What's the Score?

Read Electronic Musician''s roundup of the most popular notation software. Notation software dramatically speeds up the work of composing and arranging, eliminates or reduces the need to pay music-copying fees, and creates published-quality scores at the touch of a button.
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FIG. 1: Notion''s score area dominates the screen, with a sidebar for the Tools, Entries, and Expressions palettes. You can click on the timeline above the score to navigate to any measure.

Music-notation software has become a must-have tool for musicians who work with written scores. It dramatically speeds up the work of composing and arranging, eliminates or reduces the need to pay music-copying fees, and creates professional-quality scores with a few mouse-clicks. This software eliminates much of the tedium of working with notation and reduces errors as well.

Music-notation programs have come a long way over the years, and there are many to choose from. I'm going to focus on the three most-used programs: Avid Technology Sibelius 4.1, MakeMusic Finale 2006, and VirtuosoWorks Notion 1.5.5. All three programs run on both the Windows and Macintosh platforms, include their own integrated sound playback library, and satisfy the most sophisticated notation needs.

Space constraints prevent me from thoroughly describing the operation of all three programs. Therefore, I will focus on those features that differentiate them and that might be reasons to choose one program over another. For an overview of three other notation programs worth considering — Adept Music Notation Solutions Nightingale 4.5, GenieSoft Overture 4.0.2, and NoteHeads Igor Engraver 1.7 — see the sidebar “Also Noteworthy.”

Work Space

Each program has a work space for entering notes and editing your music. Notion, the newest program, presents a particularly approachable work space for someone new to notation software (see Fig. 1). You get a large score area for working on the music, and a sidebar with menus that provide all the tools you need. The sidebar has three menu palettes: Tools, Entries, and Expressions. A fourth palette, Properties, expands when there are properties that can be edited for a selected feature.

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FIG. 2: Sibelius has a large work area for the score and floating windows for special functions. The Navigator window (lower left) helps you navigate the score.

In Notion's work space, the cursor appears in the shape of whatever object will be created when you click on the score (a note, a time signature, a dynamic symbol, and so on). Notion has a handy timeline at the top of the page, which you can click on to navigate through the score.

Sibelius's uncluttered work space has floating windows to access various features (see Fig. 2). The Navigator window shows a miniature version of your score with the portion of the score that is now in the work space highlighted. You can drag this visible area to navigate through the score. The Keypad window mirrors the key arrangement on the computer's numeric keypad. It has five layouts, which can be selected with function keys F8 to F12, and it gives you access to many note-entry features. Other floating windows control playback features, sound mixing, Native Instruments Kontakt Player (the tool that plays the instrument samples that come with the program), parts, video, and properties.

Finale has a toolbar across the top of the work space with icons for accessing specific tools. The score work space is located below the toolbar (see Fig. 3). Twenty-nine tools give you access to features such as staff editing, key-signature editing, note entry, and so on. You can customize the toolbar to show only the tools that you use. You can select a tool by clicking on it, and you can assign function keys F2 to F12 to select specific tools.

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FIG. 3: Finale''s tools are found just below the menu bar. The score work area is in Scroll View mode. Nonprinting color coding helps distinguish different types of symbols.

Finale has two score views: Page View shows the score as it will be printed, whereas Scroll View shows the score as an unbroken continuous staff flowing from left to right. In Page View, you can move through the pages one by one or you can type in a page number. In Scroll View, you can type in a measure number or scroll forward and backward with the mouse.

Notion's simple, straightforward interface is a big plus. Sibelius has an elegant integrated work space that is a pleasure to use, and the Navigator floating window is especially handy. Finale's Scroll View is an appealing option that I especially like for viewing a score in the early stages of composition.

Time and Key Signatures

To enter a time signature in Notion, you select Time Signatures on the Entries palette in the sidebar. The resulting Time Signatures palette presents a choice of the most common time signatures, but it's easy to create specialized time signatures with any beamed grouping. Key signatures are similarly easy to enter using the Key Signatures palette. You select traditional key signatures from a list of choices. You can create custom, nontraditional key signatures and even have microtonal accidentals (see Fig. 4).

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FIG. 4: Notion offers nontraditional key signatures (left) and microtonal accidentals (right), which play back microtonally.

In Sibelius, you select Time Signatures from the Create menu. You can select standard time signatures, or you can open a separate window to create your own, complete with custom beam and rest groups. You use the Key Signatures menu to choose traditional key signatures. Nontraditional key signatures are not supported, but they are so rarely used that they will probably not be missed.

