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Apples are to Oranges as Sibelius is to Finale

Apologies for the awkward title... I've been doing a bit of GRE review and I'm up to my ears in analogies and test techniques. Which means that my head is spinning from all the useless garbage I'm having to put into it. If you know me at all, you know my loathing for the overpriced exercise in futility that is standardized tests. I have an analogy for you, ETS: The GRE is to Useful Things as squashing is to water.

I digress.

This post is the third in my series on getting your composition career off the ground. Now that you're studying music intensely and you've thought about how to organize it you're ready to try your hand at actually writing the music. Which means it's time to talk about how you're writing it down. Apart from writing by hand (which you should do some, at the very least) there is the modern composer's expensive best friend/possible-worst enemy: notation software.

Some people will say they aren't necessary. In today's landscape I disagree categorically and I'll tell you why in a minute.

But some of their arguments are sound because these softwares can become a crutch and give you unrealistic expectations. So before we get into the necessity of getting your hands on one, let's talk about their pros and cons.

For brevity's sake, I'll be referring to music notation software as MNS throughout the rest of this post.

The Dangers of MNS

The Playback Feature

The playback feature is your best frenemy. It has some wonderful uses but it's also a trap.

The number one problem is that its playback is perfect. Too perfect. MIDI nails all rhythms and technical passages in a way that no human can. Which is totally neat and fun to play around with but you've got to be careful to make sure that you don't start expecting these sorts of things to happen in real life.

MIDI is also stiff and lacks the capacity to express. Composer Steven Bryant once said in his blog that it has "all the subtlety of a chainsaw." MIDI doesn't need to breathe or reset its bow. It can play in stratospheric registers for ever and ever without pain or having to clench its butt cheeks to get that high C to speak.

It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to use your MNS's playback to capture the expressive quality of what you're trying to create. Trust me on this--those hours upon hours of effort are better spent writing more music.

Remember what I said last time about what you really are, dear composer? You're a glorified instruction writer. Your instructions need to be concise, not overly dictatorial. Music is a living thing in every sense but the biological. It needs room to breathe. Once you start trying to turn the instructions into the actual end product, thereby spending an hour programming tempos and dynamics into one measure in your MNS, you've lost your way.


MIDI's second major problem is realistic balance. No matter what your computer tells you, a flute playing a low D will not be heard against a section of brass playing fortissimo. Give up on this now, because unless you can find (and afford to pay) 200 flautists who can play precisely in tune and show up on time it isn't happening.

This goes the other way, too. As you get better acquainted with orchestration you'll be continually surprised by how well some things work that you didn't think would (and vice versa). Clarinets project a lot better in a concert hall than you think they will. Four horns really can be heard over the other fifty musicians in a concert band. If you're paying attention to the sound of your MNS and not your instincts/knowledge you're probably going to think you need to double passages that you don't.

There are two elements to learning how to orchestrate well: studying music and learning from your mistakes.

You must trust yourself, composer. Not the software. You are the musician. The MNS is the tool of of your craft.

The Benefits of MNS

Notation and Accuracy

MNS is going to create infinitely more readable instructions.

Your software will give you the benefit of never having musicians wonder if that's a G or an A or whether that's a sixteenth note or an eighth note. MNS creates high-quality scores and parts. High-quality notation is absolutely essential to convincing people to perform your music and even more essential when you're trying to get a publisher to pick it up. If they can't read your work clearly the first time they look at it they're significantly less likely to give you the time of day.

There's a profound difference between printed music and hand written music. I discovered early in my career that this can be the difference between being performed or passed over.

MNS also helps ensure that you don't miss details between your score and parts. Rehearsal marks and tempo markings will always be in the right place. You won't ever have to look back and see if you wrote in the correct dynamic markings or if that violin part is bowed or pizzicato. Everything transfers right where it needs to be (barring the editing and cleaning-up process you go through in extracting and creating parts, where mistakes can still be made).

Also important here: time. It'll take you a few hours to make a full set up parts versus a week (or more) of writing them out by hand.

There's no contest here.

The Playback Feature

As I wrote above there are some serious dangers to the playback feature in MNS. But it does have its benefits.

MIDI playback can give you a better sense of tempo. Sometimes you think something needs to be faster or slower than it really needs to be.

You also don't get a realistic sense of proportion--the relationship of section to section and the balance and weight between them--until you hear how it all fits together. In multi-section or multi-movement works you can easily discover this when it's too late. The playback feature in MNS can give you a sense of this that's far more realistic than imagination can produce.

