Music Press Reviews

This article originally appeared in the Juilliard Journal, May 1997, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Evaluating the New High End Notation Programs

Courtney Evans

Among the composers I know at Juilliard who use computers to typeset their music, the most popular program by far is Finale, from Coda Music Technology, Inc. Finale is a powerful program that is capable of doing just about anything a composer could want, but it is infamous for its difficulty and its less-than-beautiful output. Other programs are easier to use, but are more restricted in their features. However, there are two relatively new programs (well, one of them is relatively new in the United States) that are powerful, intuitive, easy-to-learn, and generate beautiful, professional-looking music. Both of these programs are a pleasure to work with, and both of them are extremely fast.

The first of the two programs is Graphire Music Press. Graphire is a relative newcomer to the notation software field, but it is backed up by years of experience of its designer, Alan Talbot, who also designed the music typesetting system for the legendary Synclavier.

My first experience with Graphire was a visit to Ted Petrosky of Symphony Reproductions. As he demonstrated Graphire, I found that the most surprising thing was the simplicity of the interface. I was used to Finale's multiple tool palettes and dialogue boxes presenting an array of options; Graphire has a single palette at the bottom of the screen that gives you a pop-up menu for selecting a tool, as well as controls for whatever tool you are using at the moment. The flexibility of Graphire's handling of music symbols is another of its strengths. You can move and adjust just about anything with just ONE tool - the pointer. No need to switch tools in order to edit slurs, articulations, dynamics, or other markings; additionally, the pointer tool is always available (if you're using another tool) just by holding down the control key. Additionally, there is no difference between "music entering mode" and "page layout mode" - music can be entered at any time.

Graphire offers two general methods of entering symbols aside from notes: "applying" uses a set of rules to automatically place symbols in the correct spots - staccato dots, for example, appear below or above the notehead as appropriate - while "sketching" lets you place the symbol anywhere on the page, regardless of notational "rules". The program offers two options for inputting the notes themselves: with a MIDI keyboard in step-time, or using the computer's keyboard as a kind of music typewriter. Using the computer keyboard proved surprisingly easy and fast; the numbers become note durations (2 = half note, 4 = quarter note, 8 = eighth note, etc.) and the letters become a three-octave keyboard, with accidentals over towards the [ and ] keys. Notes are entered without any beaming. You can tell Graphire to apply beams to all the music, and it will beam all the notes according to the time signature(s). (The default beaming patterns for each time signature are easily changed.) You can also use the beam tool, and drag the mouse over the notes you want beamed, and Graphire will apply beaming the way you want, even over barlines. You can also "sketch" beams if you're working with extended techniques or graphic notation.

Page layout is controlled by one or more "master pages," where you set up the number of staves, the distance between them, systemic barlines, and other layout settings. Once you've set up the basic layout, Graphire will actually adjust the space between staves in order to accommodate music or symbols that would otherwise collide with a neighboring staff. This behavior can be customized, also, if you don't want systems to spread too far apart. To adjust the layout on individual pages (to accommodate page turns, etc.) you place "end of system" marks where you want the system to break, and tell the program to re-space. Re-spacing of the music doesn't happen continuously, as it does with Sibelius. Instead, you tell Graphire when you want to re-space the music. Graphire was designed this way so that you wouldn't be constantly waiting around for the-program to re-space music every time you moved something. However, the re-spacing function is lightning fast. On my computer it couldn't have been more than half a second to re-space an entire 100-measure piece. Lyric entry takes place on a "Iyric staff" (which is set up in the layout like any other staff, and also automatically avoids collisions with other staves.) It's very intuitive, and Graphire will automatically re-space the music horizontally to accommodate long syllables without crowding.

Slurs are very easy to enter. Just choose the slur tool, and drag the mouse over the group of notes you want slurred. Graphire will draw a slur from the first to the last note, automatically. If for some reason you don't like the way the slur looks, it's very easy to change. It's also easy to draw slurs by "sketching" them instead of using the automatic "apply" method - you flick your wrist up for a slur above, and you flick your wrist down for a slur below. My only problem with the slur tool is that you can't use the automatic method over a system break, you have to sketch a slur to the end of the page, and then another one from the beginning of the system to the end of the phrase. (If you apply a slur and later re-space the music so that the slur crosses a system break, Graphire will automatically split it.)

