Notation Wars: Choosing the Right Software

There was yet another post the other day asking the age old question, Finale vs. Sibelius and why. These are always followed by myriads of pointless posts professing love (or hate) for one or the the other. Occasionally, someone provides a good reason for their choice, but most of the time it just degenerates into personal preferences of the same order as Mac vs. Windows debates.

Aside from the futility of it, the real problem with these discussions is that it assumes that these are the only options. While that may have been true as recently as five years ago, it’s really not the case today. In fact, for most people I don’t even think these are the best options. So let’s take a look at all of them, Finale, Sibelius, MuseScore, Notion and Noteflight.

Best Doesn’t Mean Better

Let’s start with the hows and whys of choosing software. The most important thing is that it does what you need it to do. This might seem obvious, but too often, rather than choose the most appropriate tool, people will choose what they perceive to be the best or most powerful tool. These may not be the same thing. For example, Word is generally considered to be the most powerful word processor. But for me, it includes many features I’ll never use and which clutter up its interface. In the end, I’m much more productive with a more basic program like Google Docs.

The Long and the Short of It

Longevity is also an important factor. In the last 25 years, I’ve used and taught many programs, notation and otherwise, and quite a few no longer exist. It’s no fun learning a program, preparing teaching materials and then have it orphaned. One of the main reasons Finale and Sibelius are king is that they’ve been around the longest. This is both a good and a bad thing. For Finale, it’s made it difficult to really revamp the interface. Sibelius on the other hand did a major overhaul of its interface that was pretty universally reviled by experienced users. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it meant a lot of relearning for many.

What Else Do You Need?

Once you’re satisfied that a program meets your needs and is likely to stick around, you then should look at how it operates. Decide which of these factors–fast, cheap or good–is most important to you. For the most part, to get one, you’ll need to compromise on the others.

Finale and Sibelius: The Big Two

With Finale or Sibelius, you really only get one of those factors. Both are very powerful, but the trade off is that they aren’t particularly fast or easy and they certainly aren’t cheap. Both are essentially engraving programs and they both produce good, printout (I know, purists will argue) and offer a lot of precise control over the layout. But this is where you need to look at what you need to do. Do you actually require that level of control? Sure it looks nice and if you are really a perfectionist, that might be worth the time and money. But in reality, the only people that NEED Finale or Sibelius are those who are actually publishing with an established publisher. In that event, your publisher will likely dictate which program you use.

Open Up with MuseScore

If printout is really what floats your boat, my money, or lack of it actually, is on MuseScore. MuseScore provides printed copy easily as good as either Finale or Sibelius, but its big advantage is that it’s free and open source and intends to stay that way. In some ways, particularly for early and modern notation, MuseScore is actually better. The user interface combines many of the best features from the big boys, so it will feel somewhat familiar to most users, but it’s no faster. Bottom line, with MuseScore you get both cheap and good.

Notion: Easy Does It

For those of you who aren’t doing much in the way of publishing, there’s Notion, which is BY FAR the easiest of all of the programs. For what I do–composing, arranging, songwriting, handouts–Notion meets 95% of my everyday needs. It’s the only one where mouse entry makes sense, mainly because you can add articulations, dynamics, techniques and other entries all at the same time. It feels like working with pencil and paper, but with all of the advantages of a computer, like undo, copy and paste, and so on. There’s still step entry and real-time, too. Notion’s shortcuts are incredibly easy to learn and it handles most of the layout for you. In addition, the sample-based playback is incredible. Anything you enter on the screen affects playback. Slurs trigger different samples, articulations, techniques and dynamics including hairpins are played accurately. The guitar technique library is particularly impressive. And to top it off, Notion for iPad is an excellent product too and you can share files between desktop and iOS versions.

The tradeoff is the printed copy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine, but it’s not up to the level of the other three. It’s perfectly readable, but the layout is not very flexible. Still it’s fine for all but the most exacting applications. And because of this, you really spend very little time on layout at all. Notion is $150, so in this case you get pretty cheap, pretty good and very fast.

In the Clouds, Noteflight

The last option is quite different from the others. Noteflight is a web-based application that isn’t on the same level as the others. Its feature set and interface is more limited than the others, but that makes it ideal for younger students. In addition, because it’s cloud-based it supports collaboration and works on desktop and mobile devices. The site license from MusicFirst starts at $195 for 250 users, so in this case you get cheap, pretty good and pretty easy.

Gotta Wear Shades

My crystal ball isn’t working today, but I’m still confident the future is bright for all of these programs. While there were rumors that Avid was abandoning Sibelius after many of its programmers were let go, my sources tell me this was simply a change in direction and Avid is committed to Sibelius. Similarly, MakeMusic was acquired and taken private, but every indication is that Finale will continue as before. As an open source program, there are many people involved in the development of MuseScore. While there’s no guarantee, the assumption of open source, is that even if the current team were to abandon it, there are many other developers that would take their place. Notion has been around for quite some time, but was always a pretty small operation. It’s acquisition by PreSonus last year and the resources it put into the development of new versions of both the desktop and iPad version bodes well for its future. I know less about Noteflight and its parent company, but as the only product of its kind and with its association with MusicFirst, I expect it has legs too.

