Finale vs. Sibelius: Another Perspective

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There is a curious aspect of the ongoing Finale/Sibelius imbroglio in that the debate, at least partly, is too finely focused on sexy features or glaring shortcomings, and not on broader aspects of software depth and maturity, which frankly can’t be documented in a brochure. Additionally, the debate is both consumed by (and sometimes carried by) people who lack sufficient experience in the true depths of their own software to accurately assess the weight of the opinions they encounter.

Be honest, how many of us make fundamental commitments to important software, based on little more than a sales pitch or passive communal hearsay? Doesn’t that reveal a tacet acceptance of some form of “they’re all alike” or “I don’t really plan on getting too involved with this software anyway?” And then, once committed, how many of us actually put it through paces beyond what we immediately need to get this day’s/week’s/month’s tasks done? How many have gone through the manual, virtual cover to virtual cover? And, ultimately, how many keep tabs on the outside world for ongoing development by producers and aftermarket innovators? (And if one doesn’t, how does one sleep at night?)

I recently was asked by a friend and colleague for some help with a Finale problem. After a little probing, I discovered that it grew out of his own personally-developed shortcuts to the repetitive and time-consuming layout tweaks on myriad instrument parts for each score produced. The design of his workaround was not important. What was lay in the fact that, once his approach had been finalized and adopted, he had changed neither it nor the version of the Finale he had used in years.

Now I’ll be the first to grant that the pace and cost of upgrades can seem at times to serve software companies more than their customers. Depending on the needs of each user, the bang-for-the-buck factor in every upgrade can fluctuate wildly. I’m sure I’ve hardly been alone in wondering how some companies decide that it’s showtime (at least until I look at the calendar…)

But many of us seem to have developed a schism in our attitudes. When we perform, we take it as gospel that pursuit of excellence requires a constant struggle to improve both our tools (instruments) and our abilities on them. Pablo Casals, the legendary cello soloist, when asked by a friend why he continued to practice even into his eighties, had a reply that was telling: “Because I think I’m beginning to show some improvement.” However, many of us, when seated in front of a computer, drown that same restless urge in a vat of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Professional or amateur, does it matter whether our tools are made of wood and metal or ones and zeros? A comfort zone of consistency often morphs into a dead zone of complacency and, in an arena of constant change, we don’t.

Notation software gets used because we hold out at least the possibility of an eventual performance, so we owe it someone to supply the best output possible. The look and feel of yours will speak both for and about you, and your mastery of the tools which generate it impacts on your overall reliability, competitiveness, and fulfillment in the process.

Any software package can misbehave in mid-gig, or turn out to possess insufficient headroom to let us go beyond its original design when the urge strikes us. In such cases we face three choices: complain, compromise our style or standards to fit the tool, or improvise. As the combinations of possible interactions in any complex system are simply too numerous, no team of programmers or beta testers can anticipate all contingencies. Neither can they provide documentation vast enough to even cover most of them (although, early on, Finale’s three bloated manuals sure tried…)

Hence, there is an added value to software which, by design or gradual evolution, packs sufficient assets to allow “more than one way to skin a cat” (gad, what a metaphor!) Along those lines, another barometer of programmer prescience is built-in capability for retasking (within the software) features by the user, with its promise of enhanced personal power when needed and appropriate.

Workarounds are a fact of software existence, but they should only have a life as long as the problems they address. With each upgrade, I go through my whole arsenal of macros and scripts to see which can be scrapped or adapted. When the programmers develop a better way, nine times out of nine-and-a-half their solutions are accomplished at more fundamental conceptual and code levels, and tend to be more elegant (and better behaving) than anything we can cobble together from the outside.

It behooves us, then, while perhaps not grabbing at every upgrade thrown at us, to at least keep a constant vigil on them for what they can do, and their potential for improving our user experience. Software producers, either through their online “what’s new” webpages and chatrooms or through freely-distributed demo versions, allow, no practically beg us to look under the hood and take a test drive.

And what of the “Fin-Sib” debate, and perhaps others? These issues of depth, redundant capacity, and retaskability and scriptability, while often overlooked, can yield greater depths to your evaluation of these competing products.


  • SG
    October 16, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    I highly disagree! Being a user of both,, Sibelius far surpasses Finale,, and the over-charged upgrades finale asks every year (with no backwards compatibility to previous versions) makes them a insultingly uncool company with a un-necessarily clumsier software,, Sibelius wins hands down!!

