Software Review: Finale Music Notation Software

At the end of the 80s transcribing music by hand was still the norm for the common musician.  Good calligraphy skills were essential to survival.

Now, 30 years later, calligraphy skills are the last thing on a musician’s mind.  Instead, we look for the best (and, let’s face it, the cheapest) music notation software we can find that can do it for us.

Can we play the music in rather than enter it note by note?  Can we share the music in multiple formats?

Does the final product look professional, like something you would pull off the shelf at a music shop?

Is it easy to use?

Sibelius and Finale are the two primary professional music notation tools in the business.  Other things exist around the web, and a simple Google search will give you quite a few options, both for a price and for free.

You can compare many different music notation products here.

I prefer Finale.

Have I tried Sibelius?  Yes . . . for about 5 minutes, which doesn’t count.

I began using Finale in 1992, when I began studying music composition at the University of Florida. Version 1.something on a tiny screen.  It was horrendous and a headache.

While you could print out beautiful music, you were just as likely to have slurs that disappeared off the bottom of the page and a million other bugs.  The birth of Finale, and as is the case with nearly every software package, was messy.

Because I have been using Finale for 20 years, however, I have gained a certain comfort with the idiosyncrasies of the software.  I have also gotten to the place where I am fast and effective on Finale, which is key when you have to punch out a last minute orchestral arrangement, cello part, or rhythm chart.

The Pluses

Finale’s speedy note entry method using an extended keyboard is very effective and quick.  I punch in the note value with my right hand using the number pad (4 = 8th note, 5 = 1/4 note, 6 = half note, etc.), and then I use the up and down arrows to guide the cursor to the proper line or space on the staff.

Entering lyrics is just as fast.  I can type the lyrics directly into the score, and if a section of text is repeated, I can assign the previous lyrics to the new section through Click Assignment.

The sound library (Garritan Orchestra) is beautiful, and helps as a review tool.

The Setup Wizard is very helpful and speeds up the beginning process.  The templates are also very handy.

The desktop view of the score is clean and uncluttered, and you can modify the look to your taste.  One of my immediate dislikes for Sibelius was seeing the obnoxious ledger lines floating across the screen.  An “off” button probably exists for that, but visual impressions are huge for me and that detail completely cluttered the screen.

You can sculpt the score view to whatever you need using Staff Sets as well as the standard view options (Scroll, Page, and Studio).

Every detail in Finale is adjustable if you know where to look (more on that later).

My final scores look professional.  Finale is very powerful and the printed products can go right onto the shelf for sale.  Here are a few samples of my work in this post How to Chart a Song.

The individual parts of a score are actually part of the main file.  In the past, when you broke out individual parts, Finale created new files for each instrument.  Now these files (Linked Parts) are created internally within Finale, and they are interlinked with the main score.  This linkage is very helpful in tying together the details of the piece rather than going from part to part making individual adjustments.

I run into very few bugs.  When I did hit a bug in Finale 2010 (when I quit the program often I would get a deafening screech from my speakers), MakeMusic (makers of Finale) sent me the brand new Finale 2011 with the fix completely for free.

The Minuses

Finale has a huge learning curve.  Usually power brings complexity in learning.  Finale’s Print Music has a lower learning curve, but it also has fewer features.  The same will be the case for free music notation options on the web.

You have to know where to look.  Almost everything is adjustable, but sometimes it takes some time to figure out how to adjust a feature.

In my last position I needed to change how I was charting songs to fit the preferences of the team.  I needed to create separate vocal and rhythm charts, rather than one chart with both staves.

In order to make this change I had to learn how to make certain details show in one score and not another, something which I had not had to do before.  After fishing and experimenting around for a while I finally figured it out, and now I am quite swift at the process.

Editing the instruments is difficult and counterintuitive.  The Garritan Orchestra sounds are very good, but if you choose to set up a score manually rather than using the setup wizard, configuring the sounds can be downright challenging.  Heaven help you if you try to change things after the piece has been set up.

The Choice Is Yours

I tolerate the downside of Finale for the enormous power and speed Finale offers.  I also need the extended capabilities of an industry standard software package.

You may have different music notation software needs.  If you are going to produce scores for orchestras, detailed charts for bands, and other music like that, then Finale is for you.

If you simply want to write out some melodies or songs you came up with, get something else.  Get Print Music or another program; Finale is way too much horsepower and price for what you need.

Are you a Finale user?  What tricks of the software can you share with us?

How to Chart a Song

If you have read my blog at all you will know that I am a proponent of notated charts, not of lyrics and chord charts or just a melody with chords over it.

To understand why I believe in notated charts, read my previous posts:

What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?
6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

For this post I am focusing on how to chart a song you have not written.  Writing a chart for your own song is a different story.

