Everybody knows that when you’re looking for professional-quality music notation software, you basically have a choice between Sibelius and Finale, and people sometimes ask me why they should choose Sibelius over Finale. Both are very capable programs, but in my personal opinion, there’s no contest (though perhaps that’s not surprising!). My reasons are below the jump.
Sibelius leads and Finale follows
In my opinion, the real innovations in music notation software over the past decade have come from Sibelius. For example, the following features were all added to Sibelius first, and then appeared in later versions of Finale:
- Dynamic parts. Sibelius added its groundbreaking feature for instrumental parts that update automatically when you edit the score a year before Finale’s Linked Parts, and Sibelius allows you to do some things that you can’t easily do in Finale. In Sibelius it’s easy to move bar (measure) numbers independently in the parts, or to show them on bars where they don’t appear in the full score, and if you want to have big time signatures in the full score and regular-sized ones in the parts, it’s no problem. Plus it’s simple to copy the layout of one dynamic part to another (something you can only do practically in Finale if you purchase an additional third-party plug-in).
- Saving audio files and virtual instrument support. Sibelius added the ability to save an audio track for burning to CD via Kontakt Player playback a year before Finale did the same, and Sibelius added full support for VST and Audio Unit instruments a year before Finale, too.
- Video support. Sibelius 4 was the first notation program to include a video window to make it easy for students to compose music to picture, a year before Finale.
- Add an audio track. Finale 2008 made it possible to add an audio track that plays along in sync with your score. This feature was first added in Sibelius 4, two years before Finale added a similar feature.
- Simple entry. Finale 2004 introduced lots of improvements to the Simple Entry tool, and they bear a striking resemblance to Sibelius’s existing note input methods. (The good news, then, is that if you can use Finale’s Simple Entry tool, you can input notes in Sibelius too!)
- Beaming over barlines. Finale 2004 added a plug-in to beam over barlines – but Sibelius has always been able to do this, since Sibelius 1.0 in 1998.
- “Stacks.” Finale 2008 introduced many improvements to the Selection Tool, making it easier to copy and paste passages of music. Sibelius has had similar features since Sibelius 1.0, almost a decade before Finale.
- Textured backgrounds. We always understood the importance of making the environment you’re working in comfortable and easy on the eye, so Sibelius has always allowed you to have a textured background to both the page of music and the desk behind it, and ships with more than 60 high-quality, photo-realistic textures. Textures were added to Finale in 2005, but you won’t find a single coffee-stained paper or tiger skin texture among them! (Perhaps that’s a good thing…)
- EPS export. Sibelius has been able to export EPS files, with embedded fonts and TIFF previews, for importing into leading page layout programs since 1999. Finale added this feature in Finale 2006.
- Magnetic tuplets. Sibelius added intelligent tuplets that avoid collisions with notes and articulations at either end of the bracket, and which automatically position themselves at the stem or the notehead end, in 2001, three years before similar features were added in Finale 2005.
So hopefully you can see that over the past ten years, we’ve worked hard to bring original, innovative features to Sibelius, and many of them end up Finale after the fact.
Naturally, there are a handful of features that appeared in Finale before we added them to Sibelius: one example would be scroll view, which we added to Sibelius 5 as Panorama (though we did have a scroll view feature — known as galley view — in the Acorn version of Sibelius many years previously). We tried to put our own unique spin on it, for example making the note and staff spacing in Panorama completely independent from that in normal page view, which solves a problem that Finale users may have run into: if they change the staff spacing in scroll view, it also affects page view, which can lead to some time-consuming fixing up before printing.
But Sibelius still has many unique features that Finale doesn’t have (yet). To name just a few:
- Publish and sell your own music online. Sibelius’s free Scorch web browser plug-in is used by more than a million people worldwide. SibeliusMusic.com is the largest collection of original sheet music by living composers on the Internet, with over 80,000 pieces, and more added every day. Sibelius allows you to reach a new, global audience for your music, and sell your music securely online, where prospective buyers can listen to your music, buy it, and print it right away.
- Save files you can open in earlier versions. You can save files from Sibelius that can be directly opened in previous versions of the software all the way back to Sibelius 2, so you can safely upgrade even if your colleagues or friends aren’t yet ready to take the plunge and keep sharing files with them. (Finale 2005 and later have included MusicXML export, which allow similar file transfer, but not using a native file format.)
