Why people matter; or, why I’m changing music notation software

I’ve used Sibelius Software since 2002. When I started taking my own composing seriously I had decided it was time to purchase scoring software so I downloaded both Finale and Sibelius previews and tested them both out. I chose Sibelius because it was easy to figure out—I struggled to learn the most basic things with Finale (like note entry). Eventually I learned Finale because my undergraduate institution required two semesters of Finale, but besides that brief dabbling, I’ve been a die hard Sibelius user and I haven’t looked back.

Over the last 11-12 years I’ve become an expert in notating with Sibelius. I’ve done everything from songs to operas to weird ensembles to even graphic scores (with some help from Photoshop and MS Paint), and I’ve developed a keen sense of how a score should look and function as a set of instructions that a performer interacts with. I don’t often brag about being a musician, but the one thing I’m extremely good at is scoring.

That being said, I’m frequently frustrated by Sibelius. About four years ago I stopped doing most of my composing work in the software and switched almost entirely to pencil and paper. I discovered that the limitations of software (i.e., what is was capable of notating) was a major factor in my creative decisions. If the program couldn’t notate it, I wouldn’t compose it. With pencil and paper, you don’t have the same kind and amount of limitations. So over the course of about a year, I moved away from Sibelius software as a primary composing tool. The notation software still plays an important part in my process; I use it for playback and hearing things that I’ve put down to paper, but in general I get most of the important initial work done on staff paper. In my case, Sibelius has become a tool for producing beautiful scores.

Some time ago, AVID (who owns Sibelius) fired their development team and the future of the program was in question. Soon after this development, Steinberg Media (producers of Cubase) hired Daniel Spreadbury and a good many of the Sibelius development team to create a new scoring application. The Steinberg team has taken this opportunity to create a new notation program from the ground up; starting fresh and taking all the concepts and ideas and problems and strengths and weakness of many scoring applications on the market into account. They are also attempting to tackle many of the essential problems of computer notation. It’s all very exciting for someone like me who is so engaged in the making of wonderful scores. Daniel is regularly blogging about his progress, and he is extremely responsive to the community and provides insightful responses to the many comments on his blog entries.

As the future of Sibelius is dubious, I think about the almost 12 years I’ve invested in developing my expertise in Sibelius, and what I plan to do when this Steinberg’s new software hits the market. On one hand I would be going back to the beginning of learning a program, which I remember was full of annoying moments and frustrations. But on the other hand, the new product would include excellent relationships with the developers. I’m reminded about a moment when Sibelius 7 hit the market, and I was confused with the new ribbon style of menu organization and I couldn’t find a font menu I use with every score I engrave:

I didn’t tweet at Daniel, I didn’t even know he had a twitter account. He must have found me from the hashtag #sib7, which means he was scanning twitter to either hear the buzz about Sibelius 7, or to answer questions from users. That is excellent customer service and connection to the community of Sibelius users. And as I mentioned beforehand, he is wonderful at responding questions on his Making Notes blog. This kind of dedication to the product speaks volumes to me, and I’ve decided to switch to a product that won’t be available for possibly over a year and I have very little idea what it will be like.

From reading Daniel’s blog, I get the sense that this new program will be great, if not just a capable application. Honestly, in the last several years, Finale and Sibelius have been moving toward each other and which program one chooses seems arbitrary. When I do switch over to this as-of-yet-named scoring software [update: it’s called “Dorico”], I’ll have to deal with the learning curve all over again. It’ll probably take me about a year to become an expert, but what I will get with this new program is a dedicated group of developers committed to making the best program possible by engaging the community and responding to their wants and needs. In essence, I get the people involved, and that so far, has proven to be the most valuable part.

October 12, 2016 – The Steinberg Team announced the release date for the new software application, called Dorico, will be available for sale on October 19.

4 Responses

  1. Carl Hammond January 15, 2014 / 9:47 PM

    Hello, Jude. Really enjoyed your article and am delighted to read that you are still deeply passionate about composing. I, too, am really looking forward to the new program and have very high hopes for it. Any possibility of hearing some of your recent work?

    • Jude Thomas January 15, 2014 / 10:18 PM

      Hi Carl, it’s good to hear from you. Thanks for reading the article and I’m glad you liked it. I enjoyed checking out your website, listening to your songs, and seeing what you’ve been up to these years. You can hear some of my stuff at my soundcloud page: soundcloud.com/composerjude

      You even hear another former student of yours, Philip Espe, playing clarinet on my Songs for Autumn cycle. He also conducted my one-act opera on my graduate recital. He’s such a joy to work with.

      Thanks again for reading Carl; it’s wonderful to hear from you.

  2. Jim Heffinger January 16, 2014 / 8:48 AM

    Enjoyed your article, if I may ask what are your go to fonts in Sibelius for choral writing?

    • Jude Thomas January 16, 2014 / 11:23 AM

      Jim, thanks for reading. I almost always use the univers condensed font family for my scores. Occasionally I’ll use a different font, usually if a client or colleague doesn’t have those fonts (since they are not easily available). I use it for vocal and instrumental music; my setting of “Many waters cannot quench love”, from the Song of Songs, uses these fonts.

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