an integral part of the sister course to the course I studied at university, and the things I saw my fellow students accomplish with SuperCollider blew my mind.
SuperCollider allows the user to create music using code. If you are interested in making music but are currently unable to play an instrument but can write computer code then you should be able to begin right away on SuperCollider.
SuperCollider requires the user to learn its own programming language called; sclang. However, sclang shares commonality with other programming languages, which if you are familiar with, should make learning sclang far easier. SuperCollider also uses plugins and can use cross platform graphical user interfaces (GUI’s).
Not only is music on SuperCollider composed as pieces of music to be distributed and sold, but also as live music. Just as electronic musicians produce their music live to an audience so to do SuperCollider users who live code their music to audiences.
- Turn your coding ability into music.
- Can be used as both a studio tool as well as a live one.
- Requires the ability to know how to code (obviously not a con if you know how to).
- Uses its own programming language which you will have to learn (although it is similar to others).
Also consider: Pure Data or Overtone.
Type: Music Player/Library Manager
Similar to: iTunes or foobar2000
Clementine is a fantastic music player. Personally, it is my pick to be my next music player for if (or more likely when) Apple stops support for iTunes (or at least makes it streaming only). It is a fork (FOSS term for a piece of software based upon another) of Amarok which is another great FOSS music player.
Clementine allows you to store, play and edit your music collection. It allows you to play music from local storage (your hard drive or SSD), from cloud storage (including Dropbox and Google Drive), and from internet services (such as Soundcloud). It can also be used to listen to internet radio and podcasts.
The implementation of internet services doesn’t end there, using metadata Clementine can get song information, lyrics and album covers from the internet. If you are curious about the artist or album you are listening to, Clementine can also show you a biography of the artist.
Clementine can also work as a drop-in replacement for iTunes due to its compatibility with iPods and iPhones. The compatibility continues on the hardware side with support for other mp3 devices, and on the software side with support for a plethora of file formats. It even comes with an Android app that turns your phone into a remote to control Clementine, or you can even use a Wii Remote!
Clementine is an all-round fantastic music player, if you are familiar with iTunes then you will be happy to know that Clementine can do everything iTunes can and more, you can even customise it. Nothing is perfect however; Clementine’s one weak point is its development. Its last stable update 1.3.1 came out in April 2016, however, if you look on Clementine’s GitHub page you will be glad to see that there is still work being done to it.
- Music can be played from multiple sources.
- iPod/iPhone compatible.
- Very slow development.
- The default config might not be to everyone’s tastes (but it is easily changeable).
Also consider: Amarok.
Type: Non-Liniar Video Editor
Platform: Windows/Linux/BSD (macOS version no longer supported as of time of writing)
Similar to: Adobe Premier or Vegas Pro
Being a modern musician means more than just playing, composing and recording music. You have to put yourself out there for people to see, one way is through video, and every video project needs a powerful video editor, enter; Kdenlive.
Kdenlive is an incredibly powerful video editing tool from Kde, it can go toe to toe with the likes of Adobe Premier or Vegas Pro. I have recently adopted it as my main video editor for my music YouTube channel (that’s youtube.com/adamthomasmusic by the way), and after getting used to it I have come to love it. It allows me to create everything I see in my head when I begin making a video, other video editors have failed me in this regard.
Kdenlive is chock full of effects, transitions and filters. Being a non-linear video editor, it is easy to splice together multiple pieces of video footage or audio and have them interact with each other however you see fit. It is highly compatible with different media formats for video, pictures and audio, however, it is a little less expansive with the formats it renders to. Don’t get me wrong, it does a great job in rendering to useful formats, but sometimes it falls short, more so on the Windows side of things. That brings us on to the main negative of Kdenlive: It can be a bit buggy, and with the Windows version still being developed it is more so here.
That said, I trust Kdenlive as my number one video editor, and with each release it gets better and better.
- Incredibly powerful video editor.
- Can do pretty much everything Premier can, but it’s free.
- Sometimes crashes.
- Windows version can be buggy.
- macOS version no longer supported.
Also consider: OpenShot.
Type: Image Manipulation Program
Similar to: Adobe Photoshop
Just as with Kdenlive, the modern musician must become a Jack of all trades, and one trade that is worth its weight in gold is image manipulation.
GIMP stands for the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is basically Adobe Photoshop but free (in both definitions). I personally use GIMP to create thumbnails and other graphics for both my YouTube videos and my website.
It can be utilised by a musician for many different tasks, including (but not limited to); album artwork, logo creation (although I would pair that with a vector graphics editor such as Inkscape) and creating promotional material such as posters and flyers. Then there are the less obvious things, such as my aforementioned video thumbnails, or making that photo of your band look even better than it did before.
Simply put, music and visual art go hand in hand, GIMP gives you great access to that.
- Can do pretty much anything Photoshop can, but it’s free.
- Lots of information and tutorials online to help.
- Can be a bit difficult to use sometimes.
- Not as widely adopted as Photoshop.
Also consider: Inkscape.
Type: Blog/Website Maker
Similar to: Blogger
We have covered creating visual media to go alongside and to promote yourself as a musician, but of course still one of the most important things for getting yourself out there as a modern musician is to have your own website.
Now this is an interesting one; as I am currently writing this article on, and indeed this website is hosted by WordPress. Well there is a reason for that.
I find WordPress to be a great tool for creating a website (or a blog if that is more your cup of tea). You can use it (in a limited capacity) for free, upload a lot of useful media (like pictures), and easily manage your website and posts. Then of course there is the paid option which opens up the full version of WordPress to you.
The reason specifically I am recommending WordPress on my list (other than the fact that I use it myself) and a good reason why I use it; is that it is FOSS, it uses the GPL (the GNU General Public Licence).
- Allows you to create a free website.
- Great desktop and mobile clients.
- I have found the browser version to be a bit buggy, the client is much better though.
- A lot of features exist behind a pay wall. However, this is commonplace for creating a website, a lot can still be done quite easily using the free model.
Also consider: Drupal.
GNU, Linux and Others
Open Source Initiative: https://opensource.org/
Linux Foundation: https://www.linuxfoundation.org/
Despite what operating system you might run, it is because of GNU and Linux (as well as many other projects and software communities) that we have most of this Free and Open Source Software available to us today. If you have found any Free and Open Source Software useful, then you should definitely consider contributing to any of these projects.
There are many ways to contribute. These include; donating money to the projects, which can be done through direct donation or though purchasing merchandise (some of the money I paid for the Ubuntu Studio T-shirt you can see me in at the top of the article with has gone to the project). Not all contributions have to be financial however, if you are good at coding you can jump right in and help with the actual development of FOSS software! If you are good at creating graphics or artwork then you can also get involved. Through creating this article (as well as others) I am doing my part by helping to promote FOSS.
I believe that Free and Open Source Software can only be a benefit to musicians and going into the future it will continue to help all musicians.