    I’m not interested in reviewers who take both sides (like consumers need to buy both or their “friends” company software).. Please take a side.. Thanks

  • October 16, 2009 @ 5:41 am

    Its all a convenience thing for me. I’ve used Sib my whole life and have found it more readily accessible through both cost and education. I think a large problem is people irrational near cult-like devotion to their software. People seem to enjoy dogging something they can take sides against, just human nature I suppose, and its a shame because it often creates these preconceptions about things which may open creative doors for them.
    I was forced to adopt Cubase due to me not being able to afford a Mac, even though I was taught predominantly to use Logic, and its been one of the most profound experiences in my short composition career so far. A little open mindedness and willingness to learn new systems can really help a computer based musician.

    I would like to add, I recently saw some info on Notion 3, a new score writing program that integrates performance and supports both VSTs and ReWire. I am curious to see what you guys think about this. Will Notion enter the arena as the third Notation Program heavy-weight?

  • October 19, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    Thanks for making my point for me! This wasn’t a review, but rather an prod for users to take a less simplistic approach in the adoption of complex software which can play such pivotal roles in their art and careers.

    Your statement about so-and-so-winning-hands-down based on a couple of points of personal critique should be about as meaningless to the “everyman” serious user as would be an equivalent statement of “The Acme Stratoblaster guitar wins hands down” thrown at the whole incredibly-diverse guitar world. As Robin Williams counsels Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” “It’s not whether she’s perfect, it’s whether she’s perfect for you.” (or something like that.)

    Twenty years ago, with notation software in its infancy, such a sweeping assertion might have been valid, but time and sufficient evolution now demands a more complete answer for most users, and this article merely raised a couple of the many, many issues which are now necessary in the evaluation of such career-affecting purchases.

    I have no relationship whatsoever with either company; so your thinly-veiled swipe by comparing me to a reviewer with a hidden conflict of interest is not appreciated. I did “take a side;” it just happened to be on behalf of the readers and users. The article itself advocated that they do their due diligence BEFORE purchase, precisely to avoid eventually buying both simply because their first choice turned out to be a bad fit. I, too, own both products, to be better able to serve my clients, but I don’t think such a diverse community of users is well served by such a terse, discussion-ending proclamation.

    But thank you for reading…

  • October 19, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    Hear hear, Ron!

  • Robert Casady
    October 22, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    Really good article and you make some great points, Ron. Made me think about the reasons I continue to use certain programs–and resist considering competitive products. May be time to re-evaluate…

  • Peter Kaye
    October 22, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    Ron, it is refreshing to read a mature, voice of experience “take” on what is an underlying stream of interest to any professional, the tools of the trade. Like so many others, I use a recent version of software I originally bought in a rush many years ago (in the middle of a job, in desperate need of a solution). It got the job done then (with incredible hours pouring over the manual), and gets the job done even better, now. I am sure the “other” would also suffice.

    Many fellow composers, like myself, make muttering gestures towards the idea of leaving Digital Performer for Logic (or Cubase), for a variety of reasons. But the combination of inertia and the eventual acceptance that it is truly a “six of one, half dozen of the other” situation (better the enemy you know) delays a decision.

    Perhaps such worries/discussions reflect the general state of under-employment, leaving one time for such thoughts/insecurities. They all add up to minuscule part of the problem, which is to do good work. With whatever software I’ve got, I’m back to my writing…

  • Todd
    October 22, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    If you want publisher quality, professional looking scores, then Finale is the only answer. It is the only program that allows you to tweak things to make it look exactly how you want it to look.
    However, this requires a knowledge of proper music notation, which I’m afraid too many composers today don’t know and don’t even care about. Music notation is as much an art as the actual music itself is.
    If you want to print sloppy scores, and you have no formal music education that taught you proper music notation, then Sibelius is the program to use. It is quick and dirty, and that is exactly what you get.
    Finale might take a little longer to learn how to use, but in the end, your results will be second to none.

  • October 22, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    Interesting set of comments about notation programs ( both F and S ) .Having spent the vast bulk of my writing career as a pencil and scorepad guy, my areas of experience encompass composition, arranging, and orchestration …NOT computers! Therefore, when I finally got into notation programs, I started with Finale and have stayed with it ( thru a number of upgrades -but not all of them )

    Like everyone else, I find notation programs an odd combination of time saving
    tools and continual frustrations with one bug or another. Also, not being a technoid, I never read the manual ..I just plunge ahead like a bull in a chana shop until I hit a wall -then I call a number of people who are smarter than I.
    or as a last resort , tech support!

  • October 26, 2009 @ 4:44 am

    I am a finale guy who switched from Sibelius around 2001, but I always recommend Sibelius first to my student, haha.
    Finale is the only notation software that has note-first-then-duration way of input, and I can’t work without it (and of course, my choral music publisher only use Finale).
    As a user of Finale, I am really glad to have Sibelius on the market because the rivalry between these two software is, I think, making both software better.

