MOLA 2014 presentation: A comparison of Finale and Sibelius

by Philip Rothman on May 6, 2014 · 30 comments

in Opinion

The 2014 annual conference of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) just concluded yesterday in Miami Beach, Florida, and by all accounts it was a success. Thoughtful and stimulating discussions about many topics of particular interest to the field were to be found during both official meetings and spirited conversations over drinks at the hotel bar.

Miami Beach, host to the 2014 MOLA conference, at sunrise, yesterday

Miami Beach, host city to the 2014 MOLA conference, at sunrise, yesterday

With the sunny, sandy beaches of South Florida beckoning just footsteps away from the conference headquarters, I was grateful that an impressive number of delegates chose to sit in a darkened room and attend my various presentations. There were three in all: one each on using Finale and Sibelius in the context of an orchestra library, and one on a comparison between those two leading commercial music notation applications.

For the latter seminar, I produced a guide for attendees to follow along with while I demonstrated the features of the two programs. It occurred to me that blog readers would be interested in the guide’s contents, so I’ve posted it below. You can also download a PDF version.

Keep in mind, these are just opinions based on my experience, and it’s not a comprehensive tour of every feature — there are many features in both applications that don’t appear in the tables. Thoughts and comments are welcome, of course! The goal was to give MOLA delegates some guidance on when it might be advantageous to choose one program or another, depending on their particular needs.

Delivering a presentation about Finale, Sibelius, and library work, at the 2014 MOLA conference

Delivering a presentation about Finale, Sibelius, and library work, at the 2014 MOLA conference

My deep gratitude goes to MOLA president Patrick McGinn and MOLA administrator Amy Tackitt for inviting me to participate in the conference, and for all of their support in helping make the presentations a success. Special thanks also to my colleague Robert Puff for looking over this document while it was being drafted.

MOLA 2014: Finale and Sibelius — A Comparison

Setup and basics

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
Score setuptossuptossupBoth programs have setup wizards that offer ready-made templates as well as options for customization.
Selecting and working with objectsThere are no tools in Sibelius, so you can select a note, an expression and a line and, say, delete them all at once. It is not possible to select more than one object at a time in Finale’s Selection Tool; to do that, you must use a particular tool. Once there you can only work with the items specific to that tool. It is also possible to select non-contiguous staves in Sibelius; this is not possible in Finale.
Program defaultsSibelius gets better results more quickly. Magnetic Layout, while not perfect, makes aligning items and avoiding collisions much easier. Placing articulations in the correct position, especially when using multiple articulations, is much easier in Sibelius. Sibelius has better beaming defaults. Sibelius will automatically vertically justify staves on a page.
Advanced customizationMany things can be customized in Finale in ways that they sometimes cannot in Sibelius. Noteheads, notes, pages, staves, systems, and many other items can be resized individually with limitless options in Finale.
Note entry, key signatures, time signatures, clefs and barlinestossuptossupBoth programs are similar when it comes to the basics of entering notes via a computer or MIDI keyboard, or a mouse. Entering time and key signatures, clefs, and barlines is comparable but different in each program.
Transposing scoresFinale 2014 narrowed the gap; prior to this version it was not possible to create a true atonal, or “keyless” key in Finale. Still, Sibelius has a slight edge when it comes to correctly dealing with C instruments that transpose at the octave like xylophone, piccolo and contrabass. These instruments customarily show at transposed pitch even in C scores; only Sibelius handles this correctly. Sibelius also gives correct aural feedback when entering notes into a transposed score via a MIDI keyboard; Finale will play the actual pitch entered on your keyboard instead of the transposed pitch of the instrument.

Notes and notations

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
Cautionary accidentalsSibelius has various options to automatically display cautionary accidentals. In Finale, this is done via a plug-in that must be run again if the document changes.
Glissando linesIn Finale it is easy to create any type of line and have it automatically snap to two notes, even if the notes are on different staves, something that it not possible in Sibelius.
System linesGlobal lines like rit. poco a poco _ _ _ that automatically display in parts are only possible in Sibelius, although both programs can handle global text without a problem.
TremolosTremolos of both the single note and multi-note variety are supported better in Sibelius. Sibelius will automatically adjust the stem length on notes with tremolos, if needed. Tremolos between two notes are also natively supported in Sibelius and can be easily enabled or disabled; in Finale, a plug-in is necessary.
Beams and stemstossuptossupEach program has strengths. Sibelius has better default beam algorithms, easy beaming over barlines, and ways to quickly adjust the most common beam variations. Finale will automatically “float” rests under a beam, and allows you to individually adjust all the properties of a beam or any secondary beam.
Brackets and staff groupsSibelius is very limiting in how instruments can be grouped in the score. Finale offers nearly unlimited possibilities with support for nested groups; individual control on a system-by-system basis; more brace and bracket styles; fine control on bracket positioning; and a brace designer.
Nonstandard key signaturesFinale allows you to build key signatures like those found in maqam or other folk-derived scales, which are not possible in Sibelius.

