Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Notation Software Woes

Once again, this post is based on a response I made to a student's journal/blog entry…

The notation programme I have used for the past 15 years or so is called "Composer's Mosaic," by Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU). As you might imagine, I feel extremely comfortable with it, even though it is a more limited programme than Sibelius, Finale, or Notability Pro [click the links if you wish to find out more about them]. But, because I'm usually composing to meet a deadline, the thought of having to learn new notation software AND meet a deadline is pretty daunting and stressful.

Unfortunately, MOTU stopped supporting Mosaic in 1997. This means that I have to keep an ancient computer around for the sole purpose of running Mosaic, because it doesn't run under the current Mac operating system (OS X).

Obviously, at some point this will no longer be an option — all computers die eventually — so, I bought Sibelius and Finale a few years ago, intending to try both to see which I liked better, and then stick with that one.

But the frustration of having to learn a new notation programme while keeping the creative flow going, AND while trying to meet commission deadlines, is huge… So far, I have written one piece in Finale (Dream Dance, which Kristina Szutor played in the 2008 Newfound Music Festival), and I feel I am slowly getting the hang of it, although the number of times I have to go to the manual to look up how to do something really basic is ridiculous, and a real inspiration killer.

Nevertheless, having learned Finale well enough to have completed one piece, I am ready to try a more ambitious composing project with Finale.

Not to say that Dream Dance wasn't ambitious; what I mean is that, having muddled my way through the process of using Finale to notate a fairly lengthy solo piano piece, I think I may be ready to try writing chamber music with Finale next.

I should probably give Sibelius a try too. I know a lot of people insist that it's easier to use than Finale, although in my very cursory attempts to do anything with it I still found it less intuitive and more inflexible than I was hoping for. But I think that would be true of any notation programme.

Incidentally, one programme that really intrigues me is Notability Pro. It only works on Mac OS X, but it is now FREE (it was not free originally)! Most people, when they see that something is free, conclude that it isn't a high-quality product, but I am told that, not only is it of high quality, but some of my composer friends say it is superior to Finale or Sibelius.

Notability Pro describes itself as:
  • "easily the most sophisticated music notation software available on any platform. NoteAbility combines both musical intelligence and graphical flexibility in a direct and intuitive graphical user interface. Notate anything from simple melodies to complex avant garde orchestral music, play the score on your MIDI synthesizer or using Quicktime Musical Instruments and print a publishable copy of your score on any OS-X compatible printer."
And here's the clincher:
  • "If you have been frustrated by the awkwardness and inflexibility of other notation programs, or by the time it takes to learn them, then you definitely should have a look at NoteAbility Pro."

Sounds pretty impressive, does it not? You may be thinking, 'but why believe the hype on the company's web page?" Mostly, I feel the same way; be wary of hype!

However, in this case, I am more inclined to believe it than not, because the product was developed by Dr. Keith Hamel, an outstanding composer and professor at the University of British Columbia, and he happens to be a friend of mine. Basically, if Keith says his programme is both easy to use and the most sophisticated music notation software out there, then I'll take his word for it.

Also, as I mentioned above, some composer friends of mine swear by it (not at it, which is something I occasionally did while learning Finale), telling me it is better, and easier to learn, than both Sibelius and Finale. And, in addition to now being free, Notability Pro does not charge for upgrades. Both Sibelius and Finale release yearly "upgrades" and charge fairly hefty upgrade fees for them.

[EDIT (2016): Sibelius and Finale seem to have abandoned the yearly updates. Sibelius is now being sold "by subscription" only, as far as I can tell, meaning they charge you a monthly fee to use their software. This seems lame in the extreme. Finale's current version is 2014 [as of 2017, the current version is 24.5], and you can still buy the software outright (academic price: US$350).]


1. Finale has continued to produce updates, but they no longer appear to be yearly (which is a good thing, IMO; upgrades cost a lot).

2. I'm not sure if Sibelius has changed their "by subscription only" model, but I don't think so, according to what a couple of students have told me.

3. After completing "Dream Dance" (which is mentioned above) in Finale, I ended up using nothing but Finale for the last several years. The reason is the obvious one; once I became comfortable with it, and those long, inspiration-crushing attempts to figure stuff out became mostly a thing of the past, then it became pretty easy to use, and I'm content with it.

4. I'd still like to try Notability Pro at some point, but I'm not sure I want to try it badly enough to go through the learning curve for yet another notation software programme. If I do, perhaps I'll come back here and report on it.]

The point is that I know some of you are just learning notation software for the first time so that you can use it in this course, and you are running into frustrations, and I can relate to this!

But, try to persevere (I seem to use that word a lot, don't I?), because it's useful to be able to create beautifully-notated scores with computer software.

