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Finale vs. Sibelius: Finale Review

Published: July 15th, 2012 at 11:41AM

Let’s begin with the big brother of the pair of notation programs.  Finale was released in 1988 as the flagship program for a company called Coda Music (later bought by Net4Music, which turned into its present name, MakeMusic, Inc.).  Lead by author and programmer Phil Farrand, Finale 1.0 was developed as a graphic/font-based program designed to allow extensive customization of music notation while eliminating the need to have an advanced degree in computer programming (i.e. SCORE).  It has since become the leading program for publishers and professional composers around the world, being utilized by mainstream publishers such as Hal Leonard, and Alfred, as well as some smaller publishers like Musica RussicaSanta Barbara Music Publishing, and earthsongs.  Notable composers that use Finale include Robert KyrRodney RogersRoshanne EtezadyJohn MackeyPaul CaldwellKeith Hampton, Jennifer Higdon, and many others.  Just from what their scores look like, I would venture to guess that International Music Company, G. Schirmer Inc., and Manhattan Beach Music also use Finale, but that is just speculation.

Basic Function and Interface

Finale is graphics/font-based, which means that everything that appears in the program is either an image what can be manipulated much like a picture in Adobe PageMaker (okay, maybe not as extensive), or a font in which each key on the computer keyboard can be used to create a multitude of symbols (you can also use a variety of key combinations to create more symbols).  These fonts and graphics are arranged in a series of palettes designed for ease of manipulating certain aspects of your music.  For example, if you want to play around with the staff, you have to select the “Staff” tool; if you want to play around with lyrics in the music, you select the “Lyric” tool, etc.  Once you figure which symbols are considered what, the process for basic notation input becomes exceptionally easy and intuitive.  Additionally, because anything and everything has to fit into one of the provided categories, everything stays organized for your use.

It’s important to point out that the reason why SCORE users had some issues with Finale is because it limited quite a bit of the freedom that was originally available:  while the graphics used in Finale could ultimately be created as needed by the user, the basic foundation of the program was restricted to the use of fonts for the majority of music notation.  The fonts can be altered in as many ways as one could in a standard Word document, but you can not go in and actually alter the font itself (unless you were an accomplished font programmer).  If you want a symbol to look different, you need to change the font.

The interface is rather simple:  the majority of musical elements are color coded (colors you may change if you’d like) to correspond with one of the tool palettes, which can be accessed via either key-stroke or mouse-click.  Within each palette, you are provided with a menu of functions that can be performed with the tool, all of which can, again, be accessed via key-stroke or mouse-click.  The majority of functions in Finale are associated pretty closely with standard musical terms, so if you are looking to add a dynamic (a type of musical expression), there is a good chance you will find dynamics under the “Expression” tool.  I have always thought of it as if you think like a musician, about 95% of Finale’s features are easily understood, accessed, and utilized within about as much time as it would take someone to initially figure out how to play a new board game.

Yeah, it's small, but you get the point.


This is where I hear most of the complaints about Finale.  In the realm of formatting, Finale is more related to SCORE than Sibelius in that it does not do anything for you.  This is actually kind of par for this program in general:  if you do not actively tell it to do something, chances are it will not do it.  There are some exceptions in that Finale does quite well dealing with the spelling of chords for standard harmonies when using its autoscoring function.  More visibly, it will 99.9% of the time place stems in the correct direction, align notes exactly within staves and between staves, place slurs and ties in the correct direction and position, and correctly stack key signatures, accidentals, and a variety of other symbols in their correct locations; mundane musical elements that really do not change at all from piece to piece.  Of course, it is important to point out that you can alter all of this if you would like.

For page formatting, though, all bets are off.  You need to tell it what its margins will be for the page and system, tell it how many measures should be in a system, and how many systems on a page.  You get to decide fonts, sizes, styles, and positions for titles, composers’ names, copyright notifications, and page numbers.  Additional information on the first page (editor, arranger, poet, dedications, commissions, or part) might not even appear at all by default.  Expressions and most measure-linked smart shapes (slurs, haripins, trills, brackets, and glissandos) will stay in the exact position you put it in and will not blink an eye if they are in a completely wrong place (dynamics usually go above a vocal staff, but Finale may just generally place them below).  While a lot of people consider this annoying, I find that it makes me much more aware of what is in my music and requires me to be much more involved with how my music will look in its finished form.  Basically, the art of editing your music is not lost in the Finale experience, but required (leaving your music in a default Finale layout will undoubtedly get you burned at the stake).  If you are new to the program, expect to lose some time initially learning how to do this, but once you grow accustomed to it, it will happen quickly, and probably somewhat integrated into the notation process.  Of course, once you figure out a way you would like to consistently present your music, you can adjust most of the settings to default to your specifications.