    In the end, for us users, the music is the goal. And I welcome any new tools and developments (and the cause of such developments) which would help us better.

  • Alexis
    October 30, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    Hi Ron,

    I’m considering purchasing one of these. As a student on a limited (I mean, very, very limited) budget, it’ll be a pretty big purchase for me–even the student version.

    My writing will be only for vocal music–a capella male and mixed choir. Most important: I need to work without time signatures completely. Not that I’m trying something crazy–it’s just that sacred Russian music has a 1,000 year tradition of being unmetered and text-driven. Which program would best fit my needs?


  • Scott
    November 5, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Its simple. Sibelius is brilliant. I liken it to the quality of service and reception of Verizon, and the innovativeness of Apple. Finale has the fuzzy and unreliable qualities of AT&T and PC’s.

  • November 9, 2009 @ 6:38 pm


    You may want to look at Notion. The sounds are great and you have the freedom to add barlines (etc.) like the first Notation programs. Being a Sibelius user, it is a good program also. Looks like I take sides :~)
    Anyway, I’m like the guy who pushes ahead until he hits a wall, although, … I do read the manuals also.

    Like an earlier comment, it’s really about making the best music – notation program preference aside.

  • awesome
    November 10, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    I used Finale for years, made the switch to Sibelius, and love it.

    Just saying.

  • flip-flop
    November 10, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Has anyone switched from Sibelius to Finale?

  • November 13, 2009 @ 3:53 am

    I did. That was when Sibelius was ver1.5 or something.

  • JJP
    November 14, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

    I know of at least one Hollywood copyist with whom I work who used to be a Sibelius fanatic. (“If only Finale could be like Sibelius…” etc) He had been forced to learn Finale for a variety of projects, and claimed he hated it.

    About a year ago he told me that now, while fluent in both programs, his first choice is Finale. So yes, some people do go the other way.

  • Ken
    November 24, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    Very interesting article; I definitely agree that so many people buy software based on features that never get used or vague opinions. I have used Sibelius from version 1 until its current version (6), and although I find the program to be fairly strong and definitely intuitive, I still choose Finale. Why? Simple; Sibelius’ playback is terrible, and improvements have been few and far between. In terms of general notation, Sibelius makes me “fake” certain aspects of conventional notation that, in my opinion, a professional notation software should have an option for–anyone tried to put a harp glissando into Sibelius and expect it to play back? Not going to happen. That isn’t to say that Finale is the end-all be-all notation program, but it has always kept in mind it’s ultimate goals: Professional Notation and semi-realistic playback (good enough for the average musician). Sibelius works, just not for me.

  • November 27, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    Hi folks,
    Interesting discussion! Full disclosure here – I was with the company Sibelius (now Avid) for 12 and a half years! Just one comment: what certainly used to rile all of us at Sibelius is the commonly held opinion that the Sibelius output cannot be tweaked anything like as much as Finale’s. It’s convenient to paint Sibelius as a dumbed-down lighter version of software than Finale but it simply isn’t true. They’re both very powerful! In all the training I did with users on Sibelius in the UK and the US, folk were usually amazed at the amount of things that can be altered (layout top of the list, but also things like fonts and general default behavior) – it’s just that Sibelius has never used tools to do it. Version 6 with magentic layout and the optimize staff spacing is the biggest update Sibelius ever released, and yet didn’t really require any relearning on the part of the user – notation nirvana! good luck everyone!

  • December 22, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    Some people love Sibelius – that’s great. Use it and be happy. I am one of those people who can’t live with not being able to do something. Finale might be troublesome – but you can get what you want. If Sibelius’s auto-features always give you what you want – then use it. Chances are by the time you develop your compositional and notational abilities they’ll come up with upgrades and fixes for you… hope.

  • Cynthia
    January 12, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    I am trying to decide btwn. Finale & Sibelius. From what I’ve read so far, Sibelius is getting more praise for ease of use and Finale for playback quality. I want both ease of use and quality sounds and expression…at least enough to make a good quality demo.

    I may consider adding a DAW like Cubase, but think you have to add a plug in like Docet (another $200) to be able export from Sibelius (and Finale?) I will often be recording a vocal track along with midi.

    Any clear resources/references for making sense of this all are welcome, too.

  • Lewy
    April 1, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    I chose Sibelius 6 over Finale when I bought the software. In my exploration of options, Sibelius appeared superior. I missed one important feature: Sibelius can’t export to a format Finale (used by publisher, colleagues, et al.) can read. That’s major.

