Fun, Music Career, Songwriters, Tuition

The State of Music Notation Software in 2021

Are you a musician who sometimes needs to created notated music on a computer, but you feel like you haven’t kept up with what’s the latest out there? Are you still using Sibelius 5, or a copy of Finale you bought when you were a student a couple of decades ago? I’d imagine it’s beginning to creak on whatever machine it’s managing to run on.

The fact is, there was a time when you bought one of these two products, digging deep to try to fork out for one of them from your slim musician’s budget. And if you’re like me, keeping up with the updates was a fiscal matter as well as a technological one; most of us didn’t tend to bother if what we had ‘worked for us’, and besides, we probably couldn’t afford it.

In 2021 though, it’s worth getting up to speed. Lots has changed:

  • Sibelius and Finale are no longer the only players in the game.
  • Computing has changed – there are options for tablets as well as PCs/Macs out there.
  • Technology and software purchase options have developed, too.

I’ve had quite a few questions and discussions with other musicians over the last year or two on this subject, musicians who like me hadn’t really kept up with the game, so I thought I’d try to distill what I’ve discovered as I’ve ‘re-entered’ this space over the last year or two. Go grab a coffee. It gets interesting.

Sibelius and Finale – the big two?

For PC and Mac, Sibelius and Finale are still the major ‘seasoned’ players. Like most sporting figures, it seems like one or two times they have dropped the ball, and in one case have been transferred overseas to another team (more on that later). Both still have large price-tags, but with upgrade and academic discounts all available. Sibelius also offers a subscription-based model which can also work with educational discount. Both have the benefits and drawbacks that come with being long-time products: they have the greatest number of features for any possible use case in notation, but decades of legacy code mean they inevitably look and feel clunky in places, and any necessary updates to the software tend to come in bite size amounts as the team continues to try to work with legacy code.

Finale

I can comment more on Sibelius as it’s the software I use, having only tinkered with Finale a few times maybe two decades ago. The current (full-featured, latest) iteration of Sibelius continues to be powerful but with a number of drawbacks that continue to receive heat in online forums. The two main issues as far as I see it are Sibelius’ horrible user interface which was redesigned for version 7 based on MS Office and its ubiquitous ‘ribbon’, and the Avid Link application you have to have installed on your machine for Sibelius to run through. If for whatever reason it can’t register that your subscription is up to date, it won’t even allow you to open Sibelius. That has bitten me a few times.

Sibelius

Still, it continues to be a big player, full-featured and capable of very nice-looking music scoring. So why look elsewhere?

New kid(s) on the notation block, and some gossip

This is about the juiciest story you’re ever likely to hear about notation software. If you didn’t know, most of the Sibelius team were fired after Avid bought the product in 2006. The team were based in London; Avid wanted to move them Stateside. The team didn’t want to go, Avid fired them.

Along came German music software company Steinberg, makers of Cubase, and undoubtedly one of the smartest moves in software business history: they offered the team a job writing a brand new notation product from the ground up.

The result is Dorico, first released in 2016 and now at version 3.5. Dorico has made huge waves since its debut five years ago, based on several great boons:

  • Excellent customer-facing support, spearheaded undoubtedly by the incredible Daniel Spreadbury
  • The ability to write a software package from the ground up with no legacy code, built for today’s machines, not to mention today’s ways of working for composers and other notation software users
  • A beautiful, clean interface
  • For some people frustrated with the way things have gone at Avid, just the fact that it’s not Sibelius …
Dorico

Dorico is now basically a full player in the game alongside Sibelius and Finale, and for anyone just starting out and getting serious in music notation, it would be one to seriously consider. It may still be a little behind on features, but the product roadmap is clear, and is being approached systematically and with constant, healthy user feedback. If I were just starting out today, I can see I would be strongly tempted to go all in with Dorico. As it is, it is clearly a different product from the other two, and everyone switching over says that you have to be ready for a learning curve; it represents a brand new way of doing things.