And if you get stuck or frustrated, ask for help; you can ask in class, or ask me outside of class, or ask other students, because the number of students who are knowledgeable about Finale seems to increase every year.


Melissa said...

I read this and did a semi-response in my own blog.

I find these programs are a "can't live with it, can't live without it" kind of thing.

But whatever program you use, they do save you a lot of time in the end. I know this from experience.

Jessica Blenis said...

I've been working with Finale 2005 since 2004 (thanks to my uncle who's pretty darn good at finding things like this on the internet) and I still (obviously) haven't gotten the hang of it. The notation process I do by mouse because though I figured out how to do the notes by keyboard once, I forgot...Theres always the option of plugging a musical keyboard (the electronic piano one) into the computer and playing into Finale while it notates for you but...Yeh, I haven't tried that out either.

I've found Finale a lot more useful than confusing, however, especially since it will play back what I've written. I've never tried Sibelius, and think I'm probably too scared to stray from something that I'm already fairly comfortable with...Though I do wish that Finale was more open to the option of writing atonal, open-rhythm pieces.

Melissa B. said...

This was my first encounter with Sibelius. It was kind of fun trying to figure out everything at first, but after awhile it got a little daunting. You're trying to compose your piece yet you don't know how to add dynamic markings and other basic things... I don't know, it made me feel a little odd. I wish I knew exactly what tools were there for me to use but I feel like I don't have the time to sit down and really get acquainted with the program.

meg293 said...

I find notation programs to be very limiting sometimes, but I think that it's just because I don't really know how to use them. I like to sit down at a piano and just sort of play (or thump, or knock, or pluck...whatever you can creatively do on a piano) and you can't really do that with a notation program.

Kim Codner said...

Notation programs can be the devil!
...Until you understand them.

I've been using Finale 2008 since last year, and and earlier version before that.
Its alright but REALLY hard to try to find what you need if you havent used something yet, like making it an atonal piece (with no key signatures for transposing instruments... so annoying)
I found out eventually!! :)

Its just so time consuming at first, but I mean, there comes a point where writing by hand gets unprofessional.

Jill A. said...

Until last year I had never used a notation program at all, I always opted for manuscript paper and a pencil instead of taking the time to adjust to the electronic medium. The manual process for writing music was extremely time consuming and at times frustrating. Finally a friend convinced me to give Sibelius a whirl. It was definitely a good decision! Like many other people I'm still getting the hang of the program and its little quirks, but I think it is quite easy to use. Now I don't know how I got along without it! I'm glad I had some experience with the program before this course though and I can definitely understand how frustrating the software can be.

Robbie b said...

I obtained my copy of sibelius 5 shortly after signing up for the course. I have no idea why I hadn't indulged in it sooner since I am so interested in writing and composing pieces.
I found the approach of sitting down at a computer and writing pieces on a program to be quite and exhausting exercise. I write a lot of music for bands that I am a part of, and I'm used to being either:
1) In a live setting in which there are multiple people collaborating together. In this way, all of the ideas are heard and written together, but each separate idea is coming from a separate mind as oppose to one sole person writing each part.
2) When I'm in my room, I'll hook my instruments up to my looper, play an idea and loop it continuously around until I come up with other parts for the other instruments.
3) Writing an entire piece on one instrument, recording it, and then writing another part to compliment it.
These 'habits' I picked up definitely contributed to my writer's block during the cliche piece, in which i had an entire piece written for piano but had no idea how to intertwine the other instruments. It was horizontal writing as oppose to vertical. Not saying that horizontal is wrong, but every type of music calls for a certain approach in writing.
But I digress!
Having software such as sibelius at my disposal to compose definitely can increase my writing performance and ability. It is exactly how melissa mentioned 'can't live with it, can't live without it', in the way that it was so tedious and mind-boggling to wrap your head around at first, but it can really help you grow as a composer in the long run.
Since I am not talking composition 4100 until the following winter, due to 3100 making my 2nd year course load that much heavier, I am going to be wise and try and figure out all the little tweaks there is to speed up the process of my software writing. I want to even try and write a piece without any contact with instruments. It sounds fun!

James Bulgin said...

This course was my first time using notation software, myself, and I was a bit surprised at the learning curve on it. Nothing seemed to be working the way that I expected it to, with results sometimes as bizzare as Sibelius inserting multiple seemingly random chords into a bar when I tried to delete a rest.

I eventually figured out that a lot of the problems were coming from Sibelius improperly importing my music from the program that I'd composed it in (Cakewalk Sonar), which left a lot of crud beneath the surface of the score that tended to emerge when I tried to move anything around.

Once I figured out how to make the conversion process smoother (such as manually separating the piano into two tracks, one for each hand, and telling Sibelius to consider all midi tracks as a single voice), it became much easier to use.

By the second project, Sibelius had actually become fairly pleasant to work with (although I still have a few complaints about parts of the interface).

