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The Weekend Vote

Weekend vote: Sibelius or Finale?

April 9, 2010 at 2:26 PM

The violin found its perfect form some 400 years ago and has changed relatively little since, but computer software is an entirely different matter -- it changes with the wind!

In thinking about getting a computer (most certainly an Apple), I realized that it's way past time for me to also procure some music notation software. No, I'm not a composer, but a teacher certainly finds many occasions to write down little pieces and exercises and arrange this and that. I also suspect that by having the software, as with having a better computer or a better violin, I'll discover conveniences that I haven't yet realized.

So I'm wondering about the state of music notation software, and your experience, preferences, etc. The two major ones are Sibelius and Finale (poor Jean Sibelius only Googles third for his own name!) It seems that these two programs are fairly neck-in-neck, but having worked very little with either (just a tiny bit with Sibelius), I am not ready to choose one over the other with confidence. They're expensive!

So which is better? Or which do you use? Why is it better, what can it do? And are there other music notation programs to consider?



From Robert Spear
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 2:56 PM

I use Sibelius because my need to notate music and hear it (pitifully) played back arose just at the time Sibelius came on the market. I took advantage of an introductory offer, liked what I received, and stuck with it through some growing pains. Over the years, Sibelius has become a very sophisticated, sometimes complicated, and expensive package. It's probably much more than you seem to need. The good news is that there is a much less expensive version of Sibelius that's easier to use and costs a whole lot less. Finale and other programs will probably have the same. If realistic playback of strings is critical to your work, you should also take a look at Notion (it also has a starter version), which is way ahead in this respect.

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 3:56 PM

I use notation programs since 1988, back then NOTATOR on Atari, and I've done a lot of pro jobs for publishers. Worst piece of software I have come to know was finale. You can do almost anything wit finale, but puhh, what a mess...

Since last year I only use MUSESCORE, an open source program with a very fine interface and output. It's already very powerful, easy to use, and it's completely free. There are some missing features and some bugs, but it's in steady development and I definitely can recommend it. (Keep in mind it's a work in progress, but already useful for most oft the jobs). And - no continuing upgrade hassle.


From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 4:22 PM

I had both, and pitched both.  After spending countless wasted hours on trying to get things right, I went back to handwritten.  For what I need to do, that works great.

Yes, I'm electronically challenged.  But the time spent trying to get Finale to do treble clef ledger lines for four octave scales is gone forever...

From Reynard Hilman
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 4:34 PM

I don't use music notation software a lot but I like because it's free and has good features, and since it's online it works anywhere (no installation) and it's really easy to collaborate with other people (like google docs). 

I don't know how it compares with sibelius or finale feature wise. but as far as my need goes noteflight is the best for me :)

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 5:14 PM

I learned on Finale and love using it.  I do my own arrangements and compostions fairly regularly so I need something that will do all the details, and Finale does.  They do also have simpler versions.  I think Sibelius may be more Mac-Friendly though??

I have not used SIbelius much but I've heard that the main difference is: leterally whatever you want to do, Finale has a way to do it, but sometimes you have to get way deep into the nuts and bolts to do so.  Sibelius is said to have a little less in depth capability, but maybe a little more intuitive to navigate.  I would agree, having spent multiple hours this week trying to get the my MIDI connection to play back with the ablance and instrumentation I want--but in the process I found a lot of capabilities that I'll use in the future.  SO  it probably depends on the nature of what you need. 

From Gene Wie
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 12:02 AM

I was a longtime Finale user, but switched to Sibelius after seeing the improvements they made in terms of a musician-friendly user interface. I use software notation in orchestrating and arranging for string quartet, string orchestra, full orchestra, and occasionally wind ensemble and marching band.

Even in their most recent versions, the learning curve for Sibelius is much more attractive...I the classroom I spend more time teaching about orchestration concepts rather than "how to use the program." Sibelius installs and runs easily on both platforms...I have it running on my PC desktop as well as my Mac laptop, and have no issues whatsoever moving files back and forth.

I do however, recommend checking out two free software options (do a Google search for their names):

Lilypond - More of an engraving tool than a notation software, lilypond has superb looking output, but requires you to enter your music using a specific scripting format. I've found it excellent in creating musical examples for articles, putting it in-line with text.

MuseScore - This free soft keeps getting better and better! It's far superior to most of the "cut-down" versions put out by companies marketing their flagship product.

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 1:16 AM

I cannot rave enough about Sibelius - it's intuitive, elegant in concept and realization, incredibly powerful, flexible to customize and personalize if desired with minimum tech ability, and the output to print, PDF, web, and CD is most professional looking/sounding.

Sibelius updates their programs every two years or so with pioneering features rather that the yearly superficial and costly tweaks that seem to be the habit at Finale, as they're trying to catch up with Sibeius' innovation.

Sibelius is used by many of today's most influential composers and secondary and tertiary music departments in the world, by novices and award-winning film composers alike.

For (string) educators, it is very easy to write and arrange or transpose material, email or print to PDF or as a web page. Changing font size, page layout, margins, symbol placement for teaching materials is simple and intuitive. Sibelius files are incredibly small (10-15k per page!) so they save and email very fast and economically. 

