Teaching Notation Software

WARNING: Philosophical post alert.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In a recent post, I put together a bunch of information on MakeMusic’s buyout offer and Sibelius’ branch closure.  Since that time, there’s been very little else concrete said about the future of these two notation giants.  But I did start thinking again about a worst-case scenario, and about who here at UNCG would be most affected by the (potential) loss of both Finale and Sibelius.

  • Unequivocally, the biggest loss would be to our composition students.  They are knee-deep in this software day after day, and it would be a huge hit to them to not have any more updates to these pieces of software to which they have already dedicated countless hours.  Our Jazz Studies majors, who do lots of arranging, would also feel this quite significantly.
  • The next group affected would likely be our music education majors, but mostly those who do their own full-ensemble arrangements (band / orchestra / choir).  I know that our MusEd majors are required to do some of that for their degree work, but it’s not necessarily something every music educator deals with.  In my days as a band director, I used Sibelius a couple of times for ensemble warmup exercises, but mostly used it to put together worksheets.
  • We also have a small contingent of Music Theory majors, but I suspect that they fall into the same usage case as the Music Ed majors – very little need for the full horsepower of Finale / Sibelius.
  • Finally, we have our Music Performance majors.  Again, drawing from my own experience as a clarinetist and performance major, I’ve used notation software for a few things – most notably transposing excerpts, transcribing handwritten music, and inputting accompaniments for SmartMusic.

As I thought about the degree to which our students would be affected, I imagined what it’d be like for our students to not have these applications.  Finale and Sibelius can do most anything, but could our students get away with something lighter-weight, like Noteflight?

The answer in many cases, I think, is yes.  As a performance major, I could have done most of the stuff I needed to do in Noteflight (except the SmartMusic accompaniments).  As a teacher, I did actually enter a good number of my worksheets into Noteflight rather than booting up Sibelius.  I even created simple Music Theory worksheets / assignments in Noteflight.

The two main cases where I have said “no, I really need something more” are when I was:

  1. Composing or scoring for a large ensemble – Finale / Sibelius is better for this, IMO
  2. Writing a piece of “modern” music (I wrote a few electroacoustic pieces as a grad student) where I need to do things with modern notation, floating measures, etc.

That brings me to my overall point.  It’s my responsibility to oversee and teach a freshman-level Music Technology sequence here at UNCG, and up until this year we’ve taught Finale.  We’d spend a LOT of time on Finale, a good number of weeks in both semesters.  And don’t get me wrong – our students learned Finale pretty well.  But how many of our students really need to know a program like Finale?  Wouldn’t most students’ time be better spent on a simpler application like Noteflight?  Even the free version was enough for me as a performer and teacher 90% of the time.  So why bother teaching Finale to everyone?  Aren’t we supposed to teach relevant, applicable skills?  Many of our music majors here won’t ever need the full power of Finale / Sibelius..aren’t we swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, so to speak?

That’s not to say that no student needs to learn a full-fledged notation app…it would be absurd to claim that.  I think, though, that there is a better way.  So, here’s what I’ve come up with for this year:

  • In Music Tech I, the freshmen will spend some time on Noteflight, but less time than we used to spend on Finale.  In addition, Noteflight Campus will be used in their Theory classes.
  • In Music Tech II, which is only required for Music Education majors this year (another change), Finale / Sibelius will be introduced, with the focus on producing printable full scores for large ensemble (band/orchestra/choir).
  • An upper-level elective course in Music Notation will be offered for those who want / need it later on. Here, we will cover Finale / Sibelius in more depth, and the apps will be our focus 100%.  We could even cover things like MuseScore or Lilypond.

One other thing to consider is this: these Music Tech classes are taken here at UNCG during the freshman year.  How much of this technology changes by the time the students graduate and actually want to APPLY this knowledge?  If we teach them Finale 2012, it’s logical (ignoring current scenarios) that Finale 2016 will be out by the time they graduate.  Anyone else see a potential problem here?  Instead, let’s give them the tools they need to get through their degree program (Noteflight) now, and focus on Finale / Sibelius as an upper-level elective that they can take closer to graduation, so that it has a chance to be more-or-less the same application once they are out in the field.

We’ll see how that track works over the next year or two.  I have a good feeling about it, based on my past experience with these Music Tech courses.  “Famous last words,” right?  I do think that this approach will offer a number of possible “tiers” of knowledge on Music Notation software, and based on my initial assessment, it only makes sense.

If anyone else out there has experience with this, or thoughts on my thoughts, please feel free to contribute.  I’m not making a statement that this is the way it needs to be; I’m just sharing my thought process, and trying to improve the quality of education for our music majors here at UNCG.

Thanks for reading – I know this was a long, philosophical post instead of a practical one.  More practical stuff coming soon, promise.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Notation Software

  1. How about Notion, Matt? Come on over to our office in Greensboro and let us show you what we have to offer.

    2302 West Meadowview Road
    Suite 200
    Greensboro, NC 27407

    • I’d like to take you up on that offer. I’ll contact you via e-mail!
      – Matt

  2. I really love Musescore.
    It is free, full of features, and is constantly being developed and updated based on user feedback.

    -Brian Carter

  3. I always think it’s a mistake to teach general skills (such as music composition and arrangement) with a focus on just one specific software tool. That’s a teaching paradigm from the old world of software, where huge and expensive software suites (Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, etc.) ruled the day and had no meaningful competition.

    By learning to use different software programs to accomplish the same tasks, students are far more likely to learn the general skills and ideas needed to accomplish those tasks, regardless of the software involved. This also future-proofs their education against specific software tools being discontinued, or the software companies which make them being sold or going out of business.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

  4. So it looks like you have already been contacted by someone trying to “sell” you Notion. I am an entirely unbiased music educator and composer and I have been using Notion for a little while now and I would seriously consider it.
    I used to work for Sibelius in the UK so it is a piece of software I thought I would never move away from. I felt that its interface was superb and would not be rivalled.
    But since Avid’s purchase of Sibelius I have been concerned about its future so I looked into other options and came across Notion.
    First and foremost, the sound library in Notion is excellent. It is far better then the “revolutionary” sound library that apparently came in Sib 7. I am happy to use it for a recording.
    The interface is nice to use and is very user-friendly. I get a little frustrated because, as a Brit, we refer to quavers, semiquavers etc as opposed to quarter note, half note, and all the notation shortcuts are based in the US system but that is something you would not struggle with.
    All in all, I would highly recommend a serious look at Notion. It is well priced, well developed and they seem genuinely keen to help the musician as opposed to Avid’s “make the money and run” mentality.
    Take Notion up on their offer. I ask sure you would not be disappointed.

  5. Sorry, I forgot to mention the biggest thing going for it…

    The company seems stable!

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for the information – nice to hear from a satisfied NOTION user. I actually worked for NOTION for about a year (they’re based right here in Greensboro, NC), and it was overall a great experience. I haven’t had much time to begin exploring version 4 (new on the market), but I was definitely impressed with the changes that came with version 3. I’m preparing to teach an elective class on Music Notation Software here, and am hoping that I will have time to teach “the big ones” – Finale, Sibelius, and NOTION…and possibly get into MuseScore as well.

      NOTION’s strong suit has always been the sounds, and I’m sure that’s still the case. Perhaps I’ll drop them a line and reconnect; it’d be a good thing to do, especially with them still in town, and me in the job I’m in.

      Thanks for the inspiration!
      – Matt

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