Most other symbols can also be "applied" or automatically positioned, including accents, fermatas, staccatos, tenutos, bowing marks, and more. Each of these symbols has its own tool, and the positioning behavior of each tool can be customized to your taste. Hairpins are applied the same way as slurs: You just drag the mouse over the group of notes you want to crescendo or decrescendo, and Graphire positions the hairpin automatically.

Graphire also comes with an imposition feature, which allows you to automatically print out pages in book form or accordion-fold form.

Part extraction is the bane of every struggling composer's existence. Graphire does not, currently, have an automatic feature that extracts parts. However, it's still pretty easy. You point at the staff (or staves) you want to extract, tell Graphire to select all of the music for that staff, copy it, open a new document, paste it in, and re-space. It sounds more convoluted than it is, but you still have to make a few adjustments in the part. For example, if a part transposes, you may need to tell Graphire to reapply some symbols where the stem direction changes. (This is taken care of by one quick command, however). Graphire is currently available for the Macintosh. Graphire Corporation hasn't announced any official plans to port Graphire to other platforms such as the IBM-PC. However, Alan Talbot tells me that he hasn't ruled such a possibility out.

Sibelius 7 was designed by twins Jonathan and Ben Finn, who have been working on the program since 1987. Sibelius is unique in that it was written entirely in assembly language - in other words, in the language that the computer's processor speaks. (Nowadays, most programs are written in another language that' s easier to manage and then translated into assembly language.) The authors of the program did this to ensure that Sibelius would be very fast, and it is. The speed is most apparent when Sibelius is re-spacing music. When you move a note from side to side, the music around it adjusts to fit. In Graphire, you have to move the note and then tell the program to re-space. (Footnote 1)

However, Graphire has one advantage. One of the reasons Sibelius is so fast at re-spacing music and redrawing the screen is that it uses two different "modes" for editing music, the "editing" window and the "overview" window. The "overview" gives you a WYSIWYG display (What You See Is What You Get), which corresponds perfectly to the printed page - but you can't edit any of the music. In the "editing" window, on the system I was using, WYSIWYG was turned off, so that the music on the screen had a primitive, blocky appearance. Turning on WYSIWYG in the editing window slows down the system significantly. In Graphire, by comparison, there are no different windows for editing or overviewing; everything always corresponds to what you'll see on the printed page, and it's still as fast as the non-WYSIWYG display in Sibelius. (Elwyn Davies of Sibelius Software tells me that the system I was using was the "baby" model of the Acorn line of computers; on a higher-end Acorn, the WYSIWYG display would be just as fast as Graphire's.)

When I first started Sibelius, I was even more shocked than I had been seeing Graphire for the first time There were no tool palettes at all - just a blank page! Sibelius uses a three-button mouse, and calls each button by its function: the left mouse button is "select," corresponds roughly to the "pointer" tool of Music Press, and is used for selecting notes or musicals and moving them around and modifying them. The middle mouse button is called "menu" and lets you access all of Sibelius's functions. The right mouse but called "adjust," but is actually used for copying - somewhat of a misnomer. To navigate the score, Sibelius provides a small window called the "radar" in the bottom right corner of the, which shows a miniature picture of two pages of score and a rectangle which corresponds to the area page you're currently working with. To scroll, you use the "select" button on the mouse and grab a blank area of the page, or you can move around the radar (which jumps to the next page in the score when you move it over to the edge of the page.)

Sibelius offers two methods for entering notes: step time with a MIDI keyboard, or using the mouse. Using the mouse, you move the to the appropriate space or line on the staff, and the choose the duration and accidental using the function keys at the top of the keyboard. The function keys are used to change the beaming and to add articulations. (Fortunately, Sibelius includes a little card that's above the function keys, explaining what each one them does.) Sibelius also offers a real-time MIDI note entry system called Flexitime, but I didn't have a chance to evaluate this feature.

Sibelius takes an interesting approach to the initial laying out of the score. You choose the instruments you're using from a large predefined menu, and Sibelius lays them out in standard score order. If you want an instrument that is undefined, you just pick an existing one and rename it in the score; you can also turn off the automatic score order. Sibelius automatically re-spaces the music horizontally and handles the re-spacing of complex cross-rhythms gracefully, thanks to a feature the programmers call the "double prism" rule, and it re-spaces hairpins and slurs more gracefully than Graphire does. To control page turns, you can put in page or system breaks. Unlike Graphire, it doesn't automatically adjust the vertical space between staves to avoid collisions. Sibelius handles Iyrics very well, and adjusts the space of the music horizontally to accommodate the words.