Charting a song by another artist requires certain tools:

  1. A good mp3 or recording.  Carefully choosing the mp3 helps your team and helps you.  Find a recording that is high quality and that has the style you are looking for. I talk about the role of recordings here.
  2. A metronome.  I use Frozen Ape on my iPhone, but a simple adjustable tick-tock will do.
  3. Software.  Gone are the days of longhand.  Get Finale.  I am a huge proponent of this software and have been using it since 1991.  Finale enables you to set templates, play your music back, adjust and edit music quickly, and much more.  The learning curve can be steep, but the work is worth it.  If you are in a church or academic institution you can take advantage of a huge discount.
  4. A basic understanding of music theory.  You do not need to be able to analyze symphonies or understand jazz chord structures.  You simply need to be able to identify a chord when you hear it as I, IV, V, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, etc.
  5. A good ear attached to a good mind.  Yeah, here’s the rub.  You can’t use the other tools if you do not have this.  You must be able to listen to a recording and distinguish individual parts, and then you have to be able to notate what you hear.  This takes practice, but you can do it!
  6. Patience and humility.  Your first charts will have lots of mistakes.  Expect it, and be ready to graciously say, “Thanks for pointing that out.  I will fix it,” rather than getting defensive because someone pointed out that you are human.  You will get better and more confident as you do this more and more.

Before we jump in to the details, let me show you the end product.  Here are parts of a completed chart (I’m not posting the whole thing due to copyright concerns, which is another issue altogether).

OK, so once you have gotten the tools at hand and figured out how to use them, here are the steps I follow in writing all of my charts.  Ready?

  1. Figure out the tempo marking with your metronome and a word or two to describe the style.  For instance, Rock ballad quarter note = 80.  No wussy things like “Prayerfully” or “Hopefully.”  Always use words that a musician can act on.
  2. Figure out the primary time signature (4/4, 3/4, etc.) and key signature.  Both of these can change throughout the piece, but we will discover that as we go.
  3. Set up a grand staff.  The top one should be Vocal and the bottom one should be Rhythm.  I prefer to use a treble clef on the Vocal staff, but a bass clef on the Rhythm staff because I always begin with the bass.  More on that later.  Enter in all of the data (key and time signature, etc.).  In a program like Finale all of this is created for you at the very beginning in the set-up screen.  You enter in all of the values and it plugs them right in.
  4. Now listen to the recording closely all the way through.  Find any places where the time signature changes and notate that on the appropriate measure.  Often pop songs will add or subtract two beats in a 4/4 song for interest.  There are multiple ways to notate this, but just do what makes sense to you.
  5. Next, do the same for the key signature, notating the changes in the appropriate measure.
  6. Enter section numbers/letters/descriptors.  I give each section a letter and name: “A: INTRO,” “B: VERSE 1,” D: BRIDGE,” and so forth to facilitate learning and rehearsal.
  7. Now you should have a complete layout: Vocal and Rhythm staves, time signatures, key signatures, tempo markings, section markings, and the exact number of measures in the song.  If the song has an extended ending you just need to decide how much of that ending you want to include.
  8. Now listen through the recording and notate the bass line.  By bass line I mean the lowest note of the chord, not the bass part.
  9. Next figure out the chords over each bass note and enter them accordingly.
  10. Once the bass line and chords are entered, in Finale you can use the Clef tool and convert the Rhythm staff to the proper styles.  I use slash notation for straightforward, non-syncopated parts; rhythmic notation for parts that are syncopated or require rhythmic precision; and regular notation where I need for a musician to play exact notes.  I also occasionally notate the basic drum pattern at the beginning of a section.
  11. Now notate the melody in the Vocal staff.  If the melody varies from verse to verse, I generally (not always) make a decision to keep the verses identical in deference to the congregation, who needs to learn the song quickly.
  12. Enter lyrics.
  13. By this time you probably have listened to the song a dozen times.  Write in directions you want to give the team at certain points to help them.  Under the Rhythm staff I write in notes such as “fill,” E Gtr solo (electric guitar solo), “piano only,” “pads,” “kick on 2 & 4,” and so forth.  On the Vocal staff I write directions such as “unison 1st x,” “harmony 2nd verse,” and so forth.  These directions can save you tons of rehearsal time.
  14. Finally write the form of the piece in the upper left hand corner of the first page so that the band always has a cheat sheet to the structure.
  15. Now decide if you are going to sing the song in the key of the recording or change it.  A good rule of thumb is that the melody should go no higher than a “D” and no lower than a “D.”  A lot of melodies are rang-ey and break these rules, but the meat and potatoes of the song should be in this range so that the congregation can sing it easily.
  16. As you do the final layout of the music on the page, format the chart so that you have lots of white space, reduce the size of the music to 90%, and try to keep the music on two pages.  In Finale you can print individual Rhythm and Vocal charts.
  17. Print out the charts and read them as you listen to the song to find errors.  Fix them.  Be professional.  No colliding lyrics, lyrics covering chords, repeat signs covering the system above, and so forth.  Every detail can help you save time in rehearsal by giving you clarity.  If you do not have clarity you will waste time fixing it.
  18. Get the charts to your band and go for it.

This is a lot of information on how to chart a song, and there are a lot of subtleties I have not mentioned, but this is my basic process.  I have been developing this process for about 12 years now and I can pump out a basic tune in an hour or two.  At the end of that time period I know the song like the back of my hand and am ready to walk into a rehearsal and work with the band.

I am considering creating some Finale tutorials, so let me know if this has been helpful to you.