An interview with Ben Finn, co-founder of Sibelius [Part 1 of 2]

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Ben Finn and his brother Jonathan invented Sibelius and founded the company of the same name. Ben recently spoke with me via video chat from his home in London. Part 1 of 2 of our conversation appears below. Part 2 was published on June 25, 2015.

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The inspiration behind Sibelius

Q: There are probably many Sibelius users who aren’t aware of the product’s origins. Can you talk about that?

My brother Jonathan and I are part of the 1980s home computer-boom generation. We taught ourselves computer programming on Acorn computers, which were made in Cambridge, where we grew up. Acorns were very popular in Britain, but they weren’t really used anywhere else. We wrote and sold games for it from the age of 12. We were also very musical, and went to a choir school: King’s College School, Cambridge. Then when we went on to high school, we were taught composition, which was very unusual in the UK at that time. We were both very keen on composing, and of course back in those days it was all done with manuscript paper.

Ben and Jonathan Finn at King's College School in Cambridge, in 1980
Ben and Jonathan Finn at King’s College School in Cambridge, in 1980

Schools were starting to get computers with word processors and things like that. So we thought, “how about we just knock up a word processor for music?” This was in 1986, when we were 17. We knew it would be hard, and as we started working it out on paper, it became clear that it was extremely complex.

I remember the particular moment I realized how difficult this was going to be: when we started thinking about two voices on the same staff, and accounting for the fact that they had to be displaced. You see, we were working out the ground rules from scratch — we hadn’t read any engraving books at that time.

I knew someone who worked for Peter Maxwell Davies, and I thought that maybe I could get some work on the side helping out with his music. So I wrote to his agent, and introduced myself as a high school student suggesting that maybe I could copy out his music — I was good at copying by hand — or perhaps I could proof read it. His agent phoned up and told me that Peter Maxwell Davies was quite interested!

So I started working for him. I would be sent the composer’s manuscript, and also the fair copy, copied by hand by his copyist, Richard Emsley, and I would proof read it. I got talking to Richard, and told him that Jonathan and I had starting thinking about writing a computer program for what he had to do by hand. He agreed it would be a good idea, and he lent us Ted Ross’s The Art of Music Engraving and Processing. With the Ross book — and a lot of scores that we examined closely — we started writing the program.

We even bought a measuring magnifier, which is a very high quality and precise magnifying glass ruled in 1/20ths of a millimeter. We used it to measure treble clefs, stem lengths, and all that in the scores we had.

We thought it would take two years to write this program. We wrote it for Acorn computers in assembly language, which is the fundamental language used by computers, very difficult to write but very fast.

So off we went to university in 1987 — I went to the Royal College of Music followed by Cambridge, and Jonathan went to Oxford. We worked on the program in the holidays, and the two years came and went. Ultimately it took seven years to get it finished. By that time, Jonathan had left university and I had done a master’s.

When we were getting close to completing the program, we thought that we had better actually do something with it, because though we hadn’t originally planned it for commercial use, having spent seven years on this, it was clear that it had gone well beyond the nature of a hobby project. We had no intention of commercializing it ourselves, so we actually wrote to Apple and IBM, along with several music publishers and tried to interest them in it. We drew a blank on every front.

So instead we started our own business, and this was in 1993. We decided to call it “Sibelius” for reasons we can no longer remember, but it was almost certainly because [composer Jean] Sibelius was a “Finn” — a play on our surname. Even though people have trouble spelling it sometimes, looking back, I still think it was a good name, having set the right tone for being traditional yet modern as well.

Sibelius 7 on an Acorn RiscPC computer, c. 1995
Sibelius 7 on an Acorn RiscPC computer, c. 1995

We bought a directory of all the composers and publishers in Britain and mailed them all a brochure. Back then, a lot of people didn’t have computers — and most classical musicians certainly didn’t — which actually worked in our favor, because we sold them computers as well as the software, not to mention a printer, maybe a MIDI keyboard, a sound module; the whole composing package. The fact that it was an Acorn computer, as opposed to Windows or a Mac, made no difference to them.

Indeed, because this was the first computer for so many of our customers, our manual not only explained how to use Sibelius, but basic computing skills like how to use a mouse! The whole thing was a great revelation to them and got enormously popular very rapidly in Britain by word of mouth. It became clear that this was going to be our life for the foreseeable future. It was at that time that I stopped all development work and Jonathan took that over entirely. I became the CEO, and he became the CTO.

Q: Was there a natural division of labor between you and Jonathan?

We knew that one of us had to do the business side and one of us had to do the technical side. I suppose we could have possibly done it the other way around, although Jonathan latterly had done more of the programming and had possession of the computer!

Q: Do you think it would have been possible to develop the software without each other?

Writing software like this is so difficult and complex. There are numerous technical and design problems. For a single person to do all that and to do it well without discussing with someone else would be pretty much impossible.

Jonathan and I did most of the initial programming side-by-side at the computer, with one of us typing it in and both discussing it together. We didn’t know this at the time, but this is one of the official methods of good quality programming.

The first version of Sibelius

January 1996 article about Sibelius in The Times (London)
January 1996 article about Sibelius in The Times (London)

Q: We think of Sibelius as having such a strong educational component, but it sounds like you were initially marketing the product to professionals, is that right?

Yes. But as it happened, the software was very easy to use, and — even though we hadn’t thought this aspect through — Acorns were still enormously popular in schools, thanks to the huge success in the 1980s of Acorn’s BBC Micro computer, commissioned for a TV series teaching people about home computing.

Anyway, we had this professional software which did everything the schools wanted and more, and we started getting orders. So within a matter of months, we figured we had better offer an educational discount and a site license, and then we made “lite” versions to satisfy the educational users. As it turned out, education ended up being two-thirds of our market, unexpectedly.