Okay, this part of any notation program is kind of annoying.  Yes, it is good that you can write something and hear it; yes, it is great that you can integrate live sample sound libraries with the program to make it sound like “real people;” yes, it is cool how you can change how the program’s playback will interpret every single aspect of your music with some simple alterations (it is actually way cool that you can import a live track to play along with the Finale realizations, but that is more of a multimedia integration than a playback function).  Is it ultimately important?  Not really.  The playback feature of any notation program is easily the most limiting aspect of the program due to its inability to be human.  Yeah, it will pretend, but when you start getting into really funky notation (graphic scores, circular, nonstandard images, etc.), the playback will have no idea how to handel it, often making something up that is nowhere near close to how it would ever actually be performed.  Ultimately, no matter how much you futz with the playback controls, it will only sound real when you get real people to play it.  At most, playback should be used for pitch reference and timing and NOTHING ELSE.  I am kind of upset that Finale has spent much of their recent editions improving playback rather than making advanced notation more accessible to basic users.  I promise you that you will spend more time trying to make the playback sound like how you want it to sound rather than actually working with your music.

That being said, Finale comes with the GPO (Garritan Personal Orchestra), Tapspace Virtual Drumline, a variety of Latin percussion instruments, Row-Loff marching percussion, and your standard MIDI library.  All of these natively interface with the Garritan Aria Player, but you can use any audio unit you want (Contact Player, or whatever) to create whatever interpretation of your music you desire.

There is a distinct disconnect between the notation and the playback in that the more complex, experimental, and nontraditional your music becomes, the more worthless the playback will be.  Just try to do quarter tone playback… just try…

Evolution, Bugs, and Cost

Finale was first released in 1988 and has pretty much had a yearly release since (they switched to corresponding date numbers in 1998).  Each version usually comes with some level of new innovation in functionality or ability, most notably is the linked parts in Finale 2007, the removal of the “Mass Mover” tool in Finale 2008, Mic Notator (the ability to play/sing pitches into a microphone for the program to interpret) in Finale 2001, and the ability to integrate live tracks with the notated music in Finale 2009.  Finale 2000, 2005, and 2008 are notoriously bad versions full or annoying bugs and infuriating quirks; alternatively, Finale 1998, 2006, 2009, and 2011 are notoriously well-made, innovative, and bug-free.  Finale 2003 was the last version of Finale that did not have to be registered with MakeMusic in order to work – now, if you do not register the program within 30 days of installation, you lose the ability to save and print – so it is not uncommon to see pirated versions of 2000 through 2003 floating around the undergraduate music scene.  Recently, the trend has been to drastically innovate the program on even years and then fix all of the innovations in the odd years, thus making the odd year editions the optimal choice if you do not have the funds to update every year.

There are some well-known bugs with Finale that are not exactly detrimental, but are just things to be aware of:  the most obvious one is that Finale will occasionally smash all of the music in a system to the left when entering notes with the “Speedy Entry” tool.  This can be fixed by just refitting the measures with the “Selection/Mass Mover” tool.  The opposite can also happen where one measure’s content will flow over the rest of the system.  This can be fixed in the same way, though if that does not work, you probably just have too many beats in that particular measure.  Playback bugs include strings continuing to tremolo or pizz. when they are not notated to do so, or instruments playing weirdly out of tune after the performance of a bend, slide, or fall.  There are several others that come and go through the versions, such as slurs appearing in one position when zoomed in, and appearing somewhere else when zoomed out (Finale 2007), or the slur being needlessly curved (Finale ’98), or systems being placed on top of each other by default (Finale 2000).  A lot of these have since been fixed, and any other bugs that come out in new releases are usually taken care of by a patch that MakeMusic will release for free download (making your version go from, say, 2011 to 2011a).  They always tell you what they’re fixing, and if more bugs come up, then another patch is usually not far behind.

Finale is expensive.  A new purchase will cost you $600, and an update every year will run $120 ($170 for updates from versions that are 2+ years old).  They do have academic prices, which will cut the program to $350, and if you want to start on a different, stripped down Finale-esque program (which are cheaper but are not capable of as much), they give you a price break should you ever decide to upgrade to Finale.  I feel like a lot of this cost is more or less offset by the fact that, if you have a Finale question of any type, you can call them and get help for free (and they are exceptional when it comes to customer service as you are usually talking to someone that really, really knows the program).


Finale’s basic notation ability (keyword being “basic”) is on par with its competitors.  Where it shines is the freedom it gives you:  anything you want to do with your music, you can do in Finale.  Its interface may be a little weird at first, but after a little bit of tinkering, it becomes extremely intuitive to musicians of all levels.  Playback is fine but really not worth any of your time.  Any bugs are usually fixed really quickly with a patch, and others that are not are well-documented on the Finale Help Forum.  While the cost may be a little inhibiting, you get unlimited free support from people that know the program, and ultimately, the freedom that you have in the program will pay for itself time and time again once you need to notate more advanced and complicated types of music.  The icing on the cake is that the program allows you to make your music look like how you want it to look, allowing each editor/publisher/composer to develop their own unique character for their printed music.

Last word:  check out the image they have posted on this page for a idea as to some of Finale’s advanced techniques!

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