Tag: Finale

To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade? A Notation Software Update

There have been big changes in the notation software market in recent years, and a lot of people are confused about what is going on and what the future might hold. Sibelius is dead, and Finale has been sold off? No more updates? Where did I put my old electric eraser and Pelican pens? As a professional engraver, I use this software 12 hours a day and am deeply invested in the state of things.

In April, Avid released a new version of Sibelius, loosely called Sibelius 8 although they are shying away from version numbers now. This is the first major upgrade of Sibelius with no new engraving features.

Yes, that is correct. No new engraving features. But if you use a computer that has a touch screen, you can now use a digital pen to annotate and mark up a score, in the same way you’d use a pen/pencil to mark up a printed copy.

Sibelius 8 touch screen

Some of the common tablet/smartphone gestures will work on touch screens, you can navigate with the pen, and do rudimentary editing.

Despite this dearth of overall improvements, Avid has decided to maximize their income stream, so this new version starts a draconian licensing program where you pay a lot more for constant upgrades that may be of little use to those of us who focus on notation. Or you can purchase a perpetual license, but you must still pay a fee every year to continue receiving updates.

  • Just want to know if you should upgrade? Feel free to skip ahead.


Notation software has changed our industry in countless ways. It eliminated some methods of music typography (e.g. the Music Typewriter and the Korean “Stamping” method). It has lowered the cost of music preparation and eased the ability to make changes to existing materials, provided professional tools to novices, and lowered the total fees paid for commissions which also typically included additional remuneration for copying costs since composers took over some of the tasks of materials preparation. This last item has often resulted in composers doing more of the work while being paid less.

However, I think we have grown a bit complacent and forgotten how fragile the software industry is. Professional music notation with computers came to prominence in the late ‘80s when SCORE was released and publishers found that it was well suited to many different types of music, plus it had a good system to create scores and extract parts. It also had excellent guitar tablature notation, which made it ideal for companies such as Hal Leonard. SCORE’s strength was that it found a way to divide all of the myriad notational elements and organize them into categories of items, which allowed for easy manipulation. It’s a primitive program with musical intelligence, and it’s primarily graphic based. If you have a 900-page score and insert a few bars at the beginning, there is no automatic update; you have to manually adjust things throughout, including page numbers, bar numbers, and layout. It was not particularly composer friendly, so it was mainly adopted by professional engravers and copyists. Some publishers used it in house—a few still do.

Score (version 3)

Score (version 3)

Shortly after that, Finale came along. It was slow and cumbersome, but it had a Mac and Windows version (SCORE only runs under DOS) and seemed more user friendly because it had a graphic interface with menus and tools to perform common tasks.

Finale 2014

Finale 2014

For many years, those two programs formed the basis for converting the industry to computerized typography. However, in 1998, twin brothers Ben and Jonathan Finn released a Windows version of their unique program called Sibelius. It was designed with the idea that we should have a “word processor” for music notation, which would also serve as a professional tool. They studied what SCORE and Finale did, improved on it, and talked to many professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of the industry. The paradigm they developed—a program that is easy enough that a novice can use it, yet structured in a way that a professional can come along later and improve the quality of the notation, the look, and the layout—is still its most compelling, powerful feature. Try doing the same operations in Finale or SCORE and the work hours double or triple.

Sibelius 7

Sibelius 7

Sales of Sibelius and Finale are strong, particularly in the education market, and generate enough revenue that the companies that own these products (Avid for Sibelius, and MakeMusic for Finale) can afford to continue development and add features, support existing users, and maintain the software. Yet there have been big changes in these two companies.

MakeMusic has been sold to Peaksware/LaunchEquity Partners, and they have moved from their longtime Minnesota location to Colorado. Many people who were intimately familiar with the software left the company because of the move.

Avid decided to close the primary London office where the Sibelius development team worked, and all of the long-time programmers who knew the code intimately were let go.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Add to that the fact that there have been two releases of Sibelius with only minor or non-existent feature changes (7.5 and “8”), and it surely makes you wonder about the future.

MakeMusic has finally ended its once-a-year Finale upgrade cycle (which was designed to generate revenue, not to benefit users). The latest version released is 2014, and while they have announced a free 2014.5 update, it only offers some bug fixes and minor improvements. It still suffers from an old-fashioned ’80s-era interface that is dependent on dozens of palettes, requires the continual clicking on tools to accomplish basic tasks, and lags far behind Sibelius in important features like collision avoidance.