Q: What were some of the early concepts behind Sibelius that you envisioned, and made it so appealing to use?

Acorn Sibelius 7 designWe were dimly aware of the existence of other programs. In the late 1980s and early 90s, there were actually quite a lot of different score-writing programs, which weren’t really marketed in the UK, except for Finale and Score to some extent. We hadn’t seen them, and of course the internet didn’t exist, so we didn’t know much about them.

So in a way we probably wouldn’t do now, we designed Sibelius entirely from scratch in total ignorance! As it so happened, we did it in a good way. One of the key concepts was to have a very simple interface that was consistent, so you didn’t have to learn a whole lot of different things; you learn one thing and apply it to many different areas of the program. Clicking on something and moving it seemed obvious to us, so that was a fundamental concept.

[Listen to Ben Finn explain Sibelius’s code design]

Another one was reformatting; we knew that in order to be able to extract parts, the program was going to have to arbitrarily reformat any music. Many readers may not realize this, but back then, memory and disk space were at a real premium. We designed the file format to be incredibly compressed, bit-by-bit. This got us into a good habit: in order to make scores reformat arbitrarily, the best way to do it was to do it on the fly. That is, not to calculate where everything throughout the score should go, store it in memory, and then wait for the person to press an update button and recalculate and re-store all the formatting. That’s slow and inefficient. The way to do it is, whenever the program wants to draw anything, like a staff or a note, it calculates its position at that point in time.

By designing the program so that everything would reformat instantly, that saved a lot a memory; but it also required the code to be very fast for it to be possible at all, which is why it worked in assembly language. If we had done it in a slower language, it would have been too clunky.

Q: Was the first version of Sibelius called version 7?

Not quite. 7 was not the version; it was part of the name itself. The program was called Sibelius 7. It’s a bit weird, but it seemed like a good idea at the time! I think it was obliquely referring to Sibelius’s seventh symphony, though I have no idea why.

Comments

  1. Paolo

    Very interesting indeed! I can’t wait to read the following! Thank you!

  2. Steve

    Great interview so far! Nice job. I only wish you were able to use html 5 to embed the mp3 of Brother Finn discussing code design as Flash is (or at least should be!) going the way of the Dodo. Saves a few clicks to access the audio for those of us leery of installing Flash on our computers.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Steve: It’s actually a browser thing. Firefox doesn’t support HTML5 MP3 playback like the other browsers do, and I didn’t take the time to encode it for OGG. But I have done so now, if you refresh. Thanks for noticing it.

      1. Steve

        I see… thanks!

  3. Dust

    It’s a great idea to know the real heroes of Sibelius software. I became a big fan and user since version 4. Thanks for the great article Philip!

  4. Bob Zawalich

    Great interview, Philip!

    I was fascinated to hear that the Finns did not have access to any other scoring programs, and so just did everything by scratch, not worrying if they would match the features of the competitors. There is a nice improvisational quality to that, which was reflected in the software, and which let you approach the software in the same way, on your own terms.

    Oh, I so miss the old Sibelius…

    1. Philip Rothman

      I too found that very interesting. And like Dust, I only started using Sibelius with version 4, although I remember Ben demonstrating what must have been version 1 when I was a graduate student in 1999 or 2000 at Juilliard. So it was nice to sync up that memory with a first-hand account of what was going on.

    2. Neil Sands

      It reminds me of Haydn’s comment about being cut off from the world and so being forced to be original.

  5. William Kay

    Look forward to reading part 2! I still have my original Acorn Sibelius 7 package, complete with the box, 3.5″ floppies and the very friendly manual. Sadly, I don’t have a machine to run it on any more, but can’t bring myself to bin it, either!

  6. Max Tofone

    Thanks a lot Philip for this great article… It certainly brought back some past memories when I purchased my copy of Sibelius 7 and an Acorn computer;-)

    I am looking forward to part two…

  7. Andrei

    Great interview, can’t wait for Part II! Thanks to you both, Philip and Ben! Loyal and very happy Sibelius user since ver. 4 here, planning to stay with 7.1.3 until Rome falls…

  8. Peter Roos

    Very cool interview, thanks for posting.

  9. Jorge Grundman

    I started to use Sibelius from version 1 for Windows and later I was a beta tester os Sibelius for the spanish release.

    Sibelius is and has been my tool to composer. In fact I almost do not play piano now.

    Thanks to them for such beautiful tool. Without it, I think I could not finish a work like this https://youtu.be/hj1Zm7fj1oI

  10. Peter Inglis

    They probably called the original program “Sibelius 7” in reference to Jean Sibelius’ 7th Symphony, which was a compact 5-movements-in-one piece running about 20 minutes. A very modern, concise work, in contrast to his first Symphony which ran about 40 minutes over 4 separate movements, in the romantic tradition.

  11. Ryan

    Thank you for this article! I remember hearing and reading online about the forthcoming Sibelius scorewriter in college after growing a love/hate relationship with Finale. With Finale, I once accidentally hit Delete instead of Clear–I think–and nearly lost many hours of work thinking the program was hung, but after storming about and deciding to take a walk to calm down, about 45 minutes later, it finished. Then I clicked Undo… and another 45 minutes later, it finished. Seeing–and then trying–Sibelius was a revelation, even in version 1 (still have the box!). They definitely have reason to be proud of the format-on-the-fly paradigm.

    I do recall the file sizes being a huge benefit at the time, also. Even in the late 90s, floppy disks were still a common means of saving and transferring files, and Finale files were relatively huge (typically > 300 KB, and disks were 1.44 MB). Extracting parts and transferring them was problematic. Then Sibelius came along with these ~20 KB files. It was like magic.

    1. Philip Rothman

      I remember those days, too!

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