Notation Software Review: A Close Look at Sibelius

by James Frankel


            If you are anything like me, then you probably use the notation software that you first learned how to use, and are a bit reluctant to try something new.  There are a number of high-quality notation software titles on the market today.  For years, the most popular has been Finale.  There is no question that it has been the industry standard for the past decade.  The quality of the output is publishing-house quality, and many are Finale fanatics. 

            Personally, I was never a fan of using Finale.  I am not a manual reader, and Finale is far too complicated to use just flying blind.  I used Overture  by Opcode (now Coda).  Overture was the first native Power Macintosh software available, and that is why I started using it.  It didn’t require hours of manual study, and it produced  roughly the same product.    Five years later I was still using it, until I went to the MENC National Conference in Washington, D.C.  It was there that I first saw the most incredible notation software I have ever seen.  It’s name: Sibelius.  The following is a review of this music notation software.  While it may appear to be an advertisement for Sibelius, it is not.  It is the hope of this article to compare the three major notation programs, and illustrate why it is that Sibelius is quickly becoming the new industry standard, and revolutionizing the way we will see and hear music in the very near future.

            Sibelius claims to be the “fastest, smartest, easiest scorewriter in the world.”  I decided to start with this claim.  What I found to be one of the most amazing features about Sibelius was its dizzying speed.  No matter what you ask the program to do, whether it is to transpose a 32 measure horn part or an 800 measure full orchestra score, it does it in 1/10th of a second.  For all of you who have sat there like I have, watching your cursor spin around while you  wait for your page to redraw, you will appreciate this feature.  You can reformat an entire score in 1/10th of a second.  It’s true, it’s scary.   Perhaps where this feature is the most useful is when you are extracting parts from a score.  It extracts all of the parts in 1/10th of a second.  There is no doubt about it, Sibelius is by far the fastest notation program available.  The part extraction feature leads me to the next claim, which is that it is the smartest notation program available.  This, I believe, is the most important aspect of any notation program.  I looked very closely at this aspect, and I liked what I found.

            Sibelius claims to be the most “intuitive” scorewriter available.  The fact is, this software contains many features that the others haven’t even thought of.  Using any other software than Sibelius, part extraction can be a nightmare.  HOw many hours have you spent cleaning up your extracted parts?  I know that even for a simple 64 measure composition written for beginning band, it can take hours and hours to get every part looking “publishing” quality.  Things like aligning the dynamic markings, adjusting multi-measure rests, reformatting the amount of measures per line so that the part does not have one long measure on the bottom line.  How frustrating is it to click on each dynamic marking and drag it to it’s exact location?  I have spent hours just doing that, believe me, it’s frustrating.  What made me say “wow” out loud first at the convention was the part extraction.  The presenter pressed extract, and instantaneously, 32 perfect, ready to print parts were extracted.  The secret behind this amazing feature is that the dynamic markings are “magnetic”.  By this I mean that when you place any dynamic marking in a score, it attaches it to the corresponding notes, and literally sticks with them.                While we are on the subject of dynamics and other marks of edition, the software’s “intuition” shines on playback.  We all know that notation programs are not meant for playback.  Sibelius is.  The second “wow” came when the presenter played back an excerpt, and the program played not only all of the dynamics, but the crescendos, pizzicatos, tenutos, trills, slurs, accents, marcatos, diminuendos, etc.  The presenter then showed some of the other playback features.  I’m warning you now, you’d better sit down for this.  Sibelius has a unique feature called “espressivo”.  Espressivo” makes your score sound as if it were being played by a human being.  You can even adjust how “human” you want it to be played.  Expression, phrasing and even rubato - they are all slightly different each time you play it. 

            The next feature is the “SoundStage” feature which, get this, actually recreates a three dimensional recreation of the performance group you have selected.  It pans the instruments to where they would sit in the ensemble, violins sound front left, tubas sound back and to the right.  This feature gives you quite an impressive playback of the music you create.  Other programs simply cannot do this. 

