Sibelius 6: it’s pretty and it’s easy


A few years ago, I engaged in some lively debate with a composer called Jeffery Cotton, who attempted to make the switch from Finale to Sibelius, but found that Sibelius at the time (which was when Sibelius 3 was the current version) didn’t offer the flexibility he required. The upshot of this debate was his wonderfully titled essay It Isn’t Pretty Being Easy, which I confess I still visit from time to time just to read it again. I’ve been looking forward to the day when I would be able to tick off all of the items on Jeffery’s list, and with the release of Sibelius 6, that day has arrived. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

My favourite quote in Jeffery’s essay is this:

Sibelius is that knock-out bombshell in a tight dress who can’t spell “hairpin” and still talks down to you — but who cares: she’s easy. It might one day become a quality notation program, providing the control and tools needed to create professional-quality scores. And when that day comes, Sibelius will have morphed into the same bloated frump in a housedress that Finale has become, with just as many menus, tools and palettes.

Fantastic! You have to hand it to the man: he can write a put-down. Of course, even when Jeffery wrote this essay, a good five years ago now, Sibelius was already being used by many of the world’s leading publishers, and a great deal of the most complex contemporary music that has been published so far in the 21st century has been published using Sibelius, so it’s by no means the case that Sibelius lacks the “control and tools needed to create professional-quality scores.” But you expect a certain amount of hyperbole in essays like this, and anyway, Jeffery did have several valid points.


Jeffery complained that Sibelius wouldn’t let you adjust the aperture of an individual hairpin. This one was actually taken care of in Sibelius 5, in which we introduced the capability to adjust the aperture of an individual hairpin using the Lines panel of Properties. In Sibelius 6, we’ve improved the alignment of hairpins, automatically moving their ends out of the way of dynamics at either end, thanks to Magnetic Layout.


Jeffery bewailed that slurs were too high and arched by default, though he also inaccurately claimed that slur shapes could only be corrected using the mouse (in fact there are lots of keyboard shortcuts, and also numeric parameters that can be altered in the Lines panel of Properties, and this was as true in Sibelius 3 as it is today).

In Sibelius 6, we’ve substantially improved slurs, in terms of their default appearance (with lots of options for default height, default shoulder, and so on), their default positioning (Sibelius now respects the engraving convention that slurs should go below the notes only if all the notes under the compass of the slur have stems pointing upwards, otherwise the slur should go above the notes), and also in making them considerably more malleable. Slurs are basically a cubic Bezier curve, with some fancy drawing to thicken ’em up in the right places (and Sibelius 6 now allows you to control the thickness of individual slurs), and Sibelius 6 now exposes all of the control points of the curve, meaning that you can now easily produce very graceful curves indeed.

It’s true that slurs can still collide with things like accidentals on notes under their compass, or even with notes themselves in extreme situations, but fixing these problems up is now much, much easier than in any previous version. I would go so far as to say that I believe Sibelius’s slurs are now the most elegant of any notation program’s.

One further point: the little graphic that Jeffery posts in his article about how slurs above and below adjacent staves can balloon into one another is now a moment’s work to fix, even if it were somehow to occur: just use Layout > Optimize Staff Spacing to automatically adjust the distance between staves to resolve the collision.


Sibelius “decides on its own,” says Jeffery, “when the leading or ending tip of a slur belongs outside an articulation and when it belongs inside.” True enough at the time he wrote it, but Sibelius 6 comprehensively takes care of this, providing lots of options for whether individual kinds of articulations should go inbetween the notehead and the end of a slur. Indeed, you can now flip individual articulations above and below notes quite happily, and adjust the vertical distance between articulations above or below a note with ease, something else that Jeffery complained about.

Jeffery also complains about the order in which articulations appear above or below a note. While this is still set in a fixed order by default, it’s now easy to adjust the vertical order in a specific case by dragging or nudging an articulation so it’s above or below another one, and if you really want to go to the trouble, you can change the order of articulations in your score by changing the order in which they appear on the Articulations row of the Symbol dialog (although this last point was true for Sibelius 3 as well).

Note spacing

By his own concession in an addendum to his original essay, Jeffery was never able to reproduce the “nightmarish” spacing shown in the picture on his site. And although the biggest improvements in note spacing did indeed come in Sibelius 3, we have continued to hone the Optical Spacing feature, and improvements in Sibelius 6 include taking the width of chord symbols into account, allowing extra space for note-attached arpeggio lines, and the various new jazz-specific symbols supported by the program.

There’s still room for improvement in Sibelius’s note spacing algorithm, but it’s by no means “nightmarish,” and it’s better than ever in Sibelius 6.


Jeffery didn’t appreciate some of the humour in the Sibelius User Guide (as was, back then). The tone of our documentation has occasionally rubbed the odd person up the wrong way. We’ve retired some of the older, crustier jokes since Sibelius 3 (and replaced them with slightly less old, slightly less crusty jokes, of course). But more importantly, the complete documentation set is now included directly in the program, accessed via the Help menu, in easily searchable, point-and-clickable loveliness.

But is it still easy?

Jeffery’s conclusion is that it’s impossible to have a sophisticated piece of notation software that produces high-quality output without descending into a mess of ever-deepening menus and dialog boxes.