There's nothing like having a well polished score for a piece you wrote in front of you, though. It makes it feel much grander, for some reason.

I'm not sure I'll end up using it too much after the course is over, since I never have anyone to play my stuff (and some of the electronic stuff is rather unplayable in the first place), but it's good to feel comfortable with it, should the need again arise.

Philip said...

I'm really surprised that Mike Bramble hasn't commented on this blog yet! And put in a plug for sibelius! (haha) I use PrintMusic 2002, a Finale program I got for my birthday... some years ago. I would venture to say that I'm getting pretty comfortable with it, however, I see that I'm soon going to have to update my musical notation software. I, like just about everyone, am very nervous about having to use a new program, but I have a little bit of a strategy that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet; I think it would be useful to sit down with a friend for a few minutes and just let them show you the absolute basics. It could probably help you get an understanding of the basic organization of the system, and I think it would make learning a new program a less daunting task.

Dylan V-H said...

Phil, great idea. But I'll do you one better:

Become roommates with someone who knows Sibelius really well (or the program of your choice) and then whenever you need their assistance you can yell across the hallway and have your frustrating difficulties straightened out.

Also, Jess mentioned midi capable keyboards (basically every electronic keyboard made in the last 5 years) being a possibility for notation program ease.



I have my left hand on the mouse which I use to select note values, accidentals,portions of the score, etc. and my right hand is on my keyboard, ready to plunk out melodies and chords. Writing out melodic lines is 3 or 4 times as fast than doing the whole thing with the mouse.

Anyway, I definitely have much more to learn about my notation program (Sibelius... WOO) but using my keyboard has sped up the often tedious task of note input and gives me more time to digest the things I learn in the handbook

To recap:

1- Live with Mike Bramble
2- Hook that keyboard up, FOOL!

Michael Bramble said...

What would be a blog about notation software without a plug for Sibelius. (thanks Phil and Dylan!)

7 years ago I started using Notation software. I started with Finale 2000. I used it for a year and was not happy with the results, I found it difficult to use and not worth my time (which was just a hobby at the time). Then a year later or so my school band director got me to do some work for him on Sibelius. I immediately fell in love on the spot! And it has been a great relationship ever since.

I started with Sibelius 3, and used it for 6 years and just this summer I switched to Sibelius 5. I find them to be so easy to use and very user friendly. Often people complain to me about using Sibelius. I then ask them what was it like when they first started using MS Word, or Excel or even the internet. It takes time to learn what's what, but once you do you can do just about everything. And I have just about done everything.

For anyone who finds this interesting or enjoyed using notation they should look into jobs related to it. I have been employed by 6 different people to work with them through Sibelius. A lot of it is research related, but some is performance related, and both are fun. If you get mad skills you can work with government grants and get paid regularly to do this stuff. I am currently working on a 3 year grant from the national research council to do work with Sibelius, making mad dollars, so you never know what opportunities are out there.

I hope this post doesn't sound like I'm bragging :)

Another plug is the amount you can learn by transcribing and notating. I've transcribed works for orchestra, concert band, cantatas, operatic works, solo instrument music, choral music and more. I would say most of what I have learned about composition was through Sibelius and transcribing. So I tell you to stick with it, unless you are using Finale, then don't. But you never know what could happen. If you told me 6 years ago when I was sitting in my basement at 3 in the morning writing out stuff in Sibelius that I would be employed doing it later, I would have rolled my eyes at you and gone back to eating my bag of chips.

So you may laugh and roll your eyes when I chant Sibelius from the back of the room, but you never know... it could change your life :)

Brooke said...

I wrote my first composition this past week and have to say that not having any notation program seemed like a big disadvantage.
I am not very good on the piano and so trying to figure out what my chords sounds like with my melody line was really frustrating because I had to wait until I found a pianist to play through my piece with me playing on violin and then if I didn't like it, go back to my practice room and try something else, and then go back to my pianist and ask her to play it with me again. Also, since I don't have a piano or keyboard at home I could only compose at school. I think it would be a huge advantage to have a program where I could plunk a bunch of notes in and then be able to hear right away what they'd sounds like.

Also, as I realised that I didn't like parts of my composition I had to continually erase things and write over things and it was easy to misprint something without even realizing.

So, what I'm trying to say is, I ish I had Sibelius!!! Or that the music school had a computer lab that was OPEN to composition students.

Alexander R. Pryor said...

Notation software is definitely something a composer needs to have in their tool box now-a-days.

Before this course, I had already become pretty proficient at using the software, but not at actually creating using the software. I think the biggest tip is to get used to the software before trying to compose with it. First take a score that you already own and try to replicate it in the software programme. Then you will get used to inputing notes, using dynamics and expression, and even changing time signatures, etc, before you are actually trying to express your own ideas! It makes it much easier! I couldn't imagine trying to create something when I couldn't even use the programme.

