Finale or Sibelius – Notation Software

I received this question from a WorshipMatters reader:

I’ve heard good things about both Finale and Sibelius as far as notation software goes. Now, I understand that, perhaps depending on the needs, one software might be better than the other. Is it possible to give a quick run-down as to “which should I (i.e. my church) choose if it wants notation software?” Does it matter? What are the different strengths/weaknesses?

Let me start by telling you I’m a Sibelius fan.

Here’s my story. I used Professional Composer in the early 90’s for notation and then switched to Finale in the early 90’s. Not too long after I moved to Covenant Life Church in 1997, I got Sibelius for the office just because it seemed easier than Finale to use. It was. Significantly. But I kept using Finale at home. So I was able to compare them. Every year I’d receive a brochure from Finale, advertising the new version. I hesitated to upgrade because I noticed that each version just kept getting more and more like Sibelius. One year I broke down and ordered the newest version of Finale, but couldn’t get my keyboard to work with it. At that time Sibelius was offering a “switch from Finale” upgrade for $149. I switched. When I installed Sibelius, my keyboard worked right away.

Sibelius is at version 5.2 now after about eleven years. Each version continues to improve on what started as a great product. It’s very intuitive, and there are many automatic functions, like spacing, that make notation easy. And the on-line and hard copy manuals are very helpful and easy to navigate. You can program Sibelius to use keyboard shortcuts for just about anything, and the third-party plug-ins (over 100) simplify a great number of operations. The regular version of Sibelius goes for $600, but if you’re a student or educator, you can purchase an educational version for $329. They’ve also introduced a student version (gr. 3-12) for $99 and Sibelius First, a stripped down version of Sibelius, for $129. They also have products for ear training, sight singing, and training children. You can check out all the products here.

But here’s the great news. If you’re using Finale and are tired of going through multiple layers of commands to actually do what you want to do, through Sept. 30 you can switch to Sibelius for only $99. No matter how long you’ve been using Finale, I guarantee that if you spend a couple hours on Sibelius you’ll be happier and have more time for other things than notating music.

In the interest of full disclosure, Finale has its strengths and there are things Finale can do that Sibelius can’t. If you’re really serious about notating very complicated music, or have been using Finale for ten years, Finale might be better to go with. But Sibelius was created by a couple guys in England who wanted to make computer notation easy so we could spend less time thinking about the process, and more time creating music. I think they succeeded.

What do you think?

(If you want to see more notation options, check out the Wikipedia entry on scorewriting programs.)

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24 Responses to Finale or Sibelius – Notation Software

  1. Wally Joiner September 5, 2008 at 12:46 PM #

    Hey Bob,

    I got my Sibelius cross-grade in the mail yesterday. For $99 it is a great way to find out if it will work for us.

    We’ve been using Finale for seven or eight years now. For us, it was not easy to learn or use. I hope Sibelius is more intuitive and helps us notate things more quickly.


  2. John Carlson September 5, 2008 at 1:27 PM #

    I too used Professional Composer and Mosaic from Mark of The Unicorn for years until Mosaic became a dead platform and was no longer being upgraded by MOTU. I had tried Finale but always found it VERY intimidating and hard to catch onto. It just seemed as if NOTHING was intuitive or natural to my “work flow/style/feel” etc. I’m a tried and true Mac User – never have used PCc – very visual, more right brain, etc. Yet I’m very computer savvy and always pick up on things very quick – usually quicker than others. But Finale had me stumped.

    I picked up Sibelius finally several years ago when I went back into a church job and in 1/2 hour was doing rhythm section charts that looked great. And I was doing full orchestrations with ease in no time at all.

    Now, I DO now use Finale just recently for some projects as I do work for a publisher that requires the use of Finale. BUT this is with the help of a pre-written template they have set up that makes it a bit easier. I’ve only been using Finale going on two months and I’m still pretty slow with it and feel jittery when using it. And there are SO many things I shake my head at with Finale and go “why can’t I just do it THIS way – that would be SO much easier or so many less steps. Sometimes I find an easier way but it seems like looking for a needle in a haystack to find the solution.

    Sibelius seems to be so much easier, intuitive, and works like YOU “think” it should, rather than trying to figure out how IT thinks and adjusting your work style to it. I know that’s a little out there, but that’s the best way I can describe it. To me, it’s like the difference between working on a Mac and a PC. And if I remember right, Finale was originally developed for PC, and Sibelius for Mac I think anyway. That could have a lot to do with it. (Is Sibelius even for PC now? I don’t know.)