    I still think the feature set of Sibelius is better, but the software (on a Mac, at least) is seriously unreliable. After six months of use, I still can’t save a score to a PDF. Sibelius crashes when I try. There are frequent, often unexpected crashes. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t I am without software with a list price, including add-ons, of $1,000.

    This week, Apple released an upgrade to Mac OS X to 10.6.3. Today, fundamental parts of Sibelius don’t work. The idea capture fails. Undo fails. The entire Sibelius web site is down, either not responding or responding data base failure.

    I’ve been in both the music and the computer business for over 50 years. I can’t make the thing work reliably. If you have the time to wait months for fixes to expensive software, the Sibelius feature set is wonderful. Friends who use Finale are envious. But they finish their projects when I don’t because the software quits on me.

  • Lem
    April 17, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I don’t use them often. Most of my work is with early music, and for that I have custom-made specialized desktop-publishing music notation apps.

    But 10 years ago, I bought both Sibelius and Finale, could get them cheaply when I was a student, and have been using them until now without updating, Finale 2001 and Sibelius 1.4 on my old mac with OS 9. Back then, Finale was terrible to use, but the print quality was better, and you could finely adjust everything, so I preferred Finale. Now I am thinking of buying one of the new versions, but to be honest, I am not excited by either one of them. First I thought it will be Sibelius, because the printing quality now seems to be better than Finale (If you have Finale, type with the Maestro-Font a c’ eighth note, with stem up, print it to pdf and zoom close to the flag – the stem is too thick. Yeah, hard to see that on paper, but nowadays, pdf is as important as paper. So you could adjust the stem and the flag, which is not much fun to do. I wonder how this is still possible after ten years of development). And then Sibelius: Magnetic layout sounds fantastic, but in all my tests I could easily crash rests and notes – in fact, Finale was better with the collisions than the highly acclaimed magnetic layout of Sibelius. Also, Finale was much better to record from a midi-controller, and you don’t have to “clean up” that much like in Sibelius (again, the magnetic layout was a disappointment). Well, I guess I don’t like both programs. And I am happy that I haven’t updated for the last 10 years. Still, I am searching for a easy to use, quick live-Midi-input app, where no cleaning after inputting is necessary.

    I think I hope for a third player to join the competition. The problem with these apps seems to be that the companies don’t want to change too much, because many of the “damn-it, I knew how it works, I just need to do my work, no time to learn something new”-users could get frustrated. Anyone heard of the open-source MuseScore? I hope this will lead to a useful program – it could drive innovation, and also bring the prices down.

  • Michael Dodd
    May 29, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    I’m sorry.. I’ve used both Sibelius and Finale, and to be honest, There were only a FEW things that Sibelius seemed to be “More Intuitive” on and there were more things that Finale was “intuitive” on than Sibelius. There was more control in Finale and for most things.. there really wasn’t a “Better” way. I just don’t see that Sibelius is EASIER to use. Different YES.. Easier NOPE. Not at all. Magnetic Layout is a nice feature, but doesn’t solve that much. Take chords for example. in Finale.. If I play in a C chord, with a D in the bass, it defaults to C chord, with a slash D beside it just like sibelius. Now the intuitive thing would be a way to right click on the chord to bring up the option to change it so that the D appears under the chord like a a vertical fraction as opposed to a horizontal one. There is no option in Sibelius. You must use a plug in instead and it does it globally. in Finale I can determine when I want this and I can do it by simply right clicking the chord and choosing how I want it displayed. This is much more “Intuitive” than Sibelius in my opinion. Competition is a good thing and I would venture to say Sibelius has borrowed some things from Finale too like “Scroll” view just like Finale Took “Score” view from Sibelius. Finales documentation is much better than sibelius’ It’s much easier to find out EXACTLY what you want to do in Finale. Sibelius is harder and there are times I have to look things up. Sorry.. my vote is for Finale…

  • Steve
    November 22, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    I dunno, for all the sibelius hype, I can’t stand their UI. I Much prefer everything about working with Finale. Yes, sometimes finale is cumbersome about a few things and generally speaking the out of the box default score appearance sucks compared to sibelius, which is as far as many users ever get and why they probably love Sibelius.

    However, I just absolutely hate the Sibelius approach. its just me. I don’t think either one is clearly the best. You can make great scores with either one. I do think it makes a lot of sense to just stick with one instead of constantly second guessing yourself about which one would be better. They both have advantages and disadvantages and its time consuming to become a guru of either one. Pick one and be a guru.

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