But it doesn’t end there. Here comes another kid swimming upstream from, of all things, the open source community, and a very attractive proposition to anyone with few needs who doesn’t want to shell out (after all, Dorico comes with the same kinds of price tags that Sibelius and Finale do).

Musescore has been around for a while as a free product, given its open-source code base. It has been a life-saver for me at times when either I didn’t have the budget to keep up with Sibelius (there was a little while), or Sibelius wouldn’t open because a dodgy internet connection meant Avid didn’t let me open it (thanks, Avid, a bunch). But its scores have never looked that pretty; in fact, some of the stuff people produce using Musescore that ends up on Musescore.com has looked awful. I had some piano students bring me material they’d found there and, well, sometimes I wanted to cry.

Musescore (thankfully the engraving looks a little nicer now)

But even that is changing. Musescore was taken on by UltimateGuitar.com and somehow a free piece of software now has employees including the very smart Martin Keary, whose hilarious ‘Tantacrul’ YouTube channel critiquing music notation software (including Musescore) somehow landed him a job with them. Now the engraving standards have recently been seriously upgraded, and the user interface is next on his target list. The direction at Musescore looks incredibly promising, and again for the vast majority of users with basic needs, it already offers pretty much everything you could need as a piece of music notation software. If your needs aren’t enough that it’s worth paying for a product, this is definitely the one to go for.

Notation Software and MusicXML

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning MusicXML, a file type written specifically for exporting and importing music notation from one product to another. A few years ago this was difficult or impossible. Now, using MusicXML, one could export a file from Musescore and import it into Sibelius or Dorico and retain a lot of the features of the notation such as dynamics, tempo markings and more. The results are never perfect – one always has to tweak things in the software afterwards – but it’s a lot better than importing MIDI (for example). I can even export notation from Logic Pro X’s own notation feature this way if I want to, something I’ve had to do a few times over the last few years.

Notation Apps for Tablets

The story still doesn’t end there. With the advent of iPads, there are a number of tablet apps out there that also address notation needs one way or another. These range from full-fledged notation and composition apps (such as Notion) to more basic tools to assist you in whatever role you need the notation. For me in my teaching role, I love using a stylus device on my iPad with a manuscript paper template (several note taking apps offer this, I use Penbook) to notate on the fly during a lesson. Of course then I can immediately share what I’ve notated on the screen with the student afterwards.

Why I still use Sibelius

So with all this development since the heady days of ‘the big two’, there is much to choose from, and it just depends on your own situation as to what might work best for you. For me, I am sticking with Sibelius for some fairly simple reasons:

  • Historic data. I have a lot of Sibelius files, and if I were to switch, just exporting files for future use would take hours. That said, it might be worth doing at some point, just in case anything were to happen. Backups of backups, you know what I mean?
  • I know how it works. Yes, I had to get to grips with the user interface change, but it works for now, and if you do take time to learn it, there are quick ways even around the ribbon, especially using keyboard shortcuts. Once you learn those, you actually feel quite good about using it. And you can customise shortcuts to your heart’s content, too.
  • For now, the price of just under £10/month is not prohibitive for me, given how much I use it. I obviously benefit from an educational discount, so again for you it depends on your situation and needs.
  • The results do still look generally great.
  • It is a really powerful application. Again, when you dig deep into the settings or the manual, you discover a huge host of possibilities. And if those possibilities weren’t enough, the ability to install third-party plugins (of which there are many) extends its capabilities even more. These too can be a joy.

Maybe someday I’ll consider making the switch to Dorico. I’d need a lot of time (to learn) and at least some cash (they do offer a crossgrade discount for those coming from Sibelius). For now, for getting my work done, Sibelius is still working for me. For now.

Further resources

If you’re interested in this space, in how to get the most out of your software or keep to best notation practices, I’d seriously recommend checking out the following:

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