    Part of this is you have to understand the two programs and their original intentions. Finale was developed to be a HIGHLY specific and “can do ANYTHING to the empth degree” PUBLISHER GRADE music engraving software. It’s akin to the highest order of word processing. It’s more “technical minded” – It functions more like a “computer/word processor” for music and less like taking pencil to manuscript paper, which is what Sibelius is more like. (You can actually in Sibelius preferences select different graphic “looks” to your onscreen “manuscript paper” in Sibelius such as onion skin (once commonly used in music preparation houses) to antique looks, modern parchment, different colors, and EVEN a version that has realistic COFFEE STAINS on the paper I kid you not. I thought that was really funny! I don’t believe they print this way, but the visual look on your computer is fun and nice to change around sometimes if you’re visual like me and that stimulates you.)

    One friend of mine (who is a long time Finale user/expert with it but has NOT used Sibelius, described the differences as “Finale was designed with publishers in mind, and Sibelius seems to have been designed with musicians in mind.” Yet, in my own opinion anyway – both are equally as powerful in my estimation, and I’m fairly in tune with the requirements of high end music engraving/publishing. Now, I have found a few things with Finale that I like a little bit over Sibelius but they’re far and few between and not major. In fact, I’m sure if I go back to Sibelius, I bet I can find ways for it to do the same as Finale in these functions.

    I do know people that just LOVE Finale, having never used Sibelius and of course, not wanting to have to completely change their work style/program, and that makes sense. I do find these people to be a bit more “technicaly” minded people however who seem good with that sort of style, rather than more “touchy feeley” like me I guess! Funny how that works.

    Now, you might ask “why then is Finale so prominent and has had the market edge for so long?” Simply because it was the first and for so long was the only program out there that was that powerful, worked well, and could create professional looking publisher grade scores. Until Sibelius came along and steadily picked up steam as it has today. But of course, so many people are using Finale, it’s hard for them to switch now. I do understand a LOT of film scorers and Hollywood orchestrators are using Sibelius. However when they turn stuff over to professional engravers/copyists, those people are largely using Finale from what I’ve heard and read. (However this was some time ago- I’m sure by now many must be using Sibelius as the files don’t transfer well between the two – even though Finale does have an import for Finale, I’ve never found it to work very well. Anyone have success with that by the way?)

    So that’s my .25¢ worth – hope that helps! Email me if you have any more questions.


  3. John Carlson September 5, 2008 at 1:36 PM #

    OH – I believe both programs have lesser “no frills” programs for notation at various levels. I think both offer free “really basic” programs that will allow you to do minimal notation etc. and then several pay for software programs that work your way up to the top end product. (sorry, I don’t know the names off the top of my head, but look on their websites and I believe on both, you can compare features and prices.) For example, if you’re only doing rhythm section charts and basic vocal charts, you MAY not need the full blown high end product. Each of the lesser programs function very much the same – they just have less features added. So check that out – you might make it easier on yourself with less of a software program to contend with and less $$ to spend. And each of them I’m sure you can upgrade at any time and it won’t cost you anything more in the end than if you had bought the full blown program if you upgrade yourself to the end product. Sibelius also has something new called “First” which is supposed to be specifically for “song writers” that I’m curious about, but haven’t checked out yet.

  4. Bob Kauflin September 5, 2008 at 1:48 PM #


    Thanks for the informed comments. You’re right – Finale is more for the professional engraver, although they’ve taken steps to make it more user-friendly. Still, I have yet to meet an ex-Finale user who would go back, and haven’t met a single Finale user who seriously tried Sibelius and then went back to Finale. I have a link to Sibelius First in my post.

  5. Kyle September 5, 2008 at 2:54 PM #

    I want to switch our church to Sibelius, but there’s one important question in my way. Is Sibelius able to open read-only versions of Finale files, and vice versa? We have an individual outside of our church who helps us a good deal with part-writing and the like, who is a staunch Finale supporter; if our church switches to Sibelius, will that end our ability to collaborate on music writing via email? And how about the 60 or so lead sheets I’ve created using Finale – will I have to start over with Sibelius, or are the files transferrable between the two softwares?

  6. Bob Kauflin September 5, 2008 at 3:00 PM #


    Not completely sure about the read-only files, but Sibelius can import Finale files with about a 95% accuracy rate. That means you may have to fix a few things, but with lead sheets the problems will be minimal. You can download a trial version and experiment.