Text

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
Text in the musicThe new features Sibelius 7 put Sibelius ahead of Finale. Advanced typography options like wrapped text in expressions, angled text, and the ability to create parent and child text styles are Sibelius-only features. Sibelius offers point increments of .5 pt, compared to 1 pt in Finale, and also allows for different settings in the score and the part—all features lacking in Finale. Finale does offer more enclosure options, although not at the text style level. Both programs offer a “house style” or “category” system of text management, where default styles and positioning can be set.
Text on the pageSimply dropping text on the page independent of the music is virtually impossible in Sibelius, unless it’s a blank page. Specifying a finite page rage for a header or footer is equally impossible, but in Finale, it’s very easy to do. (It’s so easy, in fact, that novices often place text blocks where they should be placing expressions, and run into other sorts of trouble.) Both programs do allow extensive use of wildcards to automatically insert score metadata in text areas.
Bar numbers For most typical cases, the programs perform equally well and have options to add prefixes and suffixes, skip bars, and change from numbers to letters within a document. But Finale’s measure numbering options are far more customizable when it comes to complex situations, as well as allowing varying styles within the same document or even the same section of music.
Page numberstossuptossupFinale’s concept is much more straightforward, but also more limiting. While both programs allow for different page numbers than the actual page (page offsets), only Sibelius allows for different settings for the score and each part. In Finale, this has to be accomplished via separate text blocks for each part that are then hidden in all the other parts. Both programs can calculate the total number of pages in a score.
Lyrics and vocal musicFor simple scores, both programs are fine. For large scores, a lot of lyrics can slow Finale to a crawl. Unscrambling a Finale file where the composer has indiscriminately applied lyrics in different verses or sections is not for the faint of heart. There is also a rare but serious bug where Finale will re-assign lyric syllables throughout the score. Sibelius can automatically apply elisions in lyrics; Finale can’t. Sibelius also can identify vocal staves and automatically position text, hairpins, and tuplets above the staff on these staves.
Chord symbolsBoth programs are comparable in the features offered. Sibelius recognizes chords better, can easily provide equivalent chord text and in general is easier to work with.

Layout

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
Independent page, staff and system sizesFinale has a clear advantage here. Staff, system and page sizes and settings can all be adjusted on an individual basis in Finale. In Sibelius, it is possible to set sections with different page margins and to have a small staff at a fixed percentage size, but the options are nowhere near as varied as what is offered in Finale.
Page layouttossuptossupBoth programs offer sophisticated page layout options, but go about it in different ways.
Multiple movementsEven though Finale can place page text better than Sibelius, there is no way in Finale to automatically center a text block on a page and attach it to a particular system. This is possible in Sibelius and thus makes placing section or movement subtitles much easier. In Sibelius, if an instrument is tacet in a section between two final barlines, the part will automatically have one giant “TACET” multirest for those measures. Both programs can automatically place full instrument names in the score at the start of a section.

Parts

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
PartstossuptossupEach program offers advantages over the other:
  • Finale is the only program to feature voiced linked parts; in other words, parts that automatically split a score staff with two musical lines into independent parts. It mostly works, but there are a few glitches, like with grace note spacing.

  • Only Finale can respell a note enharmonically in the part while keeping the original in the score; useful for concert pitch scores.

  • Finale has more sophisticated options for independent settings for time signatures in the score versus the part.

  • Sibelius allows independent text sizes for the score and parts; Finale doesn’t.