In Finale, you can right-click on a measure while the Time Signature tool is selected and choose from a menu of common time signatures (including alternate groupings for asymmetric time signatures). If you need to create an unusual time signature that isn't on the list, you can do that by separately choosing the number of beats and beat duration. Finale's Key Signature tool lets you select a standard key signature or create a nonstandard one of your own design. As with the Time Signature tool, it is a bit cumbersome to create nontraditional key signatures, but right-clicking provides quick access to common choices.

Notion is the most flexible for selecting and creating time and key signatures and is very easy to use. Sibelius is also easy to use but not quite as flexible, whereas Finale is flexible but somewhat cumbersome in how it handles nonstandard time and key signatures.

Note Entry

You'll probably spend the most time in a notation program entering notes. A good set of note-entry tools is a particularly important feature in terms of work flow. Music-notation programs offer several ways to enter notes — for example, selecting note values from a palette of choices or playing the music in real time — but in my experience, the most efficient is step entry. That is called Step Time Input in Notion and Sibelius and Speedy Entry in Finale, and it's the method I'll discuss in detail.

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FIG. 5: Finale''s Speedy Entry provides keyboard access to a variety of commands.

The Sibelius work space includes a floating window that depicts a computer's numeric keypad. Keys on the numeric keypad represent different rhythmic values. The center key, 5, for instance, selects a half note. One hand selects rhythms on the numeric keypad, while the other hand plays the desired pitches on a MIDI keyboard. Finale's Speedy Entry uses a similar technique (see Fig. 5).

In Notion, instead of using the numeric keypad, you use letter abbreviations for the rhythmic values. Type Q to select a quarter note, E for an eighth note, W for a whole note, and so on. These letters are much easier to learn than the number codes of Finale and Sibelius, but the keys are not as conveniently spaced under one hand (think, for example, of the distance between Q and H on the keyboard).

Articulations and Expressions

Once you have entered notes, it's time to add articulations (staccato dots, accents, and so on), dynamics (such as piano and forte markings and crescendo hairpins), expressions (tempo indications such as allegro), and other symbols. All three programs have a large set of standard symbols and allow you to customize their symbols or create your own. I'll compare how the three programs handle dynamic markings and hairpins.

In Notion, you select dynamics from the Expressions palette or use a shortcut key. For some keyboard shortcuts, Notion toggles through several values as you repeatedly press the key. When you press F, for instance, the cursor changes to mf (mezzo forte). Press F again, and the cursor changes to f (forte). Continue pressing F to cycle through ff, fff, ffff, and fffff, and then back to mf. That's a very efficient system because you have to learn only one shortcut key rather than six.

To enter a crescendo hairpin in Notion, type the shortcut key Comma (easy to remember because that is also the key for the < symbol on the standard QWERTY keyboard), click where you want to place the hairpin on the score, and drag it to the right until it is the correct size. Conveniently, when you enter crescendo hairpin symbols, other dynamic markings are automatically repositioned to avoid collisions.

In Sibelius, you add dynamic markings and other symbols through the Expression Editor, which is easily accessed by pressing Control + E (Windows) or Command + E (Mac). You can then right-click to get a customizable Word menu with a large palette of symbols, or you can type a keyboard shortcut (Control + F for f, for example). To add a hairpin, select the note above or below which you want to attach the hairpin and press the keyboard shortcut H. The keyboard shortcuts are well thought out, but you can change them if you want.

You use the Expression tool to enter dynamics in Finale. Double-click on the note above or below which you want to attach the symbol, and then select the desired symbol from a palette of choices.

Finale's Metatools give you single-keystroke access to any Expression symbol, and you can reprogram these keystrokes if you'd like. For instance, if you've assigned the F key to the f forte symbol, all you need to do is hold down the F key and click on every note where you want to place a forte symbol. This system lets you add dynamic markings very quickly. To enter hairpin dynamics, you select the Smart Shapes tool, select the hairpin from the Smart Shapes palette, double-click on the score where you want the hairpin to be located, and drag to where you want the hairpin symbol to end.

Entering articulations is similar for each program. In Sibelius, you can enter those symbols while entering notes in step-time input, which offers a speed advantage to experienced users.

Finale, with its 1-click Metatools, is the fastest for entering dynamics. Sibelius's time-saving integrated interface lets you enter articulations while you're entering notes. Notion's strength is its straightforward and easy-to-learn interface. Its toggle system can slow you down, but you don't have to remember as many shortcut keys.