  7. Socrates September 5, 2008 at 7:39 PM #

    I am a big Sibelius fan myself! It’s very easy to use and learn. I had started using Finale when I began notating in high school, but my college used Sibelius to teach music notation. It was SO easy to pick up.

    Nowadays, I have friends that use Finale and have these long discussions about how to do certain things (having to use invisible staffs to put a rhythmic figure over a melody), and I think of how easily that can be taken care of in Sibelius.

    Honestly, I still have Sibelius 4, and I really haven’t upgraded just because of the money. It does everything I need it to do, so I haven’t found the need to.

    Great topic!

  8. Nicki O'Donovan September 5, 2008 at 9:56 PM #

    Thanks Bob! I found this post most helpful!

  9. Holly Magnuson September 6, 2008 at 1:00 AM #

    I was “given” a copy of Finale 2000. I never really figured it out. I could do some basic stuff, but it never looked very professional. Downloaded Sibelius First a few days ago and played around with it and created a great looking lead sheet. I ordered my competitive upgrade today. I’m very excited about the program.

  10. Shawn Gierling September 6, 2008 at 9:17 AM #

    I have been using Sibelius G7 for about a year. It’s designed for guitarists and will notate tab, But I use it for leadsheets, tab, and vocal arrangements. This would be more than sufficient for most church musicians.

    Finale even in the free version was way to complex. I also used a British program called Mozart 99. Easy to use and inexpensive.

  11. Luke Brodine September 9, 2008 at 7:04 PM #

    re: opening Finale w/ Sibelius…

    I had been working with a similar co-worker setup, needing to transfer files between the two programs. The way we got around it was to save the Finale file as an ETF file, which would open up no prob in Sibelius. The wonderful folks over at Finale, though, have now put an end to this workaround by removing the ETF capability with the release of Finale 2008. I have stuck with my version of 2007 in order to keep this “handshake” going, and perhaps Finale 2008 has some new feature to do this that I haven’t found, but this is one of the most aggravating things about Finale.

    A similar nuisance is that earlier versions of Finale cannot open files saved in a later version. (e.g. I can’t open a file saved with 2008 with my 2007 software) Does Sibelius have this same version road block?

    (a little about myself: I have been using Finale since I purchased Finale 1998. I was “trained” on it in school, so it’s the only thing I’ve known. I love that it gives me omnipotence as an engraver, as I still have some pro printing gigs, but most of my notation work day-to-day is writing charts that don’t need the pro touch. I’ve gotten the Sibelius bug a few times, and this deal is too good to pass up, so I may be a new man by month’s end)

    Bob, thanks a megaton for posting this!

  12. John September 25, 2008 at 10:38 AM #

    Sibelius typically includes backwards compatibility. For example in Sibelius 5 – you can save a file as a version 2,3,or 4 file. Thus enabling you to share files with folks who are using older versions. The Finale business model of shutting out older users drives me crazy too. And with a new version every August – I gave up in frustration.

    St Andrews Episcopal

  13. Michael Schutz September 25, 2008 at 1:47 PM #

    As a full-time Minister of Worship, I use Sibelius. I used a lower-grade version of Finale in college (late 90’s), and that was my entry into notation software. I discovered Sibelius a few years ago and love it, am now using v5. I haven’t used Finale for a few years, so I can’t make an up-to-date informed comparison, but Sibelius is very easy to use (relative to its capabilities, sure – there’s always a learning curve).

    Right now I use it primarily for lead sheets for my music teams – doing my own arrangements and songs. (On a side note – I’m a big believer in using lead sheets as opposed to chord charts – it unifies people on melodies, helps harmonies get learned more quickly, and encourages better musicianship by following an actual song form with endings, etc. It also makes my leading at rehearsals better by being able to say “let’s look at measure 56”, instead of “let’s look at the second verse, third line, you know that one note on the word “love”?)

    Other helpful things (not exclusive to Sibelius, but to notation software in general) are scanning/OCR programs to scan in sheet music so you don’t have to start from scratch with new arrangements (Sibelius’ included basic version of PhotoScore will get keys and notes in – you can upgrade to a Pro version which imports everything), and a basic MIDI keyboard to input notes. I use a little 25-key Oxygen8 that works great – so much faster than using mouse/keyboard, even for step-time input.