  • Copying the layout from one part to another is built into Sibelius; in Finale a plug-in must be used.
MultirestsFinale has an edge—with caveats. Multirest settings can be controlled on an individual basis, and you can break multirests in one part of your document and display them elsewhere. The caveats: It’s easier for multirests to go awry in Finale if they aren’t set to update automatically; Sibelius will automatically make space in a multirest with a clef change (in Finale this must be done manually); Sibelius will automatically size multirests proportionally (in Finale this must be done with a plug-in).
CuesThe Paste as Cue option in Sibelius is superior to the Finale plug-in Add Cue Notes. The Sibelius option can hide the music in the score, show it in the part, reduce the size, add a default rest and mute playback all in one go. In Finale these steps are separate and found in different areas of the program.

Other features

ItemAdvantage:
Finale
Advantage:
Sibelius
Comments
PlaybackSibelius 7.5 offered enhancements to playback that addressed certain deficiencies that otherwise would have made this category a tossup. Quickly initiating playback is a little easier in Sibelius; you can select a staff or staves to solo them without having to use the Mixer, like in Finale. Sibelius does a better job of interpreting a wide variety of staff and system text, including advanced navigation like endings, repeats, codas, and even a custom playback structure. Both programs support third-party libraries, but the Sibelius sound set ecosystem is better.
VideoBoth programs support video sync and offer various frame rate and playback options. Sibelius has a hit point feature and supports ReWire syncing with DAWs and sequencers, which Finale does not.
Backwards compatibilityThe edge to Sibelius, but only for the moment. It is possible to export Sibelius files all the way back to version 2. Finale 2014 can only export back to Finale 2012 format (and to MusicXML). Finale 2014 and future versions of Finale will be written in a “future-proof” way such that exporting should not be necessary, though this remains to be seen in practice.
Plug-ins and extendibilitytossuptossupBoth programs have a small number of active developers that create useful plug-ins for the program. In Sibelius 7, you can download plug-ins directly from within the program. Finale doesn’t offer this, but it does have a more user-friendly way to write macros.
Sharing and MusicXMLSibelius 7.5 gained some features that allows for automatic sharing of video and audio to YouTube, Facebook and SoundCloud. Both programs can export audio of the score, MIDI, and PDF. Both programs can import from and export to the MusicXML format, although expect Finale to be more tightly integrated with this format, since MakeMusic controls it.
SupportMakeMusic offers unlimited complimentary phone support; Avid offers only 90 days. Both companies have official reps on social media and forums.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Puff May 6, 2014 at 1:16 PM

Thanks for this excellent and thorough feature / implementation comparison of the two venerable notation programs Finale and Sibelius. One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see that while these are both very mature software programs, many improvements (and bug fixes) are still needed from both.

I like to imagine members of the development teams of both Finale and Sibelius reviewing specific items in this post and saying “we can make this much better”, and then taking steps to make that happen. Here’s to this post serving in some small way as a catalyst for positive change.

Reply

Philip Rothman May 6, 2014 at 2:42 PM

Robert: Indeed. Thanks again for your help on this!

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Ralph L. Bowers Jr. May 6, 2014 at 4:55 PM

Great comparison of the core features of Sibelius & Finale.
I’d just like to reiterate the importance of either programs plug-in developers have been and are to us users.
Maybe you could in the near future do a blog on the active developers and how most do this with no remuneration what so ever.

Thank you Philip
Ralph Bowers

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Philip Rothman May 6, 2014 at 6:12 PM

Ralph: Great idea! We are very grateful for the plug-in developers and how their work extends the programs’ utility.

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Luis May 7, 2014 at 1:07 AM

Thanks, Philip. This was very well put together and seems to be unbiased. Just the facts. I really like that. I wonder what would keep either company from looking at your comparison and simply including what is missing or deficient in a free upgrade that would swoon current users toward that company’s product and/or keep current users happy.

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Philip Rothman May 7, 2014 at 7:30 AM

Luis: Thanks. It would indeed be nice to see some of the features of one program incorporated in the other.

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Ron Puente May 7, 2014 at 1:08 PM

Philip:
Thanks, again, for presenting great information. The comparison provides quick insight into both programs. A free upgrade for both would be great.

Ron Puente

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Bill Holab May 7, 2014 at 1:32 PM

Thanks for posting this Philip. I think it’s a bit misleading; Finale, by default does not get a lot of these things right. Multirests are horrible, for example, by default, in that you can do a part and when you print it, everything changes. Their reasoning for this is misguided, but for a novice user, they will end up with unpredictable, confusing results.

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Philip Rothman May 7, 2014 at 3:25 PM

Ron: Thanks! I doubt very much that a free upgrade to either program would encompass any of these items, but one can always hope.