One More Thing

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the much anticipated release of a new notation program by Steinberg, the makers of Cubase. When the Sibelius team left Avid, they pretty much en masse joined Steinberg and are hard at work there. There’s no release date as yet, but you can find a blog by one of the developer’s here. http://blog.steinberg.net

From my perspective, if I were starting out, there are few reasons why I would chose Finale or Sibelius and all of them would have to do with publishing. From a basic engraving viewpoint, MuseScore is easily as good and it’s free. For everyday use, Notion does almost everything you need and costs about the same as an upgrade for Finale and Sibelius.The ease of use and playback quality have made it my goto program. And Noteflight, while not as powerful, has some great things to offer educators.

Disclaimer: George Hess is also the author of the book Create Music with Notion: Notation Software for the Busy Musician (Quick Pro Guides) and is providing the Getting Started videos for MuseScore 2.0. He has used and taught nearly every notation program since starting with Finale v.1 over 25 years ago.


25 thoughts on “Notation Wars: Choosing the Right Software

  1. Hi Geroge, I appreciate your insight and was wondering if you’ve ever used Melody Assistant or Harmony Assistant by Myriad-online.

    • How could I miss it? Probably the same way everyone else has. But I’ll take a look. My initial impression is it’s targeting an amateur market. Not a bad idea, but not the audience for whom I intended this post.

  2. . For the Finale and Sibelius, I really don’t find any difference from each other. In my opinion, they are amazing software to type in your music. For me, I am more comfortable with Finale because I know where everything is.Is easy to see the tools you will need to use. like; the articulations, dynamics, and techniques on the side. Sibelius have similar things like Finale but you have to find what you are looking for differently. So I take longer time with Sibelius. I don’t think one is better then the other. I would say both have some weakness and strength. But most importantly, I rather prefer Finale.

    • I think that was the point I was making. Since you’ve used Finale for a while, you’ll prefer Finale. But I can’t see any reason why someone would choose to start with either. Notion is faster and better than either in everything except engraving. MuseScore is their equal in engraving and free.

  3. Good blog, George!
    To add, FWIW, I read a whilbe back (on the Yahoo Jazz Guitar group) that Hal Leonard (largets music publisher in this world) had standardized on Sibelius.

  4. Very good review George, I’m new and older and learning all this new software confusion. I have Notion 4 and going to Notion 5. Even though I am not at the stage for engraving, I so was impressed on your views and was happy that you mentioned Notion and its usefulness. I’m hoping to learn it well and be able to use it correctly. Is there a BOOK on using Notion? I saw at the end you named someone doing MUSE. I’m leaving my email address below and I hope this gets to you and you get back too me.

    musically urs,
    Kenny

  5. Thanks Mr. Hess for this great article.

    I have to say though that you left out a major contented to the notation software list, which is Overture 5. I personally have been using Sibelius since version 1 on the Acorn platform (a long time ago) but recently been looking at Notion 6 and Overture 5 because I am very interested to also produce good quality mock-ups straight from notation.

    Best regards, Max

    • Thanks, Max. I used and taught Overture back in the 90s when it was an Opcode product. Don had a great product and I was a big supporter. But when Gibson pulled the plug on Opcode the primary programs I used were gone. I tried to follow it for a while, but it would disappear and reappear and when I moved to OSX it wasn’t there. One of the biggest problems with music software is that it’s really a small niche market and too often great software just can’t survive. I’m still mourning Studio Vision.

      I wasn’t interested in Notion until PreSonus bought it. Up until then the company was too small to trust. Now it’s really my everyday program

  6. I am just beginning to take an interest here.

    I’m learning MuseScore principally. Googling around to see where it fits in: is it denigrated, is it missing something, is there something much better around…. so on. To see if I’m setting off in the wrong direction.

    So far it seems to me MuseScore as as good as anything and better than most – and Free!

    • Hi Arthur
      I think you’ve made a great choice. As you mentioned, it’s free. The current version is very powerful and much more professional than previous versions. For many people, it will do pretty much everything you need. The MuseScore forum is very responsive and helpful, so feel free to ask your questions. Often the answers are from one of the development team. The one thing I will tell you is that MS is definitely slower than the others. There are still some things that need functions built and some things that need shortcuts. Thanks for reading

  7. After a few hours with Notion 6 I decided it was not for me. For the compose who wants control over nuances of sound, Notion is lamentable. Just a simple implementation of MIDI controller data, real time, dubbed or otherwise, is a total pain in the neck and highly restricted. You have to set up a “sequencer” track for EACH instrument, which shows as a separate staff.

    It will only work with the most rudimentary functions and is extremely unreliable. You end up with a score which looks like a mess. Of course you can hide the sequenced part but the whole system is primitive in the extreme.

    Of course you can do all the detailed performance stuff in a separate DAW then import for notation purposes, but Sibelius is now quite close to being a DAW for the purposes of detailed cc input.

    What you find easy about Notion I find inflexible. I find it very limited for anything other than casual sketching of ideas. Once you have learned Sibelius it becomes as easy as Notion 6.