There are new notation products on the market, but most of them focus on tablet computing (like StaffPad). There are free programs like MuseScore and a few others that might attract users with very limited budgets.

PreSonus’s NOTION considers itself music notation software, but I haven’t seen anything done in the program that I would consider at a professional level. These programs can be fun and have potential, but I can’t imagine they will be adequate for professional engraving/copying work.

One company that hopes to upset the marketplace is Steinberg, the German firm that manufactures Cubase and Nuendo. They took the bold step of hiring the Sibelius team in London, and set them to work creating a new notation program. There is a lot of potential here. They are led by a very knowledgeable musician, Daniel Spreadbury, who was the brilliant manager for Sibelius. And the team he’s working with has created a notation program before, so they know the pitfalls. Since they have to compete with two very entrenched programs with lots of momentum, they need to build something better. They have studied some of the subtle aspects of music engraving, talked to many professionals, and have tried to learn what most notation programs still get wrong. I could write a very long article about this last item; it’s an area of deep concern. For example, horizontal spacing is poorly understood and no program has ever done it as well as plate engravers did 100 years ago. Every music notation program handles lyrics incorrectly (in terms of spacing), and vertical spacing/justification is equally problematic. Steinberg is aware of these things, and you can read about the work they are doing on Daniel’s blog.

They have also created a new music font structure (SMuFL) and created a free font called Bravura, loosely based on the old Not-a-Set dry-transfer symbols, which were in turn based on Breitkopf and Hertel’s engraving tools. Dry-transfer symbols are mass produced on transparent plastic sheets so they can be applied to a music page by rubbing the back with a burnisher. It was a common technique for autography that was used before computer notation software became prevalent.

Engraving sample created with Not-a-Set

Engraving sample created with Not-a-Set

Engraving sample created with Bravura

Engraving sample created with Bravura


If you use Sibelius 7, I think that’s a good version to stick with for now. (That’s the version I use for most of my work.)

If you use Sibelius 7.5, that’s fine too. (This version added some small new features, but it also changed the file format, so it’s annoying to share files with people working in earlier versions.)

If you use Sibelius 6, that’s a little tougher call. It’s acceptable to work in, but there are some limitations and it’s now several versions back. I would recommend moving on from that version before long.

If you use any version prior to 6, I would recommend you upgrade to 7 or 7.5 before you get trapped in the version 8 licensing scheme. But act quickly, you’ll need to buy 7/7.5 from a retailer who has existing stock since Sibelius is no longer selling those versions.


Finale 2014d is pretty stable and it’s the version I tend to use for most projects. But opening old files in new versions of Finale can cause problems, or in some cases it won’t even work. Finale’s free NotePad is surprisingly the best choice for opening old Finale files and allows for simple editing.

If you use a version of Finale prior to ver. 2012, it’s time to upgrade.

Notation software is absolutely essential for virtually anyone who needs to write down a musical idea. I have about 70,000 music files on my computer, and I’d estimate 2/3 of them are in Sibelius format, the rest in Finale and SCORE format. I don’t foresee abandoning Sibelius or Finale any time in the future, and I am reasonably confident the programs will remain functional and useful, even if they don’t add any significant new features or fix the glaring problems that remain. Perhaps Steinberg’s entry into this market will shake things up and force some serious competition among all of the programs. Despite all of the grim news here, I remain optimistic and hopeful.

Bill Holab is the owner of Bill Holab Music, a company that publishes a select group of composers and provides high-end engraving/typography/design to the industry. www.billholabmusic.com

Finally, Movement on the Notation Front

Back in July of 2012, many notation software users were shaken by the news that Sibelius’s parent company, Avid, was dissolving the program’s London-based office and its primary development team. My “Sharpen Your Quills” post demonstrated how the news resonated throughout the composer community; whether or not a composer used Sibelius or Finale (the two primary notation software options on the market today) or one of the several secondary software alternatives, it was apparent how deeply this structural change would impact the notation software industry. A year and a half later, there are finally signs of what effects that shakeup has had and what the future holds for those who see notation software as an irreplaceable tool.


