There was yet another post the other day asking the age old question, Finale vs. Sibelius and why. These are always followed by a myriad of pointless posts professing love (or hate) for one or 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 kings 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 are 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.

From my perspective, if I were starting out, there are few reasons why I would choose 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 the producer of 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.