By: Todd Hobin, Elissa Murphy, and Brian Sweeney
Guido d’Arezzo invented music notation in the year 1025. That’s right, for nearly 1,000 years his system of writing musical notes on the staff has been the primary way for musicians to communicate and share ideas. D’Arezzo was the man—a Benedictine monk with pen in hand, bent on recording music the only way he knew how, by painstakingly scribing every note. Imagine the gleam in the old monk’s eyes if he could see how his music notation system survives today, only better.
Notation Software, who needs it?
Choir directors, music teachers, composers, and music students all qualify. But, don’t sell yourself short. If you write songs, play in a band, or sing in a vocal group, even if you don’t know the first thing about staff paper, there’s a very good chance that one of these notation software programs could help you.
If you’ve never used notation software, or for that matter, if you’ve never even tried to write out a lead sheet on staff paper, you probably aren’t thinking about investing your hard-earned gig money into an expensive program. But the truth is, Guido was right. His system has worked pretty darn well these last 10 centuries. Whether you’re working out vocal parts, jotting down a lyric and melody, or simply capturing your latest song for posterity, nothing beats a well laid out piece of sheet music.
With a retail price of $149 for Premium, $69 for the Home version, and Basic for just $9, Forte gives you great features and an easy to understand interface. Although not as full-featured as Sibelius and Finale, and only PC compatible, you can record and play back your music with Virtual Studio Technology (VST), and print out your score or lead sheet with ease.
Sibelius is the best-selling notation software on the market. Like Finale, it is Mac and PC compatible, and retails for about $600. The student price is $295. Most people find the interface a little more user friendly than Finale’s. One of its great features is a search function at the right end of the tool bar at the top of the screen.
Type in a task you want to perform, or a term you want to clarify, and a list drops down of every function that term applies to. Click on what you want and the program leads you step-by-step through its operation. This tool is a key element of Sibelius’s functionality.
The program has most of the same features for data input, playback, and viewing as Finale, but the interface is straightforward and user friendly. The tabs at the top of the toolbar have simple names like: Note Input, Text, Play, Layout, and View. When you select the “Text” tab, for example, all the functions related to entering text are listed right there across the toolbar.
This program is a good fit for musicians with a basic understanding of musical terms, and who have a pretty good idea of what they want their score to look like.
Finale version 1.0 hit the streets in 1988. Considered by most the standard bearer in notation software, it can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated. Right from the start, users complained about a steep learning curve, but for professionals and diligent hobbyists who persevere, Finale can do it all. From giant orchestral scores with parts broken out for every instrument, to complex vocal arrangements with piano accompaniment, this program can handle every engraving adventure.
When you first open the program, you’re presented with a window full of ensembles to choose from (Jazz Band, Orchestra, Choir, etc.). You can also choose to customize your ensemble and set it up to your liking. There are three ways to enter notes to your score: Simple Entry (drag and drop notes via the toolbar), Speedy Entry (using computer keyboard “short cuts”), and Hyperscribe (attach a MIDI piano keyboard and “play in” your music).
Adding dynamic markings, lyrics, and chord symbols is easy with the text editor, which has a nice feature to spell check and also correct your chord symbol selection.
When Beethoven finished his Fifth Symphony, he had to hire an orchestra to hear what he had created. In Finale, although finding the controls through the maze of pull down menus takes some getting used to, your computer plays your score with all the right sounds! You choose all your instruments with Virtual Studio Technology (VST).
There are three ways to view your score: Scroll view (the music streams across the screen as it plays, Page view (what the printed version would look like), and Studio view. This last option has a mixer so you can adjust the volumes of each part in play mode.
Engraving (layout and design for printing) is magnificent. Again, it’s a little tricky getting used to, but with some experimentation and practice, printing out a perfect manuscript, piano music, or a complete score is very impressive.
This program is the choice of many publishers, composers, and serious musicians