If you think, work, and live as a musician and artist, not a techie, I believe Sibelius if for you... Within the last 10 years I've had the chance to try Finale every year or so - it has never taken me more than 5 minutes to realize the clearly better choice: Sibelius.

Even the entry-level Sibelius software (Sibelius First) at $89-99 is a very capable and intuitive program for most needs, although the full version offers more versatility that you can dream of, and certainly not any less that Finale - just easier to accomplish, so you can focus on making music instead of reading software manuals... Having said that, on the rare occasion when I needed the Sibelius manual, I found it not only super-clear and helpful, but also quite funny in places (British humour, anyone?).

I use Sibelius 6 (full version) on Mac, btw. You can register and use it on 2 computers (desktop + laptop, Mac/Win), and easily share files with Mac or Win users. I've used Sib since version 4, after 8 years of Encore. Sibelius' customer support, online community/forum , and file-sharing enthusiasts (at are unmatched. 

I've also tried Lilypond (reminded me, in a very bad way, of Windows DOS of the early 90s + ugly output), Encore (easier to learn/use than most but ugly output), and Igor (is there a more clumsy program out there?).Their output is always amateur-like in comparison with Sibelius, from note shapes to staff/measure spacing and page layout. Lilypond, Mozart and ACE use text-entry (!) and are not fully WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) - how many dozens of text commands are you willing to learn and memorize? - sounds like light programming, time consuming and frustrating.

For a taste, check out "Learn Sibelius in 1 hour":

@Anne Horvath: Finale had problems with ledger lines in treble clef? wow... just wow... I wouldn't use it if they paid me.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 2:18 AM

I use Finale, their second to highest cost version.  I use it mainly to write  music for my students.  I'm glad to hear so many people say that it is very techie-ish and not user friendly.  Now I know that it's not my fault that I have trouble figuring out how to use it.  Their Help/Instructions manual is very difficult to use.  It certainly shows many things you can do in great depth, but it is very difficult to maneuver through.

From Larry Samuels
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 4:53 AM

Both Finale and Sibelius have free demo versions of their software (a quick Google search will find the links);  if you have the time and inclination, you might try working with the demo versions to see how useable they are for you.

I've owned Finale since about 1995 and use it for a number of tasks, but I must admit I'm often frustrated with parts of it (of course this could be my fault, not the software). I have considered checking out Sibelius myself, to see if I find the workflow preferable.

Larry S.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 5:59 AM

I use Lilypond for a beautiful result, and I'm looking into Noteflight.

Lilypond can jump through any music notation hoop, but Lady Ada Lovelace's comment applies: it can do anything we know how to order it to do. Most violin things do not require too much research into the manual, so I'm happy with it. The indirect, language-oriented interface requires organisation on the part of the user, especially for large projects.

Noteflight seems promising: I accidentally found it a few days ago.

From Pontus Adefjord
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 7:37 AM

I'm another Lilypond user. I guess some people would find it quite far from easy to use, but once you get the hang of it it's great. I've tried both Finale and Sibelius but I don't think any of them is worth the money. I guess it depends on what you use it for - Lilypond suits me much better.

Another option for simple stuff (I use this a lot for traditional tunes) is ABC.

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 8:02 AM

I'm just wondering about Lilypond. Almost all files I have seen (Mutopia and others) look awul. Lines colliding, horrible layout, strange spacing and more. It may be a problem of the user's skills, but I doubt it. Maybe I still haven't seen any really professional files.

From James Patterson
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Music notation is extremely complex to program; as such, the learning curve to any real proficiency is long. Switching programs involves switching philosophies as well: you can do nearly all the things in ea program, but getting from the idea to the printed page can be a wildly different route for ea. one.

I use a program called Mozart. It has a reasonably large user base, and for me, the outstanding part of it is the excellent support group on Yahoo.  The program's developer is always there, and questions are answered in very short order.  Mozart is only available for Windows, but there are many users running it on Linux (using Wine, I think) and on Macs (using Parallels) .

Mozart is strong for keyboard shortcut support: a proficient user can do nearly everything without picking up the mouse. This really speeds up the processes.


From Scott Cole
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 3:29 PM

 A number of years ago I tried Encore, which I found to be very intuitive to use. The only reason I didn't get it was that I couldn't cut and paste music examples into my dissertation. I had to use Finale '98 for that, and it was a MISERABLE experience. Filled with bugs, totally unintuitive.

From Ben Lewis
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 4:26 PM

 I'm another Lilypond user; I've used it for years, had no problems with it.

@Tobias: Probably, what you've seen are files produced by people who are not properly using the programme. It has very robust algorithms, but at times even those fail, and the user must alter a few points to make the music beautiful. However, if the input is faulty, the programme has trouble actually typesetting the product, since all it knows to do is what it's told.

From David Beck
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 5:58 AM

 SIBELIUS seems to carry all before it. My wife got it as an "Educational user" and we have upgraded periodically, now to 6 which has great sounds and has cut editing time dramatically. What has surprised me is that I know of peaple who tried changing from Finale to Sibelius and couldn't cope; they reverted to Fnale. Odd.