- Paste as Cue. Sibelius 5’s Paste as Cue feature is the fastest and most flexible way of adding cues for instrumental parts that I’ve seen. I’ve heard that getting cues to appear correctly in Finale’s linked parts can end up as the main reason why you would need separate files for preparing the full score and instrumental parts. In Sibelius, you don’t even need to think about it: simply copy the music you want to cue to the clipboard, then paste it as a cue into the staff or staves in which it should appear. That’s it!
- Simple copy and paste. In Sibelius you have always been able to copy music around the score using a variety of simple methods, including the standard shortcuts of Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. Finale 2008 made it possible to copy and paste whole bars using these shortcuts, but as far as I know, even today you cannot e.g. select a slur and paste it to another bar using these standard shortcuts. Sibelius not only supports these standard conventions, but has also always provided incredibly fast copying of any kind of selection, whether it’s a bar, a note, a dynamic, or indeed anything: use Alt+click to copy quickly, or hit R to repeat the selection after itself.
- Ideas Hub. Sibelius makes it easy to save any selection of music – from a single bar to a complete texture – or any other selection of objects in your score so that you can re-use it again later. Every idea you capture can be tagged, auditioned, recalled, and then simply copied and pasted into any score.
- Instrument changes. To change instrument from, say, clarinet to alto saxophone on the same staff is as simple as choosing the instrument from a dialog and clicking in the score. In a single click, the instrument sound, transposition, clef, and staff name are all changed.
- Licence server for classroom use. No need to authorize your notation software on every computer in your computer lab: with Sibelius’s Licence Server, you can install Sibelius on all the computers in your school, and the Licence Server will automatically allow only as many copies as you have purchased to run simultaneously.
- Worksheet Creator. More than 1700 ready-made learning and teaching resources for you to use in your music teaching, either in the classroom or with individual students.
- House styles. Easily, reliably move all your settings from one score to any other. All your custom text styles, line styles, playback settings, instrument definitions, symbols, engraving rules and more can be applied to one or more other scores – either in total or selectively – in just a couple of clicks.
- Automatically hyphenated lyrics. No other notation program can take unformatted text, automatically hyphenate it, and paste it into the score in a single operation. Click assignment in Finale is bound to be slower than pasting all your lyrics in a single step.
And my hope is that Sibelius will continue to have exciting new features that are only available in Sibelius in the future, too.
Look and feel
How you feel about the look and feel and design philosophy of Finale and Sibelius will play a big part in determining which of the programs you will prefer. Finale has a tool-based user interface, a common paradigm in software designed in the 1980s: you have to choose the right tool before you can do what you’re trying to do. But in Sibelius, there are few modes and no tools to choose between. In Finale, every tool can have its own set of keyboard shortcuts (“metatools”), which can make it tough to remember them all. Sibelius uses simple, mnemonic keyboard shortcuts, often only consisting of a single key, to make the program easy to learn and easy to remember.
Want to add a time signature? In Finale, you select the Time Signature tool, then double-click a bar (or right-click a bar and choose the right thing from the menu). In Sibelius, you hit T.
How about a slur? In Finale, you select the Smart Shape tool, then either select the slur from the tool palette or hold down S, then double-click and drag over the notes to which you want to add a slur. In Sibelius, select the note where you want the slur to start, and hit S.
What about zooming in and out? In Finale, you select the Zoom tool, then click on the score to zoom in to the next fixed percentage, or hold Ctrl (Command on Mac) and click to zoom out a step. In Sibelius, you can hold down the Ctrl key and scroll the mouse wheel to smoothly zoom in and out. Sibelius even keeps the selected items in view as you zoom.
In my experience, to achieve the same results in Sibelius and Finale, you’re going to spend a lot more time in menus, dialogs and performing long sequences of difficult-to-remember keyboard shortcuts in Finale. I personally find this way of working tiring, both physically and mentally, whereas I find Sibelius’s way of working fast, natural and fun.
Reliance on plug-ins
I believe users want great, integrated features that are right at the heart of the software. In Sibelius, plug-ins are simple add-ons designed to make repetitive tasks quicker. In Finale, plug-ins are sometimes the only practical way to create some standard notations. For example, here are some things that are commonly done using plug-ins in Finale that are only a click away or completely automatic in Sibelius:
- Finale ships with the Patterson Beams plug-in to produce good beam angles. Sibelius’s Optical Beams produce great beam angles automatically, and you can easily change all the beam angles in your score with a single visit to Sibelius’s Engraving Rules dialog.
- Finale ships with the ScoreMerger plug-in, introduced in Finale 2008, to attach different files together. In Sibelius, it has always been as simple as choosing Append Score from the File menu. (Though it’s true that ScoreMerger does allow you to combine individual parts into full scores quickly, which takes a few more steps in Sibelius.)
