As a long time Finale user (I bought my first version of Finale while in college, driving to one of the rare dealers at the time in a shady area of Milwaukee), I haven’t had a lot of need to find alternative ways to notate music. I’ve known about Sibelius for a long time, but I think it’s hard to make the case that either Finale or Sibelius is a better program. For most people, it’s a matter of preference–although I’ve heard it said that Sibelius is easier to use than Finale, and that Finale is more powerful and more often used by publishers than Sibelius. And both companies would argue those claims.
Most importantly, with Sibelius adopting MusicXML import AND export (export is new), nearly anything written in Sibelius can be ported to Finale and vice-versa. Sure, there may be some errors depending on how the MusicXML file is encoded–but for the most part, music on the “Big Two” notation software packages is now universally transferrable (you could export as a MusicXML file in the past with an add on from Recordare, which cost extra). I still wonder if we’ll see a single company someday…a merger of Sibelius and Finale (Sibelius added a lot of Finale-friendly interaction in Sibelius 7).
All that said, Recordare announced the introduction of MusicXML 3, the latest version of the MusicXML standard. You can read more about it here. Much credit needs to go to Recordare for making 3.0 compatible with earlier versions of the MusicXML standard. Look for updates from all notation software packages that will incorporate the new version of MusicXML.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve felt little need to explore other software packages because I own Finale, which works both on both PC (Which I used exclusively until late 2008) and Mac (Which I’ve used exclusively since late 2008). However, with the iPad, the only real choice in music notation is Symphony Pro, which has a major update coming soon. I wasn’t a fan of their iPhone app, but realistically, who in their right mind is going to write actual music on an iPhone? More real estate is needed (Which is one thing I need to consider as I long for an 11 inch MacBook Air).
As a side note, Sibelius offers Scorch for the iPad, which allows you to bring any Sibelius file to your iPad. You can’t write music with Scorch, but you can interact with it, even transposing. So, Sibelius may not have a full notation option for the iPad, but it’s getting there.
What if you don’t have the finances to afford Finale, Sibelius, or an iPad? There are a few other options. If you are into the challenge of writing code rather than directly entering music notes, check out LilyPond. I’ll be honest…I don’t the time to write music this way (I’d much rather learn C++, Objective C, and Cocoa and start programming for the iPad), but it’s a fascinating process. The resulting scores look great!
Another option is Noteflight, an online notation program. I’ve only worked with Noteflight a little bit, and as a Finale user, I couldn’t see the benefit of using Noteflight. However, the price is right, and the online interface means that any platform (other than iOS devices, which are not Flash enabled) can use the program, anywhere you can connect to the Internet.
Yet another option, which I’ve been working with, is MuseScore. MuseScore is available on PC, Mac, and Linux platforms, and is free. As a bonus, it can export compositions as MusicXML files. For a computer lab setting, where a full version of Finale or Sibelius are out of the question, MuseScore is a great option. As a Finale user, I find it more difficult to use than Finale, although much of the interface resembles Finale (and I would guess that it resembles Sibelius, too). There are great (short) tutorials on the MuseScore website, created by Katie Wardrobe (check out her websites, too). MuseScore recently released version 1.1.
Just for the record, I don’t think Finale is perfect. I am accustomed to how Finale works and how to use it, but I understand that I have years of Finale experience. Sibelius 7, also recently released, was reworked (to some angst by loyal followers) to be more new-user friendly (and to be Finale-user friendly). I’ve noticed the difficulty of Finale in my own teaching of music theory. In creating Finale-based units to reinforce the concepts being taught in class, I would spend more time teaching Finale than teaching the concepts of music theory (or more accurately, than students reinforcing the concepts of music theory). This was true when I used Finale Notepad, and it was even more true with the full version of Finale.
This is why new-user friendliness is key. It’s a bit like Apple. People complain that Apple products–including the Mac–are too locked down for the advanced user. What I’ve discovered on my MacBook is that things “just work” on the surface, but the farther you dig, the more advanced options you discover. Most users don’t want or need the intricate detail that Finale exposes to the user at every turn. They just want to write music. For those people, Symphony Pro on the iPad, MuseScore, and even Sibelius 7, might be better options. Certainly, Symphony Pro and MuseScore are a much better economic option for the user. Finale 2012 is coming in September–a late “upgrade”–and it will be interesting to see what they bring to the table.