            If you have ever used the swing feature in the playback of your jazz works, you will know that it can be problematic.  Sibelius actually lets you choose what type of swing you would like your piece played in, and it is so intuitive, the platback is always perfect, and it really swings.  Add this feature to the espressivo feature and you can imagine the possiblilities.

            One of the other features is Sibelius’ intelligent page layout.  How many times have you had to play around with bar lines to fit in 16th and 32nd notes.  Most notation programs have a set bar configuration, and squeeze the notes into the bar.  This often leads to hours of editing, making sure that all of your notes are legible, and that any accidentals embedded into a 32nd note run are legible.  Both Finale and Overture make you spend hours of time editing problems like these.  If you have never had to edit a score on a notation program, talk to some one who has.  Sibelius is truly intuitive.  It takes away all of these annoying tasks and lets you get to the important things, like writing music.  Sibelius eliminates all of these editing problems automatically.  It knows what you mean, and does it for you (in 1/10th of a second).  Another amazing part of the intelligent page layout is that the program allows you set up any template you would like.  Just tell Sibelius before you start what instruments you would like to compose for, and it sets it up for you.  You can then compose the entire score in concert pitch.  When it is time to extract the parts, Sibelius automatically transposes the parts for you.  Other notation programs can do this as well, but you have to read quite a lot of manual to set up these tasks.  Sibelius does it for you.

            Sibelius also claims to be the easiest notation program to use.  Quite simply, it is.  I didn’t read one page of the manual when I receieved mySibelius software, and I was up and running like a pro within an hour.  I confess, I did see a demonstration of the software before I began using it, but that was it.  The intuitiveness of the software makes it so easy.  The tedious tasks are out of mind.  The software fosters your creativity by taking away all of the technical aspects of using notation software in general.  What makes this product uniquely easy is the way you imput the notation.  There are five ways to imput notation on Sibelius.  The first is a feature called “Flexi-time”.  For all of you struggling keyboardists out there trying to input your notes with a MIDI keyboard, you’ll love this unique feature.  While you are playing in your melody along with the metronome, Sibelius actually follows you if you slow down or speed up.  No other program does that.  The second way to imput notes is the old fashioned “step-time” where you click on a note palette and then click on the staff where you want your note to appear.  This typically is the absolute longest way to input your notes.  With Sibelius  it is almost as fast as playing it in.  You can play the pitch on a MIDI keyboard with one hand, and type in the corresponding rhythms using the numeric keypad with the other.  It takes a little while to learn how to use it quickly, but once you do, you’ll be surprised how fast you can enter notes in to your computer.  The third way is just using the computer keyboard.  Want to enter an A, press the letter A.  The numeric keypad then acts in tandem to enter rhythmic values, as well as rests, accidentals, and marks of edition.  The fourth way is to convert a MIDI file.  You can download a MIDI file from the internet, or even save your work on another notation program as a MIDI file, and Sibelius will automatically convert the MIDI file in to a score.  The fifth and final way is to scan sheet music into a Sibelius plug-in program called Photoscore.  Sibelius will then convert the scanned image into a score.  It’s not 100% perfect yet, but it is amazing.  Imagine scanning in a duet, transposing it, and printing it out.  You can do it with Sibelius.

            The final unique feature of Sibelius  that I would like to highlight is it’s internet publishing capability.  You can save any Sibelius score as an HTML file and publish it on your own website.  What is truly incredible is a program called Scorch which allows you to then playback the score on your website as a general MIDI file, with all of the features that I have listed.  In the presentation that I saw, the clinician then transposed the score on the sight and played in back in a new key.  This is the future of internet music publishing, and Sibelius is at the front.  No other program is even close to being able to do this.  Currently you can download music as either a PDF file, a General MIDI file or an audio file.  Sibelius lets you do it all simultaneously.

            In all my years of technology experience I have never seen anything quite as revolutionary as Sibelius.  I strongly urge you to try it for youself.  Visit and download your free demo today.  Let me know what you think of it.  I’m sure that you’ll be just as excited about it as I am.