- Finale ships with the Create Coda System plug-in, introduced in Finale 2006, to make it easy to put a gap in a system for a coda at the end of a song. In Sibelius, it has always been as simple as choosing Split System from the Layout menu.
- Finale doesn’t have a system of text styles like Sibelius does, so if you want to change the font used by e.g. all the lyrics in your score, you have to use the Change Fonts plug-in.
- Cross-staff beaming is tricky in Finale without using a plug-in, added in Finale 2004. In Sibelius, it’s as simple as selecting the notes you want to cross to the staff above or below, and using a keyboard shortcut.
- Finale doesn’t distinguish between appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas, so doesn’t automatically show acciaccaturas correctly, i.e. with a small diagonal slash over the stem. You can run a plug-in to do this, or define your own expression to add the slash – but in Sibelius you can simply create the appropriate kind of grace note directly via the on-screen Keypad.
- Finale doesn’t have built-in tools to produce one- and two-note tremolos, common in keyboard and harp music, so you would normally use the Easy Tremolos plug-in, added in Finale 2002. In Sibelius, simply add the tremolo directly via the on-screen Keypad.
- Finale doesn’t support automatic system separators (known in Finale as “system dividers”), showing where two or more systems of instruments exist on the same page. You can use a plug-in to create these as a text expression attached to specific bars, but as soon as your score reformats, the dividers can end up in the wrong place. In Sibelius, you can simply switch system separators in the Engraving Rules dialog, and they always appear in the right place.
In Sibelius, plug-ins do fun and cool things, but you don’t need to run a plug-in to produce standard notation. And in addition to the 130 plug-ins included with Sibelius that do a variety of useful tasks, there are around 200 additional free plug-ins available for download from the Sibelius web site.
The engraver’s choice?
You may have heard that if you’re serious about engraving and publishing, you need Finale, because Sibelius isn’t powerful or flexible enough for professional work. In my experience, that’s simply not true: Sibelius is used by just as many of the world’s most successful and most respected publishers as Finale is, including Boosey & Hawkes, Schott, Peters Edition, Henle, Hal Leonard, Music Sales, and many others.
You may have heard that only Finale allows you to adjust the finest details of the appearance of your score, such as staff line thickness, hairpin apertures, distances between notes and accidentals, space around clefs, but this isn’t true, either. Sibelius provides literally hundreds of settings that allow you to tweak every aspect of your score.
In the last two versions, Sibelius has added new features that improve the appearance of hairpins, ties, beams, repeat barlines, and more. Sibelius takes the needs of professional engravers and publishers as seriously as it takes the needs of composers, arrangers and copyists.
The copyist’s choice?
You may have heard that all the biggest Hollywood movies and Broadway shows are prepared using Finale. In fact, many of the biggest films and shows are prepared using Sibelius, including the winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Score, Dario Marionelli’s score for Atonement.
Sibelius focuses on professional users of its software, and has added many features in the latest two versions specifically designed to make the copyist’s work faster and easier, including improvements in bar numbers, rehearsal marks, multirests, and more. It’s my hope that Sibelius will continue to be the smartest choice for people who make their living using notation software.
The educator’s choice?
You may have heard that if you’re serious about teaching music, or producing music for your school’s band, choir or orchestra, Finale is the tool of choice. In fact Sibelius is now used in thousands of high schools in the United States, and in more secondary schools than not in the United Kingdom. And Sibelius is used by many of the top drum corps and marching bands in the US, including the champion corps of DCI.
I’ve even been fortunate enough to see students as young as 7 or 8 years old using Sibelius and creating music with it. And it’s sophisticated enough that it handles the largest band or orchestra scores with ease.
And if you feel like a change, it’s easy to switch!
If you’re already a Finale user, and you’ve spent years mastering its intricacies, why should you switch to Sibelius? After all, all of Sibelius’s new features end up in Finale within a few years anyway, and you know how to use Finale already.
Well, in my opinion, you should switch because you deserve to enjoy the time you spend making music on your computer. And switching is not as hard as you think. If you can use Finale’s Simple Entry tool, you can already input notes in Sibelius. You can bring your existing music with you, because you can export MusicXML files from Finale 2005 or later and open them right up in Sibelius.
One man’s opinion
All of the above is just one man’s personal opinion, and a biased opinion at that. But I hope that I have at least given you something to think about. Disagree with me? Feel free to say so!