When it comes to notation programs the two big players are Finale and Sibelius, but now there is a third choice: Musescore. The biggest difference is price. Finale can be found on Amazon for around $430, Sibelius costs around $500. Musescore is open source software so it’s free.
I decided to spend a few days evaluating the demos for Finale and Sibelius and comparing it with Musescore. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth review but instead I’ll just focus on the pros and cons I found with the three pieces of software.
- Did I mention it’s free?
- It does a decent job of loading midi files and converting them to notation
- It opens and saves files in MusicXML format as well as midi files and several other formats. Interestingly there is experimental support for ‘band in a box’ files
- It has a UI that is not dissimilar to Sibelius. I found note entry pretty intuitive
- It is a pretty mature open source product having passed version 1.0
- I had one or two crashes but the program was able to recover the session so I did not lose any work
- It doesn’t support a huge range of plugins like the other programs, but basic plugin support has been added to the program and it’s only a matter of time before plenty of plugins are created, given the strength of the open source community
- It supports multiple voices per staff but I couldn’t find a good way to merge them back to one voice
- I did not find a way to remove duplicate notes
- No score scanning solution included
- “industry leader”. Millions of professional users
- Very flexible and powerful. I didn’t find a score notation task that it could not do, although it wasn’t always intuitive to use
- A number of third-party plugins available, both free and paid
- It has a unique “human playback” feature. The program interprets expressions in the score during playback. This really makes a difference if you want to use your notation software to hear what your music will sound like in a live performance. You can customize the human playback in a number of ways.
- There is a selection of orchestral sounds from the amazing Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) included with the full program
- basic score scanning solution included
- The demo didn’t include the orchestral samples (just midi playback) and VST support of the full program. I understand that the samples would make the download too large but I think they should at least include VST support with the demo
- For the price I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that the full GPO sound set should be included but at least there is a discount to upgrade to the full version of GPO.
- The program has evolved over many years and functionality is now spread over a number of different menu options and dialog boxes. The interface is also very ‘modal’ so you have to first select a tool to get access to the menu options for that tool. For example, to change staff options you have to first select the staff tool to get access to the staff menu. In general the interface seems a bit “90s” and could do with a rework to bring it up to the 2010s.
- Whenever you start playback it returns to the start of the score. The start point can be changed (in a dialog box) but I preferred the Sibelius and Musescore approach of starting playback from the current point in the score.
- The on-screen view of the score was better than Musescore or Finale. There are options to change the background and the ‘paper’ which is a nice touch
- The UI doesn’t get in the way of working with the score, unlike Finale. I don’t have to ‘switch tool’ to work with staff, notes etc. I preferred the Sibelius UI to Musescore and Finale
- The magnetic layout feature is a real time saver and very simple to use. I really liked it
- Basic score scanning solution included
- It requires the .NET framework as well as the C++ framework to be installed – not a deal breaker but for people with ‘clean’ DAW computers there is some additional software library ‘footprint’ required by Sibelius
- No “human playback” like Finale
- The full program has a different selection of orchestral samples (also based on Garritan personal orchestra) than Finale and again it would be reasonable to expect the full GPO sound set to be included in the price
Finale won out in my evaluation mainly because of the human playback feature. It makes a huge difference to the quality of the score playback which I just loved.
It’s not easy to find a clear winner out of this trio. The ideal notation program would have the human playback function of Finale and the UI of Sibelius and would be free open source like Musescore.
I’m happy to use Musescore for basic score notation functionality because it can get the job done and it’s free but I think it will be a while before Musescore can catch-up with all the functionality of Sibelius or Finale.
If the human playback feature is not important to you then Sibelius is a great program and I would say it has a much better UI than Finale. If you have Finale do consider the option of a Avid Software Sibelius Crossgrade to get the best of both worlds.
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