Finale has weathered numerous complaints over the years regarding their policy of yearly updates (many of which seemed superficial at best), their reliance on an outdated programming infrastructure for Mac users, a reluctance or inability to match improvements brought forth by their competitors in a timely manner, and a business model that seemed geared toward the public school market while ignoring pleas from professional engravers asking for more functionality in working with complex musical notation. While Finale’s decision to forgo their yearly update model and allow their programmers more time to make extensive changes came a couple months before news broke of Avid’s adjustment to Sibelius, the timing was a lucky break nonetheless.
On November 4, Finale announced their newest version, Finale 2014. Once the announcement was made, the knee-jerk reaction for many users was to read the software’s overview by the widely respected Finale plug-in developer Jari Williamson (whose reviews are required reading for anyone interested in a new software update from Finale). The changes ranged from the technical (they were finally able to move from the depreciated Carbon programming interface to Cocoa, a boon for Mac users, but neglected to create a 64-bit version) to the practical (much-improved treatment of hairpins, cutting down on the need for time-intensive manual editing) to the good-god-why-did-this-take-so-long (the beginning of backwards capability—limited, but it’s a start). But what stuck out for me were the indications that their focus had grown to re-incorporate the needs of the professional contemporary composer/engraver.

Many of the changes addressed issues that the occasional user would probably never think about or require—merging rests across layers and cross-layer accidental changes being two of the biggest—and one of the most interesting changes, the acceptance and incorporation of “open” or non-traditional key signatures, point directly to contemporary compositional techniques that have become commonplace in the late 20th and early 21st century. The software still has much to address before it gets to where it should be—a user interface replete with interminable dialogue boxes, the lack of magnetic positioning that Sibelius has introduced, and the inability for intuitive copying of individual items with the selection tool are major sticking points—but the fact that Finale decided to focus on the issues it did rather than ancillary changes for general public usage demonstrates that Finale and their parent company, MakeMusic, may have become more serious about improving the power and depth of their software as well as its reach and breadth.


Since the major adjustments last year, there’s been little news on this front…the exception being a recent comment from Avid’s director of product management, Bobby Lombardi, who decided, in light of his competitor’s announcement, to let Sibelius Blog know that “Sibelius 7.5” is coming soon. In addition to a review of Finale 2014 as seen through the lens of Sibelius users, Sibelius Blog also mentions the fate of those programmers from Sibelius who were let go when Avid closed their London office; most were hired by a newcomer to the notation software marketplace—Steinberg.


From Steinberg’s blog page:

Steinberg set up a new London-based research and development centre in November 2012, and hired as many of the former Sibelius development team as possible to start work on a brand new scoring application for Windows and Mac. There are currently twelve of us in the team, and all of us were formerly part of the Sibelius development team.

This is one of the more interesting developments on the music notation front in a very long time. By releasing most of their A-Team developers, Avid unintentionally caused the creation of a new competitor (in a rapidly growing marketplace). What has been most fascinating about this new endeavor is the transparency with which the Steinberg team has chosen to build their new application…so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. That transparency can be seen most clearly in the Steinberg “Making Notes” blog run by Product Marketing Manager Daniel Spreadbury (again, formerly of Sibelius). Taking a page from Hollywood, where production vignettes are now commonplace many months before a film is released, Steinberg is taking the unique step of discussing their creation process as they go.

Here Spreadbury discusses the nuts and bolts of putting together aspects of a notation system that would seem very simple but are both conceptually and logistically extremely complex:

Another important prototype is a means to visualise music on staves. Several months ago, a very simple visualiser was written that shows rhythms, but not pitches, of notes belonging to a single voice on a single-line staff. Since then, we’ve done work on determining staff position and stem direction for notes and chords, and also have the capability to assign multiple voices to the same staff, but we’ve had no way to visualise the result on a staff. Now our test application can optionally show music for multiple voices on a five-line staff, and can display multiple staves together.
It’s still very crude: notes are not beamed together, the spacing is pretty terrible, and things like ties are drawn very simplistically. This is not by any means the basis for how music will eventually appear in our application. But it is an important diagnostic tool as we continue to add more and more musical building blocks…
Our ethos is that our application will be most useful if it does automatically what an experienced engraver or copyist would do anyway. If an engraver and copyist can trust the musical intelligence built in to our application to make the right decisions, it will become a truly fast and efficient tool, and hopefully the one they will come to prefer over and above the others at their disposal.

Where this new software will end up is unclear—they’re still at the rough, early stages—but from what is currently available, this new addition to the pantheon of notation software applications has the potential to create a third-party platform that combines the best characteristics of both Finale and Sibelius. What this means for composers, and subsequently the entire new music community, is as varied as the number of ways in which these applications are used. Some composers use them exclusively as engraving tools, while others eschew paper and pencil altogether and compose directly into the application. Ultimately, if software developers are able to improve the ease of use and the quality of the finished product, then we all come out ahead.