    • Yes, you’re right, Notion isn’t Sibelius. And there are things Sibelius can do that Notion won’t. If you need those things then Notion might not be for you.

      If you try to do things in Notion in the same way you do it in Sibelius, it won’t work well. Notion requires a different way of working, really. Once I understood that and developed a workflow that made sense, it all came together and I can do almost anything faster in Notion that I can in the other programs.

      A good example is your concerns about MIDI data. There’s a good reason it’s not supported well. Notion doesn’t use MIDI for playback. It’s far more sophisticated. It automatically handles sample swapping. Almost everything you enter into a score will trigger a separate sample and do it far more musically than any other notation program. Try adding articulations and techniques instead of MIDI data. You can hide them if you’d rather they not print.

      Where it really shines is when you connect a third-party sample library like VSL. It responds just like Notion’s library right out of the box and you can program anything that isn’t already supported. Try that in Sibelius. And if for some reason you need to use MIDI, you can easily connect to Studio One. Notion and Studio One is the only combination I know of that supports MIDI over Rewire.

  8. Thank you for this post. It was most helpful.
    I have been very aware of Notion since its earliest days and stayed fairly close to its history up to when I got Notion 3 for my son, but he barely used it. Instead, he turned to the various DAWs, MIDI and synths and libraries we owned to do his music, while spending years in classical piano and, later in the adolescent/teen years, also jazz piano, along with oboe, bassoon, brass, percussion and percussive instruments. I guess I provided him with too many options, and some of those I hoped he would invest on, he never did—Notion 3 just sat in the computer.
    With the transfer of ownership to Presonus, and the inability to reinstall Notion 3, due to the authorization process, Presonus upgraded me to Notion 4.
    At the moment, I am contemplating upgrading to Notion 6, since, I am certain, there were some improvements done since Notion 4, and I was wondering about your book on Amazon.com, which I learned about on this post. My interest in Notion now is because of my wife. I have always wanted to do something special with some songs that she wrote, and she has no idea about DAWs or MIDI, but knows staff music. MuseScore was and continues to be on my radar.
    I am interested in learning/using Notion because of the orchestral sound quality and to help my wife, but I cannot find any information as to your book covering Notion 5 or 6, although, I am certain, the difference between 5 and 6 is not drastic, except for the integration with Studio One v3.3.
    Anyway, I am not interested on Studio One, since I have too many DAWs as is—Reaper 5, Acid Pro 7, Harrison Mixbus 3, and Sonar X3 with plans to get Sonar Platinum with lifetime updates.
    When it comes to Notion, I am a total newbie (did a lot of sequencing back in the 90s) and still play a bit of acoustic guitar, while most of my life I was a live (and personal studio) sound engineer/producer up til 2007.
    My question regarding your book, since I am a newbie to Notion, would it be a good complement to the documentation that comes with the software?
    Thank you.

    • Hi Antonio
      My book and my video series on Groove 3 are both on Notion 5. I’d like to think they are helpful, but only the reader can decide that. Please let me know if you use either. I outline the new features of Notion 6 in my review for SB&O.
      I think you’ll like Notion. It’s quite easy to learn. As long as you don’t require the precision that engravers do and you don’t do a lot of extended techniques that some modern composers use. For straight ahead classical, pop and jazz, it’s my goto program. If I need something more, I export it as MusicXML and then use MuseScore or Finale to finish it.
      I haven’t switched to S1 either. I took me a long time to settle in on Logic and I’m not inclined to switch now.

  9. Interesting post. I had not heard of Notion before. I personally use Noteflight because it’s cheap and it’s enough for what I need. I wanted to point out, though, that you missed discussing the score limits for both Noteflight and Musescore. Unless you have the paid version, Musescore will only let you have 5 scores; Noteflight will let you have 10. I already have 5 scores on Noteflight, so I guess it’s good that I prefer it anyway. I’ll look into Notion though.

    • You’re right about the free version of Noteflight being limited to 10 scores, but there’s no limit to what you can do with MuseScore. It’s free and open source and there is no paid version. Perhaps you’re thinking of another program?
      Notion has been updated recently. There are still a few things I’d like to to be able to do, but for 99% of my everyday work, it’s fine. Hope you like it.

  10. Hi Mr Hess my question is a bit different. I have been using Finale 12 (I know it’s old and limited ) but it’s what I downloaded one day ages ago. My problem is that when I notate I never get it quite right. I can play what I write but I can’t write what I play. Well not accurately anyway. Can I use a midi controller with these the various softwares that you have reviewed. By the way I have found all of the above really interesting … thank you.
    PS I’m 77 years and don’t learn as quickly as I once did. Old age is a pain.

    • Hi Warren, you can use a MIDI controller with all of them. The trick though is that you can’t really play expressively. Notation software will round note values to a point, but it doesn’t handle changes in tempo. It’s important to understand that most notation is only an approximation of what we hear, as the performer is expected to interpret the music. The good thing is you can set it to a slow tempo to record and then set it to the correct tempo for playback without any problem.
      I hear you about old age. I’m not that far behind you.

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