Bill: Thanks. I agree, which is why I mentioned the caveats on the multirests. In making the comparisons I tried to think about both the applications’ default settings into account as well their ability to customize to specific use cases (e.g., a librarian might need to be very particular about individual multirests in order to match an existing part). Of course, in the end it’s only my opinion!

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Henry Caspersen August 19, 2014 at 1:09 AM

This article should have been titled “A comparison of Finale and Sibelius interfaces” – it’s a sign of lack of mastery to wickedly oversell and unjustly advertise your teachings in broad, encapsulating titles in which the underlying content only remotely covers a poorly described subset

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Philip Rothman August 19, 2014 at 7:55 AM

Henry: We only had a limited amount of time for the session; a more exhaustive comparison would have taken days. Still, your comment is unduly harsh and moreover incorrect, as the comparison goes well beyond a superficial “interface” checklist and into each program’s actual capabilities. If you can point me in the direction of a better independent comparison, or create one yourself, I’d welcome knowing of it!

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Florian Ross May 5, 2015 at 4:29 AM

Hi – I don’t exactly know, what this comparison is aiming at, but if it’s supposed to help people decide, it’s not helping. I am using both Finale & Sibelius and started working thru your comparison (just out of interest) and already the first item “selecting and working with objects” is partially wrong.
– I do have to switch “tools” all the time when working in Sibelius, there is no such thing as a tool-free GUI in a program that offers so many functions and sub functions
– it is possible to select more than one object at a time in Finale; it has to be of the same kind, though. In many, many years of professional notation I have never come across the need to select, say, “a note, an expression and a line” all at once. The exact opposite is the case: It does happen quite often that you need to select all dynamic markings in a certain section at once, or all expressions because they turn out to be wrong. This is much faster with Finale and much closer to an actual composition workflow.
To check this behavior as an advantage of Sibelius does’ make any sense to me.
If you have a score with 48 systems and you find out that there should be really Staccatos on four 8th notes somewhere in a bar (in all instruments), Finale will do this much, much faster, BECAUSE it has a tool for it: a) click tool b) hold down shortcut for staccato and drag a box over all systems. 3 Steps to insert 192 staccatos, exactly where you want them. That’s only one example on how much faster tools are, if you know how to use them.
There are other details of both Programs that will influence your entire composition workflow that aren’t even mentioned and that save me real time every single day.
I’d advise to really sit down with at least 5-10 professional writers and note their workflow before comparing programs at such shallow level (unfortunately).

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Philip Rothman May 5, 2015 at 7:00 AM

Hi Florian. As I mentioned in the article, “Keep in mind, these are just opinions based on my experience, and it’s not a comprehensive tour of every feature — there are many features in both applications that don’t appear in the tables. Thoughts and comments are welcome, of course! The goal was to give MOLA delegates some guidance on when it might be advantageous to choose one program or another, depending on their particular needs.”

For instance, if you were a music librarian and you always worked on a lot of music where every page was a different staff size, and that was the most important feature to you, you might choose Finale.

So that should address your question about the target audience for the comparison, and to know that I am well aware that many things aren’t mentioned, and that it is just my opinion only. I did not present this as the comprehensive viewpoint of 5-10 professional writers. But thanks for the advice! If you choose to undertake such a project, I will gladly read it.

Regarding selecting objects: You can’t select, say, a “p” and a hairpin crescendo at the same time in Finale.

Regarding your example of the staccatos, if you select a passage in Sibelius, and type the staccato key on the Keypad, you get staccatos. It’s actually 2 steps. I don’t see how Finale is any faster. That’s why I said that the programs were similar when it came to the basics of note entry.

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Luis May 5, 2015 at 7:47 AM

Philip, evidently Florian did not find the “be nice” feature in either Sibelius or Finale. ;-)

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Paul August 24, 2016 at 9:56 AM

apparently you missed them too!

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Charlie Orena May 13, 2015 at 3:01 AM

Under certain circumstances in Sibelius bar numbers will not continue to appear. Sib. support told me was due to repeat barlines being used in specific situations. Is it possible to create bar numbers in spite of this situation?

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Paul Rose August 20, 2015 at 1:08 AM

I went to your website, Mr. Rothman, and learned that you offer courses in Sibelius. Does this imply you have a financial arrangement with Sibelius? If so, shouldn’t you disclose it prominently? (I am just an amateur musician beginning to shop for a notation program that will not go out of business.)

