Vol. 27 Issue 3 Reviews
Sibelius 2 Notation Software

US$ 599.00 (educational rate is US$ 299.00); available from Sibelius Software Ltd., The Old Toy Factory, 20-22 City North, Fonthill Road, London N4 3HN, UK; telephone (+44) 800-458-3111; fax (+44) 20-7561-7888; electronic mail infoUK@sibelius.com; in the US, contact Sibelius USA, Inc, 1407 Oakland Boulevard, Suite 103, Walnut Creek, California 94596, USA; telephone (+1) 888-4-SIBELIUS; fax (+1) 972-713-6327; electronic mail infoUSA@sibelius.com; World Wide Web www.sibelius.com

Reviewed by Tae Hong Park
Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Figure 1Sibelius 2.x is a flavor of music notation software developed by composers/programmers Ben and Jonathan Finn who saw the “need for a better way to write music than pen and paper.” At first glance, Sibelius can be summarized in one word—simple. Indeed, simplicity seems to be one of the important design concepts behind the program’s functionality, access, and interface design. Trying to use a program for the very first time, or the first N times, can often be dreadfully frustrating. There always seems to be a learning curve that is steep for some programs and nearly at right angles for other programs. For Sibelius, however, getting started on a basic score is relatively trouble-free. The desktop environment (see the example in Figure 1), which has become slightly more complicated (albeit more useful) than previous 1.x versions, displays an empty piano score. This score was simply made by choosing “piano” from a handful of familiar instrumentation options such as “orchestra,” “choir (SATB),” “treble staff,” “wind trio,” or “string quartet.” For special instrument settings, such as an ensemble consisting of guitar, crotales, hurdy-gurdy, tin whistle, and cimbalom, a Create Instrument window, categorized into approximately 200 instruments and instrument families, is available (see Figure 2).

Figure 2As seen in Figure 1, the interface shows a floating mini-navigator window at the bottom left, a collapsible and expandable floating properties window on the right bottom corner, and the familiar toolbar at the top. Unlike other notation software packages, most objects in Sibelius are just objects, and behave just like Sibelius objects. You can drag, click, adjust, align, and delete objects in a consistent manner, adding to the simplicity of the program’s design and usability. For example, technique marks, tempo marks, and various special symbols such as Bartok pizzicatos are all treated as objects, and hence can be maneuvered and attached to a measure, note, or rest with ease. The same goes for other objects, including an assortment of lines, octava markings, guitar tablatures, and many forms of text “expression” objects—they can be tagged to the last 128th note of the score if need be. Other basic edit functions, including change in clefs, meters, keys, note-heads, staffs, rehearsal-marks, and transpositions, are easily usable and have been designed to meet normal score editing practices.

Figure 3Notes are entered in three ways: using a MIDI input device, the computer keyboard, or a mouse. The MIDI input method can be done in “step-time” or in “flexi-time” (real-time). Using the mouse to access the keypad in the floating properties window is probably one of the more obvious and common methods for inserting notes for Sibelius beginners. However, when using primarily the mouse for editing, acute pains start to develop in your fingers, hand, and arm after only a few minutes. To alleviate some of this stress, Sibelius designers’ “pearls of wisdom,” or the use of keyboard shortcuts, become key. Virtually everything that one can do with the mouse is possible with keyboard shortcut strokes such as Z for a list of symbols, Ctrl-T for technique marks, and T for time signature change. For note input-related edits and object alignment jobs in particular, shortcut keys actually make score writing and editing faster, easier, and more efficient than using the mouse, especially when used in conjunction with numeric keys (see Figure 3). However, as with all shortcut keys, it takes some time to assimilate a large vocabulary of keyboard shortcuts, but the rewards are worthwhile in the long run.

One of the important aspects of a professional notation program is its ability to churn out professional-grade scores and parts. There are a number of options in Sibelius for score printing, including printing booklets and spreads, which are especially useful for orchestral scores, and printing parts. Printing in general is quite straightforward and seemingly mirrors with great accuracy what is seen on the screen. However, one has to be cautious for notes and other objects that exceed the page margins of a manuscript. It is not always obvious whether an object is within or outside the scope of a printable page, and, at times, space for objects such as expression marks at the bottom of a score is occasionally insufficient. Although there are ways to fix such problems, the solutions are not necessarily obvious. On the other hand, after finishing a score, creating parts is only a click away. However, after rendering the parts, additional effort in realigning and formatting various objects is necessary for most cases. Care must also be taken not to attach objects to the wrong staff, which may easily occur during score writing. When making parts, objects such as technique marks will follow the staff they are attached to and not the staff they are closest to. Scores can also be exported to good quality graphic files (BMP, EPS, Star Office EMF, among others), which comes in handy for web postings or for digital presentation situations.