Sibelius's slur controls are a little different from Graphire's. Sibelius requires you to manually place the start and end points of a slur. (You can hold down shift, however, to get the slur to automatically align to the notehead you're pointing at.) But Sibelius can automatically draw a slur that falls over a system break as one shape, and doesn't require you to draw it in two pieces. Sibelius's control over the slur's shape is very good, but not quite as fine as Graphire's.

Sibelius also includes a number of features designed to play back the music you've entered through MIDI, including an "espressivo" feature that the manual claims "enables Sibelius 7 to play back scores adding its own expression just like a human." This part of the program falls outside the scope of this review, but the thought is frightening. Apparently the program won accolades as a pianist, when it performed an etude by Ligeti long considered unplayable.

My biggest gripe with Sibelius is that it only runs on the Acorn RISC personal computer, which is a complete, independent platform with its own operating system. Most people who have already invested in computers have bought either IBM-PC compatible systems or Macintosh compatible systems. If you don't already have a computer, you might want to consider an Acorn because they can be equipped with an additional IBM PC compatible processor (so you can play Doom or balance your checkbook.) However, keep in mind that you'd be a pioneer - very few Acorns are in use in the U.S. right now. There are no plans to port Sibelius to any other computer platform.

To sum up, both of these programs are very powerful, and I found very few faults with either of them. The best advice I can give is to try them both out; both companies are very friendly about setting up demonstrations for potential users. If you have a Macintosh already, would recommend going for Graphire. If you don't have a computer, or you're willing to invest in another complete system, then check out Sibelius.

(Footnote 1: Since the original publication of this article in May of 1997, the author has learned a small amount about how different computer languages work. While the Finn brothers tout the fact that Sibelius is written entirely in assembly, the truth is that with modern compilers (programs that translate easier-to-use computer languages such as C into assembly) there isn't much of a speed difference between the two programming methods.)

The following review appeared in sounding board, the newsletter of the American Composers Forum, volume 23, no. 4 (April, 1996). Copyright 1996 by the American Composers Forum; reprinted by permission.

Notable Notation: Graphire Music Press

Frank Proto

There is a maxim that states: You can have high quality, speed, a low price; pick two. Graphire, a small software company in Vermont, is challenging this adage with the release of Graphire Music Press, a new Macintosh application that takes computer music-notation programs to a new level.

In my view, there are three aspects of Music Press that set it apart from anything currently available: (1) speed and ease of use, combined with very powerful editing and layout features; (2) the overall look of the final output; and (3) the ability to print documents with pages correctly imposed.

Speed and Ease of Use

Notation and page-layout programs have much in common. They both tend to go very deep into what they can and are expected to do. Therein lies the problem: lots of menus, sub-menus, dialog boxes, floating palates, tool boxes, and keyboard commands that function differently depending on what area of the program you are working in. Searching through a set of huge manuals can become a way of life, especially if you don't use the program regularly. Even for those who become expert users, some of the contortions required to accomplish what should be a relatively simple task can quickly eat up time, energy, and patience.

So is Music Press easy? Well, shortly after receiving the program I opened the manual and began from the beginning. After an hour or so I understood many of the program's basic concepts and tried a small project: 2-1/2 pages of the double-bass part of Anton Bruckner's 7th Symphony, which, besides being poorly copied, contains an awkward page-turn. My object was to get the part down to two pages.

Bruckner Music Sample

Measures 123-130 of the double bass part for Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, movement 1.
(Click the music or here to enlarge.)

The first task was to input the notes. Currently there are two methods of doing this: typing on the Mac keyboard or playing in step time using a MIDI keyboard. I chose the MIDI approach. Music is entered directly onto the staff, with no dialog boxes to deal with. Note entry took about 20 minutes. (See excerpt, page 5.)

