In September 2018, Finale turned 30 years old. This is an impressive lifespan for any software: the other survivors of a similar age are all heavyweight professional products, like Photoshop and Quark XPress, with large commercial userbases. Finale’s life-cycle can be roughly split into 3 decades. During its first decade, computers were limited in their capabilities, but there remained a pioneer spirit of what could be achieved; and an acceptance of the limitations when they hampered progress. Finale was the cutting-edge, professional notation app.
Finale’s second decade (1999 - 2009) saw the product develop and mature with a range of new and useful features; but it also brought competition in the form of Sibelius, which describes itself as ‘the world’s largest selling music notation program’. While sales figures are not known, around 12,000 people joined the petition to “Save Sibelius” in 2012, and that's likely to represent a small fraction of the userbase. It’s reasonable to say that almost all professional music publishing has been undertaken using either Finale and Sibelius in this time. Sibelius remains in the market as the alternative (or even first choice).
Finale spent at least two-thirds of its third decade focusing its energies on ‘under-the-hood’ changes that were imperative to make the app compatible with modern computer environments: Unicode, 64-bit, and a better file format. While these tasks were essential, though time-consuming, their results were largely invisible to the user. At the same time, a number of features were removed, where they were seldom used (some plug-ins), a drain on resources (video support), or controversial (SmartScore Lite).
2018 brought the first significant improvement to notation for many years, in the shape of articulation ‘stacking’ and collision avoidance with slurs. Apart from an enhancement to the handling of rests and accidentals in Layers (2014?), you’d have to go back to Finale 2011 (released in 2010) to find any major revision to the software’s notation handling (Lyrics, Staff hiding and positioning).
It’s not all been bad: the same decade has also seen some highly inventive plug-ins from third-party developers, like Jari Williamsson, that have done away with many of the tedious and repetitive processes to which Finale users had become accustomed.
But this was really a decade of treading water, rather than progress. In the same time period, open-source software such as Lilypond and MuseScore has also been developed, and this has eaten away at the market for casual use and been taken up by those for whom cost is an issue, including academic institutions. In 2016, MuseScore reported 7,000 downloads per day. In 2017, MuseScore 2.0.3 was used to produce an edition of Bach transcriptions by Leonhardt, published by Baerenreiter. MuseScore 3, released last year, highlights collision avoidance as its main feature.
The last three years have also seen the release and development of Dorico, the “next-generation” notation app written by the sacked Sibelius development team. The pace at which new features have been added, and the attention to detail of the features, has been impressive. Other commercial apps capable of notation, like Notion and StaffPad, have also appeared on desktops and tablets, each with their own targeted market segment.
Finale is no longer the only game in town: it is no longer even one of two equals, the choice of which might be an entirely subjective preference.
Finale can still do some things that these rival products cannot do: Finale appeals to the obsessive: it allows the user to fuss over every single item. This is surely why it has succeeded for so long. However, the user should not really need to fuss over every item. “Have the option to”: yes. But “need to”? No. The point of computers is to do the tedious and repetitive work for us.
- There is no vertical spacing to speak of.
- Apart from the recent feature for slurs and artics, there is no collision avoidance between any other items: notes on adjacent staves; lyrics and notes; expressions and dynamics; rehearsal marks and bar numbers; floating rests and other notes.
- The spacing of multiple voices in a staff is poor.
- Manual adjustments are often ‘fragile’.
- There are still some painful limitations to Linked Parts and Cues.
- Its age weighs heavily upon it, with an ancient and Byzantine interface.
- It still has a size limit of 32,767 active frames, no doubt from some fundamental statement deep in the bowels of its original data structures.
- There are bugs that date back to the previous century.
- Plug-ins such as Patterson Beams (and Beam Over Barlines) should be core functionality, and not require manual execution by the user.
Finale has two lifelines: legacy and inertia. Publishers and users will have up to 30 years of Finale files that they may need to use, either continually or occasionally. While XML transfer allows data movement to other software, it inevitably requires clean-up, re-working and re-proofing. Many users have grown accustomed to Finale with all its problems, and find the prospect of learning new paradigms and workflows unpalatable, no matter what the benefits might be. It also has the SmartMusic educational app, which may lure teachers and students towards Finale.
In ten years' time, I would love to write about Finale's fourth decade of "renaissance". However, while Finale has not yet reached the same status of ‘abandonware’ as SCORE, I suspect that it will continue in much the same way: with a steadfast group of loyal users, who are able to achieve the same results as they have always done, with the same methods and the same amount of effort. As with SCORE, this devotion could be seen as admirable, or quaint, possibly obstinate and perhaps even irrational.