Figure 4Sibelius reads files from other notation programs, including Finale, SCORE, Allegro, and PrintMusic. It also reads MIDI files, and can import graphic files (TIFF) as objects. Unfortunately, Sibelius file formats below 2.x are incompatible with 2.x files. When reading MIDI files, a number of options are available for interpreting tuplets and note resolution during the conversion process (see Figure 4). The software will interpret, among other messages, meter changes, metronome marks, program changes, and staccatos. When reading MIDI files with program change numbers that adhere to the General MIDI standard, the appropriate instruments, clefs, and pitch ranges are automatically assigned according to each instrument type. Automatic note assignments also extend to GM-based percussion key mappings; percussion sounds such as snares, rides, and cymbals are conveniently mapped accordingly in the score, aiding accurate MIDI playback. However, when the software’s robustness was tested with a number of MIDI files (saved in Cakewalk MIDI Format 2), it sometimes had difficulty with consistent interpretation of tuplets and note durations. Furthermore, standard note beaming and note-groupings occasionally look awkward, requiring further editing tasks by the user. It is also possible to scan existing scores through PhotoScore, an add-on optical character recognition (OCR) feature. The robustness of PhotoScore and OCR in general at this point is debatable, however. PhotoScore does not come with the purchase of Sibelius 2.x alone. A free upgrade to PhotoScore Lite 2 comes with Sibelius 2.x, though, and a discount price for PhotoScore Professional 2 is offered.

Other features include layering of up to four voices. Voices can be collapsed into a single voice or split into separate voices. Manipulations of staffs by using 0 lines to 5 lines, or adding ossia above or below a certain measure is also one of the more uncommon features easily done in the software. There are 37 plug-ins, which include melodic inversions, fingerings for stringed instruments, and some basic proof-reading options. Although it is not possible to have a free-hand drawing option for expressing complex changes in dynamics or pitch contour, a workaround is offered using the “extra slur arc” feature, by adding more nodes to an existing slur object.

In monitoring the score through MIDI playback, various rhythmic and expressive options are available. A number of playback options, including glissando, tremolo, trill, rubato, espressivo, ritardando, accelerando, and quarter-tones, are recognized.

Music notation software has come a long way over the past decade, seemingly accelerated in large part due to an increasing demand by commercial and consumer groups, as well as the proliferation of powerful personal computers. The majority of usable software to date has been fueled by commercial motives, and as a result reflects the needs of particular socio-economic user-bases. Software developers who model their products around such a consumer supply-based model are therefore somewhat predisposed to supporting perceived popular needs based on this demand. It is to no surprise, then, that the majority of software products fail to address the needs of some of the more esoteric user communities. Sibelius is not an exception. However, although Sibelius may not be the right tool for every composer, arranger, and musician or non-musician out there, its user-friendly and “simplicity-first” approach to the interface design, and the diversity in addressing conventional as well more complicated musical features, make this program one of the best notation software on the market. That is not to say that Sibelius does not have its weird quirks and idiosyncratic niches that are not necessarily intuitive. For instance, Sibelius adds glissandi effects to the attack region of a quarter-tone note during MIDI playback; sometimes it decreases the size of a hairpin when one wants to increase it using keyboard shortcuts; at other times when deleting a note or rest in a measure, one is suddenly transported to another page in the score; in order to make a hidden bar, one has to make all measures on that line disappear first and then unhide that specific measure... Nevertheless, for the majority of users who do not demand atypical and complex musical notation features, such as tools to render custom graphical scores and non-linear time-based music, Sibelius 2 may very well be the notation software for the job.

The latest version, Sibelius 2.11, is available both for Windows (95/98/Me/2000/XP/NT4 or later) and Mac (8.6 to 10.1 or later) platforms. A single copy goes for US$ 599.00, and a special educational copy is available for US$ 299.00.