Quite a bit of editing was needed. The Bruckner editions that we play from are ridiculously over-edited. Rarely do you see two successive notes without an accent, dot, staccatissimo, or something similar. There are many expressive indications, in both German and Italian, plus the usual quantity of slurs and hairpin dynamics. Add to this all of the bowings and other special markings that are put in by the conductor or principal string players, and you wind up with a very dense part. Luckily this is an area where using Music Press is like going to London on the Concorde instead of an ocean liner. With a user interface that helps rather than hampers, you fly!

All symbols, slurs, hairpins, and the like can be either applied or sketched manually. To apply a symbol, you either click on a note or drag a marquee around several notes. The symbol is then automatically placed on each note. Any object, including ties and slurs, can be moved, singly or in a group, with the standard pointer tool. The program uses an invisible grid that can be set to various degrees of coarseness, assuring that your editing goes precisely where it's intended. The grid can also be turned off completely.

Music Press draws the screen only when it is necessary, and it is very fast: the first page of the Bruckner took 2.8 seconds on a Mac IIci and 1.2 seconds on a Power Mac 7500. Re-spacing the music, which can be time-consuming for very long pieces, is done only at the user's request. This means you can work for as long as you want, then re-space to check the layout. The Bruckner part took 16 seconds on the IIci and 3 seconds on the 7500.

Editing and page-layout took about 40 minutes. Page-layout is particularly easy. With this program, what you see on the screen is truly what you get: there are no surprises when you print. Tweaking, which can be done at any magnification, took another five minutes. For a 145-measure section of the Bruckner (first movement, measures 89-234), the total time required was 65 minutes.

Music Press shines with very long, complicated documents. In the past year, I've done a wide range of projects, including a 48-page vocal score of a 70-minute orchestral work and a 30-minute chamber piece for piano and strings, from which a 36-page study score (three systems per page) and five liberally cued parts were extracted. Even when files get huge, there is no effect on the program's reliability or performance.

Part extraction is quick and smooth. As far as I'm concerned, when preparing parts of any kind, the page-turn is everything. The only excuse for a bad turn is that the music never stops for the instrument in question. Music Press allows you so many ways to adjust the amount of music on a page that if you can't find a good place, it probably doesn't exist. When you find a spot where you would like the page to end, simply mark it and re-space the music. Next, you will probably want to mark some additional line changes to spread the music out a bit if the page ends after only a few lines. (Or, if you find you've just missed your turn, you can tighten things up.) Re-space again. Since both vertical and horizontal spacing are automatic, and long symbols (ties, hairpins, 8vas, etc.) automatically carry over system breaks, the page should be laid out just about right. A bit of minor tweaking should make it perfect.

How It Looks

Grieg Music Sample

An excerpt from Edvard Grieg's "Brudefølget drager forbi", op. 19, no. 2.
(Click the music or here to enlarge.)

No matter how intuitive, powerful, or flexible a program, a key question is always: "What does the final output look like?" Music Press starts out with a very refined, elegant appearance. It emulates the look of high-class engraving at an impressive level. Clefs, note heads, articulations, dynamic indications, accolades, and similar markings are beautifully designed. Their proportion to the staff as well as to each other is excellent. Slurs are graceful. Both vertical and horizontal spacing are outstanding. Being able to quickly and easily put any size block of text, using any available font, anywhere on the page - beside, above, below, even superimposed on the music - without having to spend hours adjusting the layout, provides a degree of flexibility that has been, until now, merely an item on our collective wish-list. The ability to make all title and advertising pages in the same file as the music is another timesaving feature. Default settings are well thought-out. Just about everything is adjustable, however, so you can customize the look to suit your project or client.

Proto Music Sample

An excerpt from Frank Proto's Nebula, for double bass, piano, and tape (courtesy of Liben Music Publishers).
(Click the music or here to enlarge.)

Unconventional notation is precisely that, and there will always be something that our favorite notation program will balk at. Music Press, however, is very accommodating. Any time signature (or none) with any beaming pattern can be created. You can have as many different time signatures as parts in a document. Bar lines will be correctly positioned in each part, or can be eliminated entirely. Feathered beams can be entered with correct spacing. Staves can be from 0 to 15 lines and can be cut away when not needed. There are 19 different notehead styles that are part of the default font and can be used in any combination. Beams, stems, and flags can be removed from notes. Nine standard Mac drawing tools are provided. Straight, curved, and wavy lines, with arrows if desired, may be drawn anywhere. In general, anything can be put anywhere on the page.