I’m not about to try and say that increased sophistication does not also lead to increased complexity, because that is definitely not the case, but here’s an interesting statistic: Sibelius 3 had 143 top-level menu items, i.e. entries in each of the main menus (File, Edit, View, and so on); despite there being three major upgrades to the software since Sibelius 3, adding hundreds upon hundreds of new features, Sibelius 6 does not have any more top-level menus than Sibelius 3, and has a total of 197 top-level menu items. And it has only a handful of extra dialog boxes more than Sibelius 5. If you were to upgrade from Sibelius 3 right to Sibelius 6, you’d still be able to open up the program and get your work done without feeling completely lost.

This is because we work hard to try and integrate the new features we add into the existing design of the program, rather than endlessly bolting on extra menu items and dialogs all over the place. My belief is that Sibelius is every bit as sophisticated as Finale, and capable of producing just as fine an end product, but without making the software over-complicated and difficult to learn.

Anyway, I wonder whether Jeffery will feel like dipping his toes back in the Sibelius waters following the release of Sibelius 6? I very much hope that he will, because I think he’ll find that the developments we’ve made over the past four or five years, and in particular in this new version, are right up his street.


  1. Stephen Barr

    Great post, Daniel. As a former Finale user (I used Finale for over ten years before switching, and was definitely a “power user”), I have some definite observations to offer on this subject. Mr. Cotton’s article pointing out some of Sibelius’s weaknesses definitely had some accurate points, but I agree that Sibelius has more than addressed these faults in recent versions, especially Sibelius 5. As for some of the more unfounded complaints (slurs, articulation positioning, and spacing), this seems to me a matter of personal preference or adherence to a set of “house” publishing rules, rather than actually being problems with the program. For instance, in Cotton’s “arco, jeté” example, I prefer the slur to be on the outside of all articulations, as it is shown. Either way, these parameters are easily adjustable within Sibelius, and not at all difficult to find within the program preferences.

    Regarding the eternal “complexity/power vs. easiness” argument goes, I’ll say this: I greatly prefer a program which hides great power and complexity beneath a simplified, INTUITIVE interface over one that smacks the user in the face, so to speak, with its apparent power and complexity. Once I got over the counter-intuitiveness of switching from Finale to Sibelius, I was amazed at how naturally intuitive the Sibelius interface is. Just because a program in complex doesn’t mean it has to be difficult to use. Finale is without a doubt a powerful program; but, have fun learning how to use that power (it took me the better part of ten years). I have better things to do with my time—such as composing.

    For me, it comes down to this: using Sibelius 5, I have yet to encounter a notation that I could not create very quickly and efficiently, usually about 3-5 times faster than I could have ever done it in Finale—period. Sibelius is powerful, complex, and easy to use. I wager that I could engrave a very professional looking score in any style (short of a George Crumb or other handwritten/abstract score, which neither program is going to pull off well) about twice as fast as any but the most experienced power user could do it in Finale (and I suspect I may be able to do it faster than the Finale power user too…).

    Two other points before I finish:
    (1) Regarding engraving: yes, aesthetics are nice, but being a purist about this comes off as rather elitist to me. Debating the subtleties of house styles seems rather pointless. In the final analysis, I care about whether the music is clear and readable, suitable for performance. This has never been a problem for me with Sibelius since I’ve been using the program. The nightmare of having to cut and (re-)edit parts for large scores in Finale was half the reason I switched to Sibelius in the first place; Sibelius’s dynamic parts feature is well-implemented and again, a cinch to use.
    (2) Daniel’s point about menu depth and complexity is well put and telling. At the university where I teach, I still have occasion to instruct students in Finale (a situation I am in the process of rectifying). When they encounter a problem (often enough), normally the first thing that comes out of my mouth after opening Finale is an audible groan upon being confronted with all of the buttons, menus, and palettes, and trying to remember where I need to go to help the student fix his or her issue. Just the other week, I had to go into three different menus and dialogs just to change the page size and reflow the staves across the new format. And I should expect a student who’s a neophyte to the program to remember that? I can barely remember it. Terrible.

    So, I’ll take the bombshell over the bloated frump any day. She’s even hotter than you think once you get to know her (and just keeps on getting hotter)! And by the way, I’m an absolute sucker for the humor in the manual—my good friend (another former Finale user who I converted to Sibelius, I am pleased to say) and I regularly share the jokes with each other when we come across them. At least the Sibelius manual is concise and easy to navigate; as I recall, you need a burro just to carry around all the Finale manuals.

  2. Yakov Hadash

    I am very very very excited that you finally figured out how to get the manual into the “Help” documentation. Salivating in fact.

    1. Daniel Spreadbury

      In fact Sibelius 5 includes the full Sibelius Reference book already in PDF form via the Help menu. Sibelius 6 includes not only the Sibelius Reference, but also the Sibelius Handbook and the Upgrading to Sibelius 6 booklet, plus the documentation for the ManuScript programming language. All of these documents are in PDF form, which are fully searchable, and have clickable links for cross-references and indexes, etc.

  3. cindy

    wow – such casual misogynism. And completely unremarked upon. Talk about house publishing rules of classical music…

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