PS My wife and I BOTH use "Apple/mac".

From David Beck
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 6:07 AM

 Whilst some sounds in Sibelius 6 are brilliant, the string ones are disappointing for a string player. Anyone with megabucks can always try playing back through an external synth. I don't bother with that, or indeed with a keyboard for inputting. I LOVE my pet mouse.

From Gene Wie
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 6:20 AM

Lilypond is powerful and produces beautiful results, given that you are willing to invest the time to learn its scripting language. For a number of users, the learning curve is still quite steep, and therein lies the huge differences in the quality of the available scores.

I've found it an invaluable tool in teaching students about the history and purpose behind the craft of music engraving (as opposed to just "notation") and have found it incredibly useful in generating in-line music for instructional material in LaTeX, which is primarily used in the scientific and technical fields for document preparation but is making significant inroads for textbooks in other fields.

Lilypond operates on the same philosophy...the issues of layout and spacing get in the way of inputting information. The scripting language forces you to focus on making sure all of the *information* is correct, and deals with "how it looks" later using a set of visual guidelines (which are constantly evolving and improving).

From Larry Deming
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 1:08 AM

 Encore is intuitive.

From Kay Pech
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 3:07 AM

I have used Finale for more than 10 years, so am partial to software I know so well. What I love especially is being able to scan the piano accompaniment, then create a Smart Music accompaniment to play piano with me. I used it constantly to work with my violin and viola students, helping them play expressively with a computer accompaniment that waits and LISTENS to them and adjusts to their nuances. It's great!

From Rob Schnautz
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 4:37 AM

NoteWorthy Composer. It's $49 (one-time purchase cost), and it's the best notation editor I've ever used (I have also used Finale NotePad and one other whose name escapes me). While mouse entry can be nice, I find computer keyboard entry the most natural way to do it, and NoteWorthy makes keyboard entry fast and easy (you can also use the mouse or a synthesizer keyboard). The support community for NoteWorthy is highly helpful, responsive, and supportive, and the team is always open to suggestions to improve the software. Expansion packages, including a wide array of fonts and sound card mods, make Noteworthy a very open-ended piece of software and allow for advanced editing that other software simply can't do. I highly recommend this as a musician and arranger.

From Juergen L. Hemm
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 9:07 AM

The program I'm using is called capella. I find it easy and intuitive to use - but I have no experience with any other music notation software. My version is an old, old, cheap and limited one, but it's good enough for my needs. Interesting features - that might require extra licences for related products - are

You can enter a music by using the keyboard of your computer like the keyboard of a piano (no poliphony though - and the rhythmical structure better be simple. You can use your mouse or - my preferred method - use capella's "music shorthand":

For the sake of completeness, I'd also like to mention TeX for music.

Happy data entry and successful modification,

:-) Juergen

From Fredrik Zeller
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Its not really helpfull to say, wich one is better. It may depend on the user.

For me as a composer (too) the only thing in Sibelius, wich is missing (for years) ist the possibility to draw good custom lines (if you want for example a line wich consists of flowers...).

Both programms are based on the "midi-track-system". That means in difference to handwriting: You are not "free" in notation - you allways have to do "timesignature and tuplet calculation" bevore...

I think that Sib is little bit more intuitiv than finale (lots of buttons and menues there - kind of old fashioned architecture). Both programms are growing and getting every time more complex and more difficult to handle for an avarage user - like: "want to scetch some scales in a little time". Anyway the programmers are copying each other, so that in future the progs will be very similar. Probably Finale will "loos the race"...

(Pardon for the bad english:-) )

From Catherine B.
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 9:33 PM

Currently, I use a Dell laptop with Finale Print Music.  So far, I've only tried out Finale's products. Last April, I was able to re-arrange a first violin part for a concert with Finale Notepad's 30-day trial version, and it turned out great.  I got Finale Print Music for my birthday last August, and upgraded to the 2010 version in January.  I really like using Finale's products so far.  I might end up trying a free trial version of Sibelius though, just to see how the two compare for myself. ;-)

The main thing that I've had trouble with in Finale's programs, though, is being able to find and import MIDI files into it to work with.  Either I'm not finding the right types of MIDI files, or I'm doing something wrong.  :-p  I know that Finale can import MIDIs decently, since my teacher has imported them to arrange pieces for orchestra concerts(she used Finale 2005 version for those concerts though, and she's using the educator's version of Finale 2009/2010 now...).  Does Sibelius work any better in terms of importing MIDIs?  Has anyone else had any trouble with importing MIDIs to Finale programs, or any other composition programs for that matter?  Does anyone have any recommended websites that they use to find decent MIDIs to arrange from?

From Jonathan DeBruyn
Posted on April 13, 2010 at 6:49 AM

 My dad is a composer and he uses Finale but uses Garritan instrument sounds instead of the midi ones provided. The result is quite decent, especially the orchestra sounds. At times it doesn't sound like a computer, but a real orchestra! The solo strings are better than many I've heard, but still are not that amazing.

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