    I also use it for creating worksheets/reference sheets to help out musicians too, which is nice. When I interned, I got that church started using simple lead sheets for their powerpoint, which I thin is a great idea. I haven’t implemented that here yet, but if/when I can get an assistant :) , I might have time to do some of that…

    Just some thoughts from a guy in the trenches. Hope that’s helpful…

  14. Jeremy Sauskojus November 12, 2008 at 12:55 PM #

    what are the font/notation settings you use for Sibelius when you make lead sheets? I have been trying to find something that resembles the finished product you offer as downloadable lead sheets . . .
    Do you have any thoughts?

  15. Jeremy Sauskojus November 12, 2008 at 1:35 PM #

    Here’s another question. Is there a Sibelius on-line user group that serves as a sounding board for questions people have? I have used Finale for about 8 years. I did the cross-switch to Sibelius, but I have had some trouble with the learning curve of Sibelius. Any thoughts?

  16. Robin Hodson December 7, 2008 at 7:36 PM #

    Hi folks,

    i actually work for Sibelius as training manager for east coast USA. We have some great free tutorial resources for download on this page, including a quick start guide which contains almost everything you need to know about Sibeliuus in 26 pages:

  17. Bob Kauflin December 7, 2008 at 9:00 PM #


    Thanks for stopping by and letting us know about the quick start guide.


    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your questions. If you contact me below I’ll be happy to send you our house style sheet for our lead sheets. A good Sibelius forum can be found at

  18. Bob Kauflin December 9, 2008 at 3:09 PM #


    Could you send me your email address again? The one you sent me didn’t work.

  19. Jim Brown December 29, 2008 at 6:20 PM #

    Let me throw in a vote for Finale – although I haven’t tried Sibelius. I do overflow work from time to time for a professional engraver/editor so I had to buy Finale. The recent versions are great, no problems, although there is a learning curve but that’s the case with just about anything that’s worth learning. Also worth noting is that I use a PC and he uses a Mac – we had one minor issue with a template but after that it’s been smooth sailing.

  20. Todd Buck January 24, 2009 at 1:30 PM #

    Just wanting to get in touch with Michael Shutz. Starting a new church job in about 2 weeks; will be transitioning from very traditional to blended w/ long-term goal of band-led blended leaning heavily contemporary. The kinds of things Michael is doing is exactly how I want to begin.


    Todd (

  21. Kenny Goodson March 10, 2009 at 5:59 PM #

    I have been a Finale user for about 15 years starting when I was still a public school band director. About 5-6 years ago, there was a lot of buzz at our state music convention about Sibelius. I went by their booth and watched a demo and I was impressed. I bought Sibelius 3 at the convention. I got home and installed it on my computer and sat down to try it out. I honestly could not get past the first measure with Sibelius. I am reasonably computer savvy ; my current position is as an IT Director for a small community college. When Sibelius 4 was released, I upgraded and thought I would give it another try. Still no joy. I guess I am too ingrained in the Finale mindset to make the switch. I believe both products are quality software and it comes down to a personal preference. However, I would probably guess if you have never user notation software previously, Sibelius would be the easier of the two applications to pick up. But for those old Finale dogs like me, it does not compute. I also believe however that Sibelius has made Finale a better product. For too long, Finale really did not have a challenger in the professional notation market and Sibelius has certainly changed that.

    Good discussion.

  22. The Music Transcriber April 28, 2010 at 6:02 AM #

    I want to mention one of the beauties of Sibelius, as I don’t think anyone has thrown in a comment about it.

    Sibelius offers a very distinct advantage over Finale, that is the thriving plugin writing community. Finale has some plugins, sure, and they get some arduous tasks out of the way, but Sibelius has a ridiculous amount of plugins available, with new ones being written all the time. Additionally, unlike Finale, the scripting language is open to all users (should they take it upon themselves to learn it). So if you are looking for a fully customizable music notation setup, Sibelius is really the only way to go…

    Check out some plugins and see what I’m blabbering about:

  23. Carl Watral July 5, 2012 at 7:34 PM #

    I am on the fence as to which of the two to buy. I am an experienced semi-pro arranger who has avoided computers and still uses the old pencil and paper method . However , I’m ready to make the leap. I have read many opinions on the matter. One question I have that maybe some of you could comment on. Playback sounds. The demos I have heard make a good case to get Finale. They seem much more realistic. My imagination?

    • Bob Kauflin July 6, 2012 at 3:43 PM #

      Carl, you might want to check out this video on YouTube that deals with the sounds on Sibelius 7. This is one of a series of about 7 videos on this topic. Overall, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the sound libraries you can get for Sibelius 7.

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