The story behind Sibelius 6: part 2

Opinion

In the first post in this series, I explained some of the lessons we learned from developing Sibelius 5, and set out our goals for Sibelius 6:

  • Make the software more useful for educators and students, particularly those using Sibelius in a networked classroom environment.
  • Address some specific functional areas where competing products are perceived to have the edge on Sibelius.
  • Add some innovative new features that will appeal to users buying notation software for the first time, existing Sibelius users, and existing users of competing products alike.

In this post, I’m going to tell you about how we approached the first of these three goals.

When Ben and Jonathan first set out to design Sibelius, they never imagined that it would end up being used in thousands of schools, colleges and universities around the world, with children as young as 7 or 8 using the same software they had conceived to make composing and publishing music as simple and elegant as possible. But of course that simplicity and elegance has helped the software become a valuable learning and teaching tool for educators and students of all ages, to the point where the majority of Sibelius users are involved in education in one form or another.

Over the years we’ve added various features to try and make Sibelius as useful as possible to teachers and students. An obvious example is the Worksheet Creator from Sibelius 4, which was the product of many months of painstaking research into music curricula in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Another obvious example is our network licence server software, which makes it really easy to set up and administer Sibelius across a school’s local area network, or even over a district or state’s wide area network. One of the products I’m proudest of that we’ve developed over the past few years is the redesigned Licence Server software that was released in September 2007, allowing teachers who aren’t IT experts to get the license server running on their network with fewer than a dozen mouse-clicks, and presents all the common server admin tasks in a single window: it’s a real example of how we try to make things that could end up complicated as simple as possible for the benefit of our users.

As the use of Sibelius continues to grow in schools and colleges, then, we wanted to add valuable new features that would really help educators and students make the most of the new software. We came up with three big things: Classroom Control, Versions, and our Keyboard and Fretboard windows.

Classroom Control

I’ve travelled around and visited a lot of schools over the last 10 years, and seen some really great and inspirational teachers at work. One visit in particular stands out for me, and it’s where this feature idea first really crystallised for me.

Most secondary schools here in the UK, and an increasing number in the US, now have dedicated computer labs in the music department. However, it’s difficult for teachers to switch between demonstrating concepts for students, perhaps using their interactive whiteboard or digital projector, and having the students work alone or in pairs at workstations running Sibelius and other software. I’ve seen teachers resort to all sorts of things, such as flashing the classroom lights off and on to attract the attention of kids who were wearing headphones and busily getting on with writing their music. And if a teacher wanted to use a student’s work to illustrate a particular point, or encourage peer appraisal, I’ve seen a variety of approaches, from having all the students gather around one workstation to having the student take the work to the teacher’s station on a USB flash drive, or emailing it.

I’ve been to lots of schools where the computer lab is fitted out with a lab control system, which is basically a means of the teacher having an audio and/or video link from his own workstation to each of the students’ workstations. However, I’ve rarely seen such a system used effectively. On this particular day, however, I was attending a junior year elective music theory class, and one student in particular was having problems approaching a specific compositional task. Without any of the other students in the classroom being aware (and therefore avoiding the student feeling awkward about the difficulties she was experiencing), the teacher was able to take control of her computer via Apple Remote Desktop, demonstrate something to her directly on her screen, and then talk her through repeating the action for herself. It was truly personalised learning, and it was a case where the technology enabled the teacher to really assist that student in a direct and yet discreet fashion.

When I got back to London, I immediately sketched out a feature that would be able to provide some basic classroom management functionality directly within Sibelius. It wouldn’t be able to offer the direct one-to-one audio communication between the teacher and the student, but it would enable teachers without dedicated lab control hardware to experience many of the benefits of this approach.

The concept is pretty simple: in networked environments where the Sibelius Licence Server is used, the teacher can set a secret password in the Licence Server Control Panel. He or she then uses this password to tell Sibelius that he or she is the teacher, which enables a special Classroom Control window in the program. From this window, the teacher can see the usernames of each of the students using Sibelius on the network, the filenames of what each is working on, and can do things like “pull” a student file to his or her own workstation to review it, or “push” a file from his or her own workstation to one or more of the students’ workstations. So to demonstrate a student’s work on the whiteboard, it’s as simple as clicking on the student’s name, clicking the “get score” button, and it can be displayed right there. And if the teacher wants to get the class’s attention, he or she can “freeze” every copy of Sibelius in the lab at the click of a button, and then “un-freeze” them all again with a further click.

Best of all, the Classroom Control feature, which is designed to support the teacher’s workflow, integrates with the new Versions feature, which is designed to support the student’s workflow.

Versions

It’s becoming increasingly important for students to be able to explain their creative process while working on a bit of coursework for an exam, whether it’s in music or indeed any other subject. Exam boards require students to submit not only the finished article, but also a commentary that outlines the process the student went through to arrive at his or her final work.

A couple of years ago we were throwing around ideas for how we might be able to help teachers and students address this requirement, and we were even considering building a whole new application that would run all the time on computers in schools, popping up every now and again to ask the student to record his or her thoughts at that point. We’d also considered a number of possibilities for introducing some kind of versioning into Sibelius scores, but now these two ideas came together, and the Versions feature is the result.

