Notation workflow?

For composers who notate their music, what is your workflow?   Since notation can be a painstaking process (especially for pieces involving multiple instruments), I'm trying to figure out the most efficient way to work (I compose in Sibelius). 

I've heard others talk about a variety of methods, whether it be starting with pencil/paper and then moving to Sibelius/Finale once the piece is more developed, or recording MIDI into a DAW and then importing it into a notation program, or working exclusively in a notation program.  What works for you?

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum

Email me when people reply –


  • For myself, I think if your goal is having the best and most accurate notation you can get, Id do everything exclusively in your notation program and avoid importing Midi files and hoping to then get a good score from them, especially if your music is in any way complex. Importing XML will give much better results than Midi, but there's still always cleanup to do, and the XML of the score you export from a DAW might be a overly quantised, and not completely accurate as to what you hear in your DAW. This was true of older versions of Digital Performer with its Quickscibe-you couldnt export it as XML or listen to the score itself, (you heard your own midi file) but it really was far too simplified as to represent my music accurately. I dont know but would hope this would have changed

    I bit the bullet years ago and work solely in a notation program, as there were just too many problems trying to get accurate scores importing midi, and too much work without the correct result. By eliminating any kind of import and doing it all in your notation program, you avoid a world of problems, and know from the start your notation is accurate.

    Im sure others will have differing opinions, but I really feel that the bottom line is, the more complex ones music is, the more it necessitates working solely in a notation program.

    Thanks Bob

  • Workflows! What the hell are they? It would be nice to have one sorted out, I'm still trying…


    If I compare the biggies of score writers, i.e. Sibelius, Finale, and the new arrival Dorico, probably Sibelius is still the best deal (I am not speaking as a biased user, cause I find AVID's policies disgusting), but Sibelius has the technical edge still. I note with hope and joy that the completely free MuseScore is quite close to Sibelius in looks, routines etc, and my hope is that sooner rather than later MuseScore will be equally good in every sense and will rid us of all expensive commercial packages, while Audacity or some other free DAW will do the same on the sequencer/workstation area of the market.

    Now, speaking of work flows, for me that thing is a very complicated process cause I have worked and still do with pencil and note book for most of my creative life, thus creating thousands of manuscripts which I had the good sense to scan whenever a scanner was available. I cannot go into details of how that flow works for me here, but it involves creation of data bases and excel sheets that enable me to store and retrieve all these scanned archives (don’t trust cloud storing an inch for that sort of thing-it sounds very big-brotherish to me). Then the question remains of how to digitize them quickly so that I can have at least a Sibelius sequence to work with. My input is quite fast with an ordinary qwerty keyboard, but still faster with pen and paper, for any musical sign. So I decided to invest last year in a Microsoft Surface 3 and digital pen. (btw, Microsoft and its new Windows 10 policies is one of my other big hates in this world).

    I got an application for surface 3 called Staffpad. It has a few nice features, it took it about two months to learn the character of my strokes, but now it goes smoothly most of the time, thus enabling me to digitize quickly old manuscripts, compose, orchestrate, whatever I need to do, all on the go, wherever I may be. It gave me the freedom to be lying on a sun bed with just my swimming gear on and still be able to write music if I want to. I try to do a lot of work by just using the surface and digital pen, bringing the composition/arrangement to an advanced stage. Then I export an XML and import it to Sibelius for more work. The XML files from this Staffpad don’t need much editing in Sibelius, so I am able to continue with the same archive almost immediately.


    I believe that the job of a composer is mainly to write his musical ideas down and present them to the world in a legible form,  unhindered by all technicalities of a digital world, or to put it in other words, I prefer reading Jeppesen's or Schoenberg's books on counterpoint and composition rather than a lot of stupid technical manuals of how any company selling commercial music software prefers to do things for its customers. They are all patronizing, and demand a lot of our money, and worse, of our time, which should be given to composing rather than trying to learn and comply with their protocols, (preferably on the beach, with pen and paper or whatever you have available :-) ).

  • Pen, paper and rubber here, then it's Sibelius donkey work and DAW simulation. Although I too have been watching Staffpad for a while and am seriously considering it.

    My only concern with working within a DAW or notation software is that folks will get hung up on the sounds and limitations of the playback. Far better to learn and internalise what can be done by real players and write accordingly, even if it sounds shit on playback. 

  • That's a fair point Ray and it leads to an interesting problem for a would be composer. Does he/she embrace the world of samples and write accordingly, or learn the ropes of real world orchestration and composition. Of course it depends on their ultimate ambition, but samples too will sound a lot better if the writing is appropriate.
    Their is still a trap in that samples might well limit the imagination if you are not careful and they can begin to dictate what you write.
    One hopes that things will continually improve to such an extent that the composition side is not hindered as much and the integration of high quality samples will continue to be incorporated into notation software.
  • Dave,
    Is that also a good way to learn notation?
  • >just making the case that if you need very realistic real-time samples to compose best, your workflow should include it.

    I agree very much with this--for myself, the better and more realistic the samples, the more exciting to compose and realistic to hear what Im trying to do-hence the best results I can get.And while theyre DEFINITELY not the same, its not nearly as far a stretch from a well notated score with really good samples, to the real thing, as opposed to using pure general midi sounds.