Personally, I have a 2-keyboard setup, with one to fool around on and figure out ideas, and then input it to the computer using the other keyboard.

Also, composing only at the computer couldn't be a fun experience - it's good to have manuscript paper around in case an idea comes faster than your Sibelius skills can handle!

Colin Bonner said...

After a semester of trying to compose using Finale's more affordable Print Music software I feel like I finally have a handle on it.
Only after 3 months of using it regularly am I starting to find it more convenient than handwriting music. As hard and as frustrating as it was constantly looking for what I wanted from the help menu, flipping over tutorials, and consistent class troubleshooting I do feel that being able to use this software is a major tool in my 21st century musicians tool-belt. (jotting ideas, arranging, transcribing, teaching! the possibilities!)
I still don't think I'll upgrade to a full version of Finale or Sibelius for a little while yet but I do intend on it eventually. The limitations the cheaper software aren't so debilitating once you know what those limitations are and find ways to work around them.
One commenter suggested re-notating a composers completed score as a learning exercise and I think I'll try that soon as a way to test my fluency so far.

Flutiano said...

NoteAbility Pro sounds like a fabulous program, and I really wish I could use it. However, I am staunchly anti-Mac and since it is unavailable on PC, it is not available for my use.

Although I generally prefer doing my compositional creating with pencil and manuscript paper, I am a great fan of using notation software to create finished products. However, I go back and forth: my last composition, an unmeasured piano solo, I wrote entirely on manuscript and then transferred to Finale; the composition I started last week for orchestra I am not writing on manuscript at all, just into the computer program.

When I was deciding which program to get, I asked a lot of people who use notation software for their opinions. I used the information that I gathered as well as my ideas about what I wanted it for - at that point I was thinking about writing a 50 voice motet ala Thomas Tallis (which never happened) - and decided that Finale sounded like a better option for me. Despite the fact that my direct instructor at the time used Sibelius. It was fortuitous that I then arrived at MUN to discover that it was the school's standard.

Duncan Stenhouse said...

After you mentioned Notability pro in class last week I was curious to see if you had posted anything on it. I used Sibelius for a few years until their subscription service became the norm for them, it was my parent's software and I was only just beginning to look at composing and wrote my first few pieces on it. After that I used Musescore which I found highly intuitive and user friendly, especially for a free program. This is what I was used through most my highschool years until University where Finale was recommended. At first I hated it and thought it was much harder to use than Musescore which I had become comfortable with at the time. However I challenged myself to learn and fully understand the program and while I am constantly learning new things I feel extremely comfortable with the program now and very much enjoy my use of the program. On Bill Brennan's recommendation I was told to buy Finale 25 with the program Notion in a bundle. I have yet to explore the Notion software and how they coincide but may start to do this now that i am comfortable with the Finale software. Changing software can be daunting at first but i enjoyed what you said about pushing through that creative hardship.

Pallas A said...

One of the things that I hated the most about Intro to Comp was that I was so inept at using Finale. There isn't any sort of pdf manual for the Finale versions developed in this decade, and referencing the online manuals was the worst. I especially hated the simple entry tool, and it was a miracle that I finished the course without tendinitis. So the following summer, I took some time to teach myself how to use the speedy entry tool with and without a midi keyboard. It was a rough couple of weeks, but I eventually got the hang of it (no thanks to those confusing online manuals). Given how great it felt to overcome the learning curve, I have developed an appreciation for Finale, even though it still gives me headaches.

Frankly speaking, I don't really find any sort of engraving technique more intuitive than another. I find Finale to be a hassle at times, but I also don't really like the process of writing out my music on manuscript paper. I wrote the first draft of a movement of a piece last semester out on paper, and I did not find the work flow to be any better on paper than on the computer. Perhaps this is because I don't have a lot of experience with writing out music on any medium.

Joe Donaghey said...

Using notation software is very similar to learning an instrument. I have been using Finale for maybe 5 years now and while i now know my way around it enough to work with it just fine there seems to be a never-ending list of shortcuts and techniques that will ever increase your workflow. I find unless you know these shortcuts then using a notation software will be a slow and tedious task that would be replaced much better with handwriting. If someone has time to dedicate to really learning the software then they are incredible assets.

Another program I have used that has a much better input method is Staffpad. You write onto your tablet and the program converts them into notation. I used this program when it first released a few years ago and it was a very quick and tidy way to input notes. A few downfalls of this incredible program is the fact that it only works on the Surface Pro and is lacking a few features of a fully fledged notation program. While a very cheap price at $90, it is not a viable program unless you commit to buying a surface pro/book. Would love to continue using this program instead of Finale as it feels more natural and organic.