Score Playback

Notion's developers have given high priority to playback. Notion comes with recorded samples from the London Symphony Orchestra, and the sample playback is tightly integrated into the program. If you enter a trill, for example, you don't get a synthetic trill created by switching back and forth between two instrument samples; you get a beautifully realistic sample of an actual trill being performed. Not all articulations are supported in this way (for instance, a string harmonic articulation won't play back as a string harmonic), but enough common ones are available to make a difference in the sound.

VirtuosoWorks has been creating additions to the sample library at a fast pace, and expanded libraries are available for strings, percussion, harpsichord, woodwinds, and brass, with prices ranging from $29 to $69. The realism of Notion's playback is stunning, and it will only improve as more sample libraries become available. For added realism, you can use Notion's Ntempo feature to conduct your score and make subtle changes in the tempo.

Finale comes with the Finale Edition of Garritan Personal Orchestra, and you can purchase the full version for an additional $189. Sibelius comes with a basic instrument set called Kontakt Player Silver, and for $149 you can purchase additional instruments in Kontakt Player Gold. Sibelius also offers the complete Garritan Personal Orchestra and its own Rock and Pop Collection as options. In Sibelius, there are noticeable delays in loading the instrument library for a large orchestral score. Web Clips 1 through 6 compare score graphics and playback for Notion, Sibelius, and Finale.

Score Layout and Parts Extraction

Notion gives you an excellent-looking score layout. It requires very little adjustment but has fewer options for customizing the score's appearance. You can't change the appearance of a staff for a few measures, nor can you move or resize individual staves. For example, you can't make one staff smaller than the others, as is commonly done. On the other hand, Notion will automatically adjust the distance between staves to avoid conflicts between very high and very low notes. Fewer features and greater simplicity will appeal to users who don't need to deviate from a standard layout.

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FIG. 6: Sibelius''s seamless integration of parts with the full score is a significant convenience for anyone working with ensemble pieces.

By contrast, Sibelius and Finale give you almost limitless flexibility. Sibelius uses a concept of House Styles that lets you define or change your score's appearance quickly and easily. In Sibelius, it's extremely easy to move staves around. If you move the top staff, the entire score shrinks, maintaining the same proportions between staves. If you move a lower staff, you create a gap between that staff and the one above.

Finale's Page Layout tool offers extensive options for score layout. With the Staff tool, you can apply Staff Styles to an entire score or to any selection. Sibelius and Finale provide excellent default layouts, so you don't have to dig into all of these options if you don't want to, but the possibilities for changing score layout are endless.

Generating a set of parts from a full score is one of the most important time-saving aspects of notation software. In handwritten scores, this is a tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone task. Not having to copy parts for just one short orchestral piece is worth the price of any music-notation software. Notion and Finale both have a command to quickly extract the parts and automatically create separate files for each of them.

Sibelius offers the most elegant way to handle parts. With its Dynamic Parts (see Fig. 6), you can view any part at any time, then easily switch back to viewing the full score. You can make changes in a part that will be reflected in the score (correcting a note error, for example), and you can also make a change that will appear only in the part. (Sibelius helps you keep track of this by color coding.) Dynamic Parts is a significant advance in notation-software part handling, and a similar feature is now available in Finale 2007.

Other Cool Features

Each of these programs has advantages you'll want to consider. If you are working with microtonal notation and playback, Notion has a particularly easy-to-use implementation (see Web Clips 7 and 8).

Sibelius, Finale, and Notion all allow you to type in lyrics as you go, and they have many helpful options for editing lyrics as well as for displaying them just the way you want. I especially like the Edit Text option in Finale. You type the lyric in a text editing window (using hyphens for syllable breaks), and then use the Click Assignment feature to align the text with notes. You can return to the text editor at any time to make changes, and those will apply wherever the same lyric appears in the score.

A free, basic version of Finale, called NotePad, can read any Finale file, which means you can share your score files with someone who doesn't own a copy of Finale. Sibelius provides a free Web plug-in called Scorch that allows anyone to view your scores on the Web using most popular Internet browsers.

Sibelius lets you play videos and synchronize music to them, a perfect tool for anyone scoring to picture. MakeMusic has added video support in Finale 2007, including the ability to send SMPTE and MIDI Time Code. Both Sibelius and Finale can scan sheet music into the program. Sibelius sells a nifty color-coded computer keyboard optimized for use with the program for $99.

Sibelius allows music teachers and students to create worksheets to prepare materials for music lessons and classes. A Web site (www.sibeliuseducation.com) contains numerous resources for educators.

Finale has a number of remarkable education tools. For example, you can generate custom lessons or drills for your students, and there are plug-ins to automatically create accompaniments. Finale also sells a tool called SmartMusic for performing to an accompaniment. It actually listens to your performance and adjusts to changes in tempo. You can generate SmartMusic accompaniments in Finale, but you need to buy SmartMusic separately to use them.