Simply put, you can now save checkpoints at any point during the creation of a score, name them, and provide a running commentary of the changes made to that point. Teachers using the Classroom Control feature can even send a command out to the copies of Sibelius running in the lab to prompt each of the students to provide a comment at that point (handy for 10 minutes before the end of a lesson!). You can view each version simply by choosing it from a new menu on the toolbar, and you can do fairly sophisticated operations using the Edit Versions dialog, including exporting a previous version as a separate score, deleting a version, and so on.

Perhaps the neatest aspect of the feature, however, is the ability to compare one version with another (you can also do this with two totally separate scores if you like), using the new Compare window. Sibelius will list all of the musical differences between the two versions, and colour those differences in the score: so added notes are shown in green, deleted articulations are shown in red, edited lyrics are shown in orange, and so on. You can also print a list of those differences, or export a complete document — with all of your comments, all of the differences found by the comparison, and thumbnails of every page of each version, with the differences marked up in colour — suitable for opening in a word processor like Microsoft Word. This is all designed to take the pain out of creating commentaries for students, and to give teachers piece of mind that they can see something of an audit trail of the student’s work while putting the score together.

One of the great things about the Versions feature is that it will be useful for everybody, not just teachers and students. When I first showed the work-in-progress feature to some composers last summer, they were wowed by it. Several of them said that they had never really thought about needing a feature to handle this kind of thing — each had developed their own strategy for dealing with versioning, such as saving numbered copies — but the fact that it was all integrated directly into the program really made it useful to them, and the comparison features were of particular interest to composers who did a lot of collaborative work, e.g. with their editor at their publisher, or with an orchestrator, and so on.

Keyboard and Fretboard windows

It’s estimated that three quarters of schools here in the UK now have at least one interactive whiteboard, or “smartboard,” in their classrooms. Sibelius works really well on an interactive whiteboard because the mouse input method, with the on-screen Keypad window, is a natural fit for use with the pen-like input device. However, I’ve visited classrooms where teachers have ended up balancing a regular computer keyboard in the crook of their arm, because of two things: firstly, since Sibelius 2 there has been no way of cancelling the creation of an object (whether it’s a note, or a clef, or whatever) using only the mouse — you have to hit the Esc key, which means that the teacher always has to have a regular keyboard within easy reach; and secondly, inputting notes by clicking in the line or space with a pen is a little lacking ergonomically.

The first of these two problems has been solved very simply in Sibelius 6: the previously blank spot at the top left-hand corner of the on-screen Keypad (which corresponds to the Num Lock key on a regular keyboard) now has a little mouse button icon on it. If you hit the Num Lock key, it doesn’t do anything (Num Lock is special because it toggles the numeric keypad on and off, and Sibelius really requires the keypad to be on for several important keyboard shortcuts to work, like inputting notes in text), but if you click this button with the mouse (or with the pen on an interactive whiteboard), it cancels the current tool, allowing you to click on the score to select something, rather than creating another object. It’s a simple change, but we expect it to make a big difference to how comfortable Sibelius is to use in a classroom with an interactive whiteboard.

The second problem has been solved by adding two new windows for note input: one looks like a piano keyboard, and the other looks like a 6-string guitar or 4- or 5-string bass fretboard. We first introduced a guitar fretboard window into a Sibelius product back in 2003, in our guitar-focused songwriting product G7 (which is no longer available for sale). The fretboard window has now made a return to our product line in Sibelius 6.

They work pretty much as you would expect: you simply click on them to input notes. One nice (though not particularly interactive whiteboard-friendly) feature of the Keyboard window is that you can set your computer’s keyboard to play the keys on the Keyboard window, so the A key produces C, W produces C#, S produces D, E produces Eb, and so on, all the way up to K producing a C the octave above. You can hop up and down octaves with X and Z, and the end result is that after a little practice, you can quite happily use this so-called QWERTY input mode to input melodies and chords very quickly indeed.

Up next

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some of the areas of the program where we needed to play “catch-up” to our competition.

Comments

  1. John Mills

    A fascinating insight into the development of a superb programme! It’s so welcome to see software advances that take the user’s viewpoint seriously rather than bloating the product with superficial “features”!

  2. thartist

    interesting… “Versions” is soo damn important, i’ve always been bothered by having to save separate different versions of my work, even naming them as 1beta, 1.0, 1.1 etc. lol, too much computing in my head.
    It was so bad that i tried a couple of times and left that behind, but now with your implementation which even highlights differencies, it’s a miracle.

    I wonder where you may be thinking u have to catch-up to competition… but well, haven’t used any other than Sibelius in many years now. – I insist, the point where i lose more time with Sibelius is in the 1) “notation itself” and in the 2) “correction of mistakes while notating”… it is mostly a real hassle, and Finale users that switch to Sibelius tend to think that in input Finale was faster… i’m just providing whatever bit of help i can.

  3. John Glossenger

    Versions looks it will be a big deal for me, but probably not for the reasons you anticipated.