Speed and Editing

Pointing and clicking or playing a MIDI keyboard into a computer is much faster than writing out by hand. It's sort of like typing. I can type about seventy words per minute--something that's impossible for me to achieve with a pencil.

Another advantage lies in the editing process. You don't have to rewrite entire pages to make a small edit. Need to add a bar? Easy. Remove a bar? Done.

Instead of erasing and re-notating you can simply cut and paste when you decide to move something to a different instrument. Transposition is faster and easier. Need something to move down an octave? Select it and use a couple of keystrokes to move it.

So long as you always keep in mind that MNS is a tool you use to make your process easier, you're in good shape.

Sharing Your Music

You've written a piece. Now it's time to convince someone to play it. MNS gives you unprecedented ability to share your music both online and in person.

Say you're a student somewhere. You want to show your orchestra/choir/band conductor in the hopes they just might perform it. Well, now that you can send them a PDF via email and export a sound file that gives them a reasonable idea of what it sounds like you are infinitely more likely to land that performance.

Use these advantages to put yourself out there. Not all of my music has been performed--far from it. But since I've put up my website and established a greater social media presence I've had people reach out to me to ask me for copies of unperformed music. How did they listen to it and decide they wanted it? By perusing PDF files and sound files I exported from my MNS and posted here on this very site.

Available Softwares

I'll begin by saying I don't know everything about all of these softwares. I'll also caution you that users of each one tend to be very loyal to their chosen program. When you ask people what software they use they'll make it sound like there aren't any others.

The most popular softwares are:

  • Sibelius

  • Finale

  • Dorico

  • MuseScore

  • MagicScore Maestro

The biggest problem with MNS, especially the major ones, is cost. There's no way to sugarcoat it: professional level software of this quality is monstrously expensive. You definitely get what you pay for and I can tell you from experience that they are worth the investment.

I am personally wary of monthly payments to subscribe to a software, which Sibelius is now offering. Long-term it's definitely better to purchase a perpetual license. In the case of Sibelius, this does mean that after a certain point in the future you'll have to pay for updates, which is unfortunate. But in the long run--years of use--you'll still come out on top financially if you aren't paying them on a monthly basis.

The good news is that all of them offer trial versions you can download and use for thirty days. While a month isn't long enough for you to get really well acquainted with a MNS you can get a good idea of how it'll work for you.

Each company offers the full software and also a pared down version. The smaller (cheaper) versions have limits that are too restrictive for me--limiting the number of staves in a score, limiting notations available, not allowing certain kinds of tuplets, restricted engraving features, etc. If you're going for simpler things or you're more of a hobby composer, these are for you.

If you're at all serious about composing the full version of the software is essential. The lesser ones will only stifle you.

Finale and Sibelius are the Big Two of MNS. There are some differences between the two, but ultimately comes down to ease of use and which interface works better for you personally. I have used both extensively and I can tell you that so long as you know what you're doing there isn't anything that can't be done in either software.

Dorico is a new software on the MNS scene, and as such its development still has some holes. However, from using the trial I can tell you that it is intuitive and sufficiently powerful. I will definitely be considering switching one day, but I'm going to wait until they've come a bit further with their updates. This is one to watch, though--when AVID bought the Sibelius software, they made a huge mistake and fired the original team of developers who had built Sibelius from the ground up (and the software definitely suffered for it). Steinberg Software hired on the original Sibelius team and the result is Dorico. It's very different from any of the other softwares out there, but it has powerful features that we've all been crying out for for years. With a bit more tweaking I think it's going to end up being the gold standard of MNS.

As for me, I'm a Sibelius guy. I have been for about thirteen years, though I do keep up with Finale and the other softwares that are available. There's a lively Facebook community for Sibelius (the Sibelius Software Forum) in which advanced and experienced users quickly answer questions about the finer points of using Sibelius. I like the look of Sibelius's printed music--I think it's higher quality than any of the others. And, as I've said previously, it's just as powerful as any of the other softwares so long as you know what you're doing.

I have also purchased the NotePerformer sound set (which is only available for Sibelius) to get slightly better quality playback. There are lots of these out there, and a lot of them are even more expensive than the MNS. You better believe that if I ever find myself with an extra £2000 to throw around I'll be all about the Vienna Symphonic Library. Most of the sets out there are compatible with various MNS, in some cases you'll have to purchase separate software to make the connection between your MNS and the sound set.

But is it worth it? Well, if you can afford it. Having your computer sound like the Vienna Philharmonic would be nifty, indeed.

Next time: a discussion on techniques of (and resources for) orchestration. Since my move to England is coming up (and my computer will have to be shipped via snail mail), this one may be a month or more out.

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