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Philip Rothman August 20, 2015 at 7:10 AM

Hi Paul,

The Sibelius courses I have offered have been entirely self-presented (meaning that I pay for the cost of running them, renting the space, etc.). Avid has given me permission to use and reproduce their materials in the workshops, but has not compensated me for running the workshops or for any of my costs in doing so.

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Paul Rose August 20, 2015 at 12:02 PM

Hi Philip,
Thanks for clarifying my concern. Yesterday I ordered a trial version of Sibelius First, which seems will meet my needs. Unfortunately, the trial version apparently does not allow input by scanning, since that button is grayed out. More than anything, I had hoped to learn how much post-scanning editing I would have to do.

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Luis August 21, 2015 at 4:09 AM

Phil, why do you pay out of pocket to make your presentations? I mean, that sounds very altruistic, but how do you recoup that? Thanks for your helpfulness.

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Philip Rothman August 21, 2015 at 6:54 AM

Luis, thanks for your concern! A fee is charged for the training sessions, so it all works out.

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Luis August 21, 2015 at 11:04 PM

Got it. Maybe I should find somebody smart like you and partner up with him/her.

Thanks.

Paul August 24, 2016 at 10:02 AM

nevertheless you have a commercial interest in, and deep knowledge of one product. a fact you need to disclose before conducting an ‘impartial’ review.

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Philip Rothman August 24, 2016 at 10:19 AM

Paul: I have a deep knowledge of both products, and I have given workshops on using both Finale and Sibelius, including each in equal time in each of the last three MOLA conferences. I wouldn’t say that my “commercial interest,” to the extent that it exists, is greater in one or the other. It’s your opinion whether the review is impartial or not, but be assured that all opinions are solely my own, and that no representative of either company reviewed, influenced, or compensated me for my comparison.

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Paul Rose August 24, 2016 at 11:50 AM

Hi Philip,
About a year ago when I was trying to decide between Finale and Sibelius, I wrote you and you kindly answered. I assure you I have not written you since then. I am mystified how this matter has arisen, zombie-like, from the grave. I see new emails from this morning. Anyway, if some issue has been raised again, I did not do it. Incidentally, I bought Sibelius First last December and have been very happy with it. It suits my purposes very well. Thank you.

David Ezell October 7, 2015 at 1:24 PM

Rest assured that scanning works very well in Sibelius. I use it to create books of chamber music from the Petrucci website, and to create modern orchestral parts for transposing instruments. I have access to a lot of legal music that I would not have time or means to acquire without music scanning. Music scanning has improved greatly in the last few years. Years ago so much editing was required that it was not a time saver. An important tip is to scan at a higher resolution than the default setting. The scanner will take a little longer and the results will require a lot less editing. PhotoScore Ultimate defaults to 300, and I change it to 450.

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jeff troxel January 29, 2017 at 12:14 PM

There was one item that made the decision for me; Support. Being able to call the company and get a human on the phone to help with a problem is HUGE. I’ve used that feature with Finale maybe three times in the last ten years. I’ve also tried to deal with Avid and their website. It’s a nightmare. Be prepared to spend 15-45 minutes navigating around to find an answer to a question.

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Ehler March 17, 2017 at 1:47 AM

Greetings! I’m working on a comprehensive comparison I plan to be pushing out this summer, but I thought I’d throw out some explicit points that have been changed since you presented this in 2014!

Transposing Scores – Finale fixed the issue he mentions in v25.2. Sibelius has other struggles with transposing scores, such as key signature issues, some instruments having no sounding octave setting.
Beams and stems – I believe Sibelius can now float rests the way you mention in this post with 8.1
Independent page, staff, and system sizes – Sibelius has added many of the same features Finale has here in the mot recent update. I am unsure if it has the full functionality that Finale enjoys with these features.
Parts – Sibelius has added the capacity to have independent enharmonic spelling in parts and scores in Sibelius 8.2
Video – Finale has removed their video sync feature but now has ReWire support.
Support – Finale has closed down its official forum and replaced it with the deplorable Knowledge Base. Official support for Finale still remains better.

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Philip Rothman March 17, 2017 at 3:50 PM

Hi Ehler, thanks for this additional information!

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Philip Rothman August 24, 2016 at 12:12 PM

Hi Paul (Rose), not to worry! It was a different Paul that commented today, and to whom I replied.

Reply

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