Get beyond the basic notes and rhythms, and music notation quickly becomes a complex affair. Specialisation on this level transcends “advanced” or “beginner” categories as each player, each genre, has specific needs. A notation package may be called upon to do everything from creating exam questions for a music class to rendering a score as MP3 playback. The challenge is to deal with all this complexity, while freeing the user to be musically expressive.

Finale is an old standby of notation software on the Mac, and as such, its musical capabilities are broad and deep. Traditionally, many users have perceived the software as erring on the side of complexity and power rather than ease. But a series of updates that fine tune details in the way it handles entry and lays out music, coupled with expanded tools for learning and high quality playback, have smoothed some of Finale's rougher edges and kept it competitive.

In Finale 2011, improved handling of staves and lyrics enhance the way scores look as you create them and when they’re printed. Other additions simply bundle more content in the package, including expanded sound playback libraries, educational worksheets and specialised percussion and solfege fonts.

Finale 2011

Finale 2011’s basic editing interface will look familiar to any previous user. To contend with the array of possible notations and editing parameters a score may require, Finale provides an arsenal of specialised tools, presented in toolbar icons and menus. This design approach is both Finale’s great advantage and disadvantage. To new users, the quantity of choices can be mind numbing, it sometimes seems each tool was designed separately with slightly different dialogs, editing metaphors and click behaviours. That can lead to frustration when performing simple tasks and the user interface, both visually and functionally, seems several generations old. On the other hand, you don't lack for control: once mastered, these tools free you to adjust almost any parameter on a score. Also new in this version is a simple, printed user guide to aid the uninitiated, getting up to speed on basic editing, at least, is a one evening affair.

Finale’s most significant rival, Avid’s Sibelius, has a more streamlined appearance and entry method. But Finale has also learned from some of Sibelius’ strengths as the two programs have engaged in a game of feature leapfrog. Finale’s entry methods now include some of the keyboard entry and dynamic feedback that once were Sibelius’ alone, while Finale’s developers have made score elements easier to edit.