Finale can read MIDI, MusicXML, Encore, MidiScan, Rhapsody, Score, and SmartScore formats. Sibelius can read MIDI, MusicXML, Score, and Finale files. Notion can import MIDI and MusicXML files. A few tests importing Score into Finale were successful, but I was not always able to import Score and Finale scores into Sibelius. Notion, Sibelius, and Finale can all render a score as an audio file.


Notion, Sibelius, and Finale list for around $600 each, with street prices a bit lower. Academic prices for students and teachers are about two-thirds of the list price, so check into that option if you qualify. All three programs sell expansions of their sound libraries.

You can't go wrong with any of these programs, but I do have a few general recommendations. If your main priority is high-quality traditional orchestral playback, Notion is the top choice. In that case, you might want to budget for some of the expansion sound libraries. I'd also recommend Notion if you want a program that is easy to learn, although the trade-off is that you have fewer features, less flexibility, and a somewhat slower work flow. If you are interested in microtonal music, Notion has an easy-to-use and great-sounding implementation.

I believe an experienced and intensive user will be able to create professional-quality scores faster with Sibelius and Finale. After some initial training, the user will also appreciate the wider range of capabilities of those programs. Deciding between them is a tougher call. Both are magnificent. The difference is mostly a matter of work style. Sibelius presents a clean, integrated interface, and all options are usually available.

Finale generally operates in a more segmented way. When you initiate a tool in Finale (the Speedy Entry tool, for example), you can enter notes, but you can't enter dynamic markings or edit staves. You would normally enter your notes first, select the Articulation tool to enter articulation marks, select the Expression tool to enter dynamic markings, select the Smart Shapes tool to enter crescendo hairpin marks, and so on. (You can, however, use Finale's Simple Note Entry tool for basic entry of all symbols except Smart Shapes, and the Selection tool conveniently allows you to edit all symbols without having to select each tool.) If you prefer one or the other of these styles, the choice is clear. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with either Sibelius or Finale.

Peter Hamlin teaches music at Middlebury College in Vermont. In addition to being a composer, he is a member of the live-electronic improv band Data Stream.



Igor Engraver, Nightingale, and Overture are all worthy of consideration as you shop for notation software. Nightingale is Mac only, which disqualifies it for our roundup, and the manufacturers of Overture and Igor Engraver did not provide timely review copies. My comments here are based on the demo versions of those two programs. All three programs cost about half as much as the software in the main text, although in the case of Overture, you must pay for the sample library if you need it, and neither Nightingale nor Igor Engraver offers a sample library for playing their scores.

Overture has an attractive and easy-to-use interface. In addition to score entry, it offers a piano-roll view typical of MIDI note editors in most sequencing software. Guitar tablature is also supported; you can select any group of notes and create a tablature staff automatically. Overture allows you to build a score manually, staff by staff, or load a preconfigured template that's close to what you want and add or subtract staves as necessary. You can manually change the spacing between staves, but you can also invoke a Respace Staves command to automatically resolve conflicts between notes on adjacent staves. Overture is a full-featured VST host and can play and adapt your scores to any VST orchestral library you own.

Igor Engraver has a different approach to scoring from other notation programs. Instead of entering staves one by one, you select musicians from a drop-down list. You then select the ones you want in your piece and click on a Score button to create a score for those musicians. Parts and scores are dynamically linked, allowing you to create several versions of the same piece. Editing any musician's part automatically updates all versions using that musician. The parts are also smart — layout and performance decisions take into account the instrument that will be playing the part. You'll find a review of Igor Engraver 1.6 in the August 2002 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.

Nightingale offers several unusual features to Mac users. The entire collection of symbols is always visible rather than being parceled out among several palettes as in other notation software. Nightingale will print directly to a PostScript file, which can then be converted to a high-quality PDF using Apple Preview. Nightingale doesn't force your notation into a standard format by, for example, restricting the number of notes in a measure or dictating the way beamed notes are grouped. However, it can force your score to conform to standard notation format if you want. Finally, Nightingale takes full advantage of OS X features such as mouse shaking, which toggles between the current tool and the selection tool. You'll find a review of Nightingale 4.0 in the September 2001 issue of EM.


Adept Music Notation Solutions, Inc.www.ngale.com

Avid Technology, Inc.www.sibelius.com


MakeMusic, Inc.www.finalemusic.com


VirtuosoWorks, Inc.www.notionmusic.com