Music · Typeset

Why I Love LilyPond: Freedom

“I really need Microsoft Office, because this free office suite is too buggy. I need technology that I am more familiar with.”

This is the gimmick that a lot of people have bought into when it comes to software. Too often I come in contact with a colleague or person who becries the open-source software I have recommended to them. I tell them “You can use this software to do all the things you did before with a piece of software you would have to pay for.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people are convinced that the software they use works better when it is paid for. This is called “expectation bias” and a form of cognitive dissonance. When you use something you pay for or already have a predisposition to believe is better, you automatically think it is better.

But, this does not compare to what actually occurs. The truth is that all programs (especially the commercial ones) have bugs, have issues, and need development to make them succeed.

So how does this relate to freedom?

Freedom, as in free beer

This expression is more closely related to the nature of the product. If you go to a bar, and the waiter says, “the guy over there wants to say that all beer tonight is on his tab,” you are grateful, and you drink.

The problem with commercial software is that you are investing in a license that only grants you limited use of that software. There are lots of people who believe that once you pay for it, you own the program outright. This is the unfortunate “devil in the details” problem that everyone comes in contact with when they agree to a license agreement. The truth is that when you buy proprietary software, you buy a single (or otherwise noted) license which gives you use of the product. If the company dies, gets bought out (Avid), goes “missing” (SCORE), or otherwise doesn’t respond quickly to fatal troubleshooting problems, the end user is out of luck.

So, Microsoft Office Suite, a $300 piece of software, allows you to buy its use under several conditions: Don’t modify the program (or hack it), don’t sell it to other people as your own (copyright), and don’t make copies of your license and give to others (or pirate). That’s all you have in your “investment.” This doesn’t entitle you to any updates, any support, or any ability to keep the program if the company tanks.

That’s not very nice, but very necessary if the only thing you know how to use is a proprietary program. Lots of graphic designers and high-level typography folks use Adobe products, all of which is highly proprietary and expensive (such is life…usually).

For LilyPond there’s no end-user restriction, no licensing, no protections (except against users trying to sell it), and you get it and use it for free. This isn’t your typical “free,” but a genuine forever free. You have complete and total control over the program, access to its documentation, free access to its development and support. All for free.

Free as in unencumbered

What exactly does it mean to have a utility with which you have no burden or impediment? What does it mean to have total freedom over how and when you use it?

To me, I have never had restrictions placed on using a hammer to drive nails into a board. When I go to the store, buy a hammer, the checkout manager doesn’t set privileges or exclusions, saying things like, “Now, when you leave this store you are obligated to never use this hammer in ways which violate the terms of service and usage agreement written on the contents,” to only find out I’m only allowed to drive nails into wood and extract them, for one year, after which I’m to send the hammer back to the manufacturer to get a new one that updates the version of the current model. Don’t forget that the hammer was really expensive.

What if I want to use the hammer longer than a year? Is the manufacturer saying there are defects within it? Should I be worried that the design might fail me at some point, or that it may limit me from using it with some other task (i.e. If I want to use it for driving nails into metal? What if I want to service the hammer if it breaks? What if I want to dismantle it and put it to use in some other way? Would I be breaking my rights to use that hammer as I see fit?

This farce is utterly incomprehensible, but yet in the digital age of copyright and intellectual property, we see nothing other than its equivalent with software. How is it that a piece of software can elicit such a following, praising its utility, but require its users to submit to its content agreement (either joyfully or not)?

With LilyPond, it is totally unecumbered, you can use the hammer… er, I mean software has you would like to use it. Its design being constantly updated, there is always fresh appeal version to version, but it doesn’t cost you anything. It may come with no warranty, but there is an implicit warranty in each version that the developers and contributors will always promise to make the newest version better than the oldest.

You can incorporate it in your own applications as you see fit, or you can use it “vanilla,” accomplishing whatever you would like. It is unencumbered.

Free as in freedom of knowledge

It is plain, to run with the previous illustration, that there is transparency in how the hammer is built, and it is easy to compare with the next one, for good measure that the particular hammer you would like to buy is what you want it to be.

So, it would be equally infuriating to have a massive black sleeve over the hammer handle and over most of the hammer head and a disclaimer on the sleeve saying you aren’t allowed to look underneath or break through the cover, and that its okay, “because you can trust our history and ability.”

Really? Yet, this is what millions of users around the world do every day on their computers.

I’m not arguing that every person should be interested in how the hammer is made, and that they shouldn’t use the proprietary “black sleeve hammer” if they didn’t want to, but this problem should beg the question and leave it lingering in the back of the user’s mind: “What is so special about this hammer that I shouldn’t see what is behind it?”

With any program that vets in an open-source market, most people are interested in the peace of mind that they have the freedom to tweak, tune, and investigate what makes the program “tick.” LilyPond is no exception. You may have the peace of mind you would like to use it, without violating any terms of service that might affect how you investigate how it works.


LilyPond, as the direct result of its freedom in the information marketplace, has a unique place (along with other open-source software) in the digital age. It provides means for the user to specialize its use without asking any questions. This directly corresponds to its application, and the freedom with which the user can have to delegate its usage to any extraordinary or strange implementation.

Need to hammer a nail into drywall? Don’t worry, it’s a hammer. You can do that just fine. Need to jostle a can of jelly that’s been stuck? Go for it.

The infinite possibilities of LilyPond’s application and freedom from within gives the user total and undeniable freedom to specialize with it.


There is a whole section in the LilyPond manuals that gives the user the tools to affect and modify the internal workings of the program. Urs Liska, a major contributor and engraver, had once revealed that in his award-winning project to compile Oskar Fried’s Lieder into one volume (using LilyPond), he had used a highly customized and self-compiled version of LilyPond, one that was not released publicly but that he, in effect, changed for his project. That’s it! This is what LilyPond was built for; to give the user the freedom to do whatever they may seem fit for the task and create beautiful music.


What should be plain to see is that I love LilyPond because of its multi-dimensional approach to freedom. It’s free to use; It’s free to enjoy; It’s free to modify, customize, and understand. It is, in my book, a tool which has no gimmicks, no fluff, no desire to pinch the user. It is this reason among others that I love it that much more.

4 thoughts on “Why I Love LilyPond: Freedom

  1. Thank you for your nice article!

    There’s but one part I’d like to correct:

    > “no protections (except against users trying to sell it)”

    There aren’t even protections against selling lilypond. You can do that, if you wish. The only restrictions in lilypond are restrictions against adding restrictions (be them legal or practical). If you propagate lilypond, you have to give all those who receive it the same freedoms you enjoyed yourself.


    1. I see! I haven’t thought of it like that. I assumed that the protections it ensured also covered it’s “free-ness” as well. Thanks for the clarification!


  2. You can sell copies of lilypond, that is true. You will find few buyers though, since they can get lilypond for free just like you did. And if someone buys lilypond from you, you can not prevent them from making extra copies for their friends. Which is why businesses are a bit hesitant.

    Generally, sale of free software happens when the seller takes money for making it easier. After all, not all people are capable of installing software on their own. Redhat is famous for selling linux servers – even though linux is available for free. But the buyer get a system ready to go, and an included support period. Not all customers can set up linux without help; the support deal is useful to them.

    I don’t know if there is a market, but is is certainly legal to sell lilypond the same way. Such as selling PCs with lilypond preloaded, or making an install program that sets up everything without any user intervention. Possibly with extra documentation/tutorials, 90 days of phone support or similiar.


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