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Sibelius is billed as “the fastest, smartest, easiest scorewriter in the world”. It achieves each one of these claims with ease. Score-writing programs are usually cluttered, unintuitive affairs that bung up your screen with windows and dialog boxes full of weird symbols. Sibelius has hardly a confusing box in sight. This is the key to the whole program – Sibelius aims to cater to musicians, not technicians. To this end, opening a new score results in a window that lets you choose the instruments in your ensemble. Over 150 different instruments from all categories are included – and there’s also the option of designing your own if you happen to be Michael Nyman. Once chosen, your instruments will show up on the score paper in the standard order, along with a few introductory bars to get you started. Adding more is only a keystroke away. The helpful manual suggests you get to know these as soon as you can and “avoid touching your mouse like the plague”. Once you’ve added enough bars to suit you for the time being, you can start creating music. This can be done in all the standard ways – from your computer keyboard, or using a MIDI device in step-time or Flexi-time. This last feature is a godsend – where conventional real-time input requires you to play exactly in time with the click track, Flexi-time allows you to change your tempo, changing the speed of the click to match. Also unique is the Espressivo feature. While Sibelius will take any dynamic markings, accents and play them back accordingly – pieces written with no such emphasis will sound mechanical when played back. The Espressivo feature attempts to simulate a human-like performance by analyzing the music on-the-fly and adding dynamic changes as it sees fit. This certainly makes a difference, although it’s still obvious a computer is playing the piece – the dynamic changes were just a little too abrupt to sound totally realistic. Once all your notes are on the page, it’s easy to go back and correct errors. Clicking on a note and pressing the corresponding key (A-G) on the computer keyboard will change it to that pitch. Notes can also be dragged up and down the staff. Again, Sibelius recommends that you use the keyboard for the sake of speed. If you really get yourself in a muddle, there’s a History window to take you back to any stage in the piece. The only downside to the keystroke-based approach is the Everest-like learning curve. Once mastered, however, inputting notes becomes as quick and easy as typing a letter on a typewriter.
Sibelius’ appeal lies in its intuitiveness – the notes almost seem to flow out of your hands and onto the page. Everything is formatted in real-time, so there’s no stopping mid-flow to launch Edit dialog boxes – just press another key, and your corrections are made. The final result is truly a work of art. If you can master the veritable festival of keystrokes, you’ll wonder how you ever managed with just a pen and a few gallons of Tipp-Ex.