If there were any doubt in my mind about whether the dramatic difference in the look of Music Press made any real difference to musicians, it was put to rest recently, when I presented to members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra the first set of parts I had made with the software. More than a few of my colleagues wanted to know when I had stopped using a computer to set my music!

Page Imposition

Take a published edition. Turn the book upside down. If it's 16 pages, you will be looking at pages 16 and 1 on one sheet of paper (reading left to right). On the flip side of this same sheet will be pages 2 and 15. In the language of publishing, these pages are correctly imposed. Music Press accomplishes page imposition with ease. For publishers, of course, this is a convenient feature, allowing them to print camera-ready masters, or even directly to plates.

But what about for copyists, arrangers and composers? Consider this: You have a piece of which you need only a few copies, but you want the look of a beautiful, published edition - not the taped-together photocopy that you normally wind up with. New, affordable, high-resolution laser printers are available that will accept paper 12 inches wide by up to 25 inches long. Given the availability of these printers, the capacity to print correctly imposed pages with Music Press becomes a terrific boon for composers, enabling them to do print on demand publishing of their own works. Instead of having 500 copies made at a print shop because you want the published look, you can produce your own "editions" as you need them.

For those preparing scores and extracting parts, it becomes possible to skip completely the time-consuming steps of photocopying and binding. With a short arrangement or composition, if you need, say, eight copies of a single part, you just hit "Print" and ask for eight copies. The finished job comes straight out of the laser printer. For longer parts, you'll need to do one side of the page, flip the pages over, and do the other side. Fold the pages in half and you're there.

Printing is fast with Music Press. Example: a very dense, 32-page piano part of more than 600 measures, printed on 12 x 19 inch paper. Printing via LocalTalk from a Mac IIci at 600 dpi took 5:05. Via Ethernet the same file took 4:22. Printing is also done in the background, so you get the use of your computer back in a matter of seconds after you start to print.

Some general observations. It's unusual to open a package that contains a program this sophisticated and find a manual of only 194 pages (less than 1/2-inch thick!). It is very well written, with both a concise table of contents and an index. The program has a good "feel" to it. There are times when you might want to do some extremely precise editing, where the music is very dense with all sorts of things in close proximity. When you zoom in to work closely, everything moves smoothly, with a sure elegance. Files remain stable from one software release to another. And the program allows for a simple electronic realization of what has been entered, making "aural proofreading" possible.


So what's the down side? There are a number of things that I still crave, the most important of which is the ability to import a standard MIDI file so I do not have to input everything in step time. It would speed things up and would allow us to convert files from other systems to Music Press for a nicer look. An annoying problem is that when you input notes that have to be tied to each other, you have to be sure to put the tie in. It's very easy and quick to do. But while you're entering the music you hate to break the flow by stopping to insert a tie, so it's logical to wait until you're finished with a section (or the entire part) to put the ties in. At that point, however, it's very easy to overlook a spot where a tie should be. These are my biggest complaints with the version of the program that I've been using. One or both of them, however, may have been eliminated by the time you read this.

There are many suggestions that I and other customers have made for refining the program. To Graphire's credit, they not only solicit but act on customer feedback. I've been a customer for over two years now, and have been very impressed not only by how the company deals with requests for new features but also by their first-class technical support.


So what does all this cost? ... [The remainder of this paragraph discusses a pricing scheme which no longer exists. Since this review was written Graphire has changed the pricing for Music Press. It is now available for $895 USD for a single user license. Discounts are available for educational institutions and for multiple seats. For more information, see Pricing. Ed.]

In my judgment, for serious users of notation software to whom speed and beautiful output are of paramount concern, Music Press is now the way to go. With an extremely short learning curve and a unique pricing scheme, it may also be the most economical way, especially if your time is a consideration. [Music Press no longer has a "unique" pricing scheme. For more information, see Pricing. Ed.]

ACF member Frank Proto is a composer, double bassist, and founder of Liben Music Publishers, now in its 30th year. In addition to having the largest catalog of music for the double bass in North America, Liben services many major and metropolitan orchestras in the US and Canada. Proto is also New Music Advisor for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

For more information about the American Composers Forum, write to: Membership Director, ACF, 332 Minnesota Street, E-145, St. Paul, MN 55101; telephone: (612) 228-1407; fax: (612) 291-7978; or e-mail:

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