I’m a young composer and recently I’ve been trying to find my way around the most used notation software on the planet: Sibelius. Even the student version, which I’m using, has a huge number of features. Of course, the more money you pay, the more features you get, but at £99 for a student copy I think it’s pretty good, and definitely worth getting if you’re a keen GCSE student, even if it does have a few glitches here and there.

Overall the program is good and has various plus points and useful features.

I’ve tried to compose in many different styles (jazz, rock, ragtime) and it supports most of them fairly well. It was designed, I think, for classical composition and it is quick and easy to write simple pieces in a basic classical style. It also contains many useful features which are hard to find elsewhere, such as an easy tempo change and pre-set markings such as lento etc, as well as a fully functioning pedal feature for piano (a phenomenon which I find difficult to come across elsewhere) and pizzicato for strings.

The repeat tools also all work, and I can insert one and two-time bars without a problem. It is easy to toggle between playing and not playing repeats, and as with most of the playback tools it seems to work pretty well.

It has an efficient help-line and any problems I had were solved in minutes by a helpful person with a computer somewhere receiving my e-mails, and replying with clear instructions. This helpline is also free, which is an added bonus.

Inputting notes takes time as with any software but there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts to keep you on your toes. Once you’ve learnt the vast majority of them inputting tunes and chords becomes quite straight forward, being able to add a third or a specific note with the tap of a key. Sibelius also has many different ways of viewing what you’re doing, which really helps, though which you prefer using is personal to you.

Using a MIDI keyboard is very effective and, if you are a pianist, saves lots of time and effort. It is possible to input notes step by step or in real-time, depending on the requirements. Changing the time or key signature is also very simple and transposition is almost perfect. Tempo change is also slick and easy, and dynamics are simple and effective.

Sibelius has a feature which allows you to put a video alongside the score if you are composing film music and trying to time everything perfectly.

It is fantastic at almost anything. However, as with any piece of software, there are a few things that don’t quite work as well as I might have liked.

Writing guitar parts using the Tablature feature is slow, and as a guitarist myself I recommend using other specialist software if you’re just writing guitar music - chances are it’ll be easier. It also doesn’t have a feature to play back chords without writing them out in full, but I can create the chords so that the guitarist can see them, and simply play along myself. Harmonics also don’t play back. Drums are challenging and slow and the note head feature is time consuming, but it does work and the end result is a very professional drum part.

The lyrics tool is time-consuming and can become tedious as each word or syllable has to be hand input and to copy text from another program involves separating the text into syllables. It is difficult to stretch a word over two notes and it can look messy as the words are not always evenly spaced. There is no automatic setting to ensure that the notes from one stave do not block the lyrics of the one above it, which means that I have to go through each page and ensure it doesn’t happen. It is impossible to select and delete large chunks of text, meaning I have to go through the entire section by hand - a time consuming process at the best of times. However, it works fine if you are willing to put in the effort.

The only really major problem that I can find is playback. Sibelius’ playback is adequate but not exceptional. I don’t know about you but if I’ve written a piece I can’t go out and get a choir to sing it for me, so I need to hear it through my computer. Its built in synthesizers are poor, especially the vocal ones, and I now play everything back through my own keyboard as it produces a much better sound. This produces a new problem, however, as there is no way to set a channel for each MIDI instrument, so according to my computer my altos are in fact being played back as tubular bells. The other problem I am experiencing is that certain notes are held even though they are not held in the score, creating slight discords and unwanted harmonies. It isn’t a major problem but it does get annoying. Some markings don’t play back at all such as ‘con sord.’ or ‘senza sord.’

At the end of the day, however, the result of hours spend slavishly with a keyboard staring at a computer screen will pay off and, using the title page, create not only an accurate score, but also one which looks professional and is easy to read.

Lisa, age 14