    Again, YMMV--whatever works best for you:)

    Thanks Bob

  • Bob P,
    I'm glad you get satisfaction from playback sounds. But will the aspiring composer who is happy with notation playback ever write Daphnis and Chloe or the score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
    Both of these scores have wonderful scoring effects as well as combinations, articulations, dynamics and balance that is impossible in notation playback. That sort of writing is going to be denied to you if you write for what sounds ok on a general midi soundset.
    I make the assumption in this that a young composer aspires to learn his/her craft.
    Bob M and Dave have put it succinctly enough.
  • Sibelius allows you to set up just about any VST to work with it, so it's not just DAW's that allow you to work with the best libraries.  Of course, if the library happens to have a Sibelius SoundSet written for it, it helps, but I've gotten good results from VST's that have no official Sibelius SoundSet available.   Of course, Sibelius doesn't have the robust MIDI editing capabilities of a DAW, but I believe Dorico does have better support for that kind of editing.

  • Very true, Mike. I have fallen, or rather I should say, forced to fall into that trap on some occasions, by just the limitations of the programme or the ignorance of programmers behind it, although I knew that what I was doing was wrong.

    I use Sibelius since version 4, for some 11 years (I'm now in 8.6). Back then, one day, I started scoring  Vivaldi's mandolin concerto in C for personal use (I just wanted to write a guitar continuo part to it). There was nothing wrong with Sibelius 4 and I finished my project successfully. I first noticed the following problem for this particular piece (and many other pieces subsequently where mandolin was involved) from Sibelius 6 onwards. The problem has creeped in and has not been solved yet by AVID. To be honest, I think they are not even aware of it (in a musical sense I mean).

    The problem in as few words as I can describe it is this:

    Normal classical guitars have 19 frets with highest written pitch B6 (on 1st string-fret 19) sounding as B5, whereas some acoustic and electric guitars have a few more frets and can extend that top range by a 3rd or 4th some times.

    Normal Neapolitan mandolins have a usable top range very similar to that of a violin and in terms of left hand technique they are practically the same with violins. So it is quite usual and not an unreasonable demand if someone would ask for a high D7 or even E7 (depending on number of available frets on a mandolin-mine goes up to E7 perfectly in tune). An ocean of music (perhaps a little virtuosic) has been written utilizing that top range of the mandolin (D6-D7).

    What Sibelius 6 and later versions do, is assigning automatically for a mandolin part a classical guitar sample, cause it does not have any more a mandolin sample, I suppose. It even has the cheek to denote all notes beyond B5 as "out of range" and paint them red!"

    But that B5 is on the 7th fret of the 1st string and within the 1st position of the instrument (usually taken by the 4th finger as in a violin), so I suppose, I'm not allowed to go beyond 1st position on my instrument, prohibition enshrined by AVID programmers. Anything beyond B5 we can of course still notate, but becomes inaudible if we use Sibelius 7 chamber or orchestral playback engine. I asked advice a few times in Sibelius forums, etc, but no one really came up with a credible answer. What I wanted was to assign an instrument as mandolin and to be able to use all its available range, as I use it in real life. There was no way around the problem unless I used the horrible general midi samples with which my laptop is blessed. Then the music becomes audible again as notated, but who wants general midi samples of the kind I described? So, from 2008 till this year whatever I scored for mandolin(s) was given a violin sample to make them audible (I just mentioned the part as "mandolin"), but last March I got a gift from a friend, the NOTE PERFORMER playback engine, operational only with Sibelius files at present, and the problem of the mandolins was solved for good, plus a lot of other playback problems, and I'll never go back to Sibelius sounds, unless a miracle happens.

    My diagnosis is that AVID programmers lack the very basic knowledge of instrumentation for instruments they include in their lists, and my advice would be to give up their jobs and study a bit of music more, before they come back.

    Certainly Sibelius 8.6 cannot tell you what can be done with a mandolin.

    Having said all this, and having taken the time to write the whole Vivaldi concerto and listen to the audible results that follow, I would like to add that I regret every single penny that I ever paid to AVID.

    Just for fun I made a video of the mandolin part using Sibelius 7 sounds (enjoy it in all its miserable glory), and using the same file, by only changing to Note Performer playback, I did a 2nd video of the complete 1st movement. I have not done any serious mixing or changed anything else. What do you think?

    Mike Hewer said:

    Pen, paper and rubber here, then it's Sibelius donkey work and DAW simulation. Although I too have been watching Staffpad for a while and am seriously considering it.

    My only concern with working within a DAW or notation software is that folks will get hung up on the sounds and limitations of the playback. Far better to learn and internalise what can be done by real players and write accordingly, even if it sounds shit on playback. 

  • In case someone isnt familiar with the SiIbelius Sound library, its important to note that you can't adjust the sounding range--only the written range, and what gets written in red as being "out of range". You're only able to hear what was originally sampled with the instrument, and nothing more. General Midi instruments/patches have much more sounding ranges--some even impossible to play in the real world--but sounds awful in my opinion.

    >The Edit Instrument function should allow you to set the range and even change the instrument if need be.

    Changing instruments in a score is accomplished by using the Instrument change function (Home-Instruments-Change in Sib 7.5 and not sure with other versions)

    Thanks Bob

    Bob Porter said:

     The default instruments that Sibelius loads are meant to be adjusted. The Edit Instrument function should allow you to set the range and even change the instrument if need be. It's a little tricky to use.

    ..... Sibelius sounds are meant to be adjusted to your taste. Not shoved down your throat. 

This reply was deleted.