    With Versions, before I try something new & complicated (that requires many individual steps), I can save my current version. Then, if I don’t like what I’ve tried, I can easily revert to my good version.

    Although one could undo back to a previous version in Sibelius 5, this was never easy, because it was hard to decipher the undo history to know exactly what to undo to get back to your good version.

    So, I think the Versions feature is actually more useful than you anticipated!

  4. Aaron Smith

    Maybe this is a little premature seeing as I haven’t recieved my copy of Sibelius 6 yet (although hopefully it’s in the mail). But on top of the keyboard and fretboard windows, it would be a godsend to see this applied to woodwinds and strings. Imagine writing for violin as a student and realizing… maybe this double stop isn’t possible. Or, writing for clarinet and thinking, maybe I should change the octave because of the break. This sort of feature would be so nice for students and composers like myself alike.

  5. thartist

    @Aaron Smith
    fan-tas-tic idea.
    Further: in the case of string instruments the most obvious position for a given note could be a strong white dot, and the alternative possibilities to play that same note in other strings could be semi transparent dots drawn all at the same time, to show the alternative positions. That’s a characteristic that doesn’t mean a problem in the piano, because each height is only in one key.

    That would be super easy to implement but very helpful. Of course Sibelius will probably not be able to determine the best digitation depending on each particular phrase, but that’s when you could only just follow visually the semitransparent alternative dots.

    Now quick! hide this idea from curious Finale eyes!

    (my english is so thin especially in musical terminology)

  6. thartist

    the especially important reason for this implementation (that i forgot to mention in the former post) is that some professors refuse to accept software for some works because the student can’t get to see if he is writing something that can’t be done in the instrument like a third that falls in the G string in a violin or a fifth in the violin in consecutive strings in the same position. That’s something that happened to me, as an example.

  7. Yrjö Fager

    I already posted about this on the support chat forum, but I find it funny that Sibelius 6 knows so much about chords, it can manipulate and analyze them in various ways, and it can even show you how to play them, but… you don’t get to hear what the chords sound like unless you actually play them yourself. :) It’s sooooo close, but no cigar. Live chord playback/audition is one of the few remaining things that Finale has, but Sibelius doesn’t have.

  8. thartist

    @Yrjö Fager:
    in-deed.
    i find myself very frequently frustrated by not being able to play quicky a little segment to hear a couple of chords or bars.

    please take notice, devs.

  9. Yrjö Fager

    I made this little video clip to demonstrate the way I imagine live chord symbol playback could work in Sibelius. I hid the realized chord notes with the “focus on staves” feature.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01wsBMK6bQc
    The RealGuitar plugin only needs enough MIDI notes to make some kind of a chord for its “left hand”, and then there’s an automatic strumming pattern sequencer which tells what the “right hand” should do. Using the sequencer is optional; you can also control the strumming with MIDI notes, with a separate MIDI track, or e.g. with the metronome/click.

  10. John Glossenger

    The “Realize Chord Symbols” plug-in does a fairly good job of translating chord symbols into chord notes. Unfortunately, this plug-in will only create the chord notes for a NEW instrument (either piano or guitar); I really wish it could (optionally) create them on an EXISTING instrument.

    For example, say I’ve already got an instrument “B4Organ ” in my score. I’ve got chord symbols in another staff, and I want to run the plug-in to realize those chords into the B4Organ instrument. When I run the plug-in, it creates the chords in a NEW piano or guitar instrument … and then I have to (1) c0py the chords to the B4Organ instrument, and then (2) delete the NEW instrument. If I could realize the chords into an EXISTING instrument, I’d avoid those two steps.

  11. Randall Stross

    Sounds like the upgrade to version 6 is definitely worth it. Thank you for all your hard work on this project.

  12. Andrei

    Just got the upgrade DVD. The list and scope of upgrades is astonishing!
    Thanks, Daniel, for the clear and concise upgrade booklet, the tutorial videos and this blog.
    Best regards!

  13. Jan Gunnar Hoff

    It has taken some time for Sibelius to implement some very needed functions like the Repeat bars in the last version 6.0: You can now add 1-, 2- and 4-bar repeats from the Keypad, which now play back just like anything else (from website ad).

    I adressed this issue to support services already at Sib 3.0. I recently bought the Sib 5 discovering that no such function yet exists in this version. Please arrest me if I am wrong, I really need this feature but cannot find it in 5.

    For everyone working in jazz/pop and related genres, being able to repeat a guitar or drum pattern (with full playback) without copying that same pattern in all bars affecting the Full Score sizewise in every page, is cruical. There is a workaround this that I have used sometimes but it´s very complicated.

    It´s nice to see that Sibelius finally implemented this in 6.0 as a standard Keypad- feature, although somewhat late.

    Best wishes: JGH, Norway

  14. Bengt Strom

    Thank you for my chord symbols in Sib.5
    Cmaj7 and Cm7b5 it was great by using: shift+ctr+alt
    Can you put it in Sib6 too?
    We met in Stockholm last year.
    Bengt Strom
    Umea in Sweden

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