For many musicians who use computers, the preferred tool of their trade is a sequencing and digital sound processing (DSP) application such as Apple's Logic Pro.
For those who prefer to produce a traditional printed score, there are score-writing applications such as Sibelius and Finale. If you're a classroom music teacher, one of these may well be a part of your daily classroom routine.
Since its initial release for Acorn Archimedes/RISC computers in 1993, Sibelius has been enthusiastically adopted by a number of schools, particularly in the secondary sector.
The Windows and Mac versions, released in 1998 and 1999 respectively, brought this UK-developed product head-to-head with MakeMusic's longer-established rival Finale, and the resulting needlematch rumbles on to this day.
So, with new versions Finale 2008 and Sibelius 5 on the starting blocks, will there be a clear winner? We'll be taking a look at MakeMusic's offering next issue; first let's consider Sibelius 5.
Sibelius 5 is a hefty product in every way, arriving as it does with a clearly written 156-page handbook plus a 632-page reference manual. Even if you've never worked with Sibelius before, installation and set-up is easy if you follow the handbook.
Like most score-writing packages, Sibelius enables you to input music both one note at a time using your mouse and keyboard (plus a MIDI keyboard, if you have one) or by direct transcription of your playing, if you have a reasonable keyboard technique - though you don't need to be a virtuoso by any means.
By definition therefore, such a product should be judged on the ease with which you can transmit your ideas to the screen, and then to hard copy, particularly as many will rely on it for their livelihood.
First impressions of the interface are very favourable: a simple, uncluttered horizontal toolbar at the top of the screen puts most of the commands you need within easy reach of your mouse, and there are also keyboard shortcuts for many of them, greatly speeding up entry times.
Setting up a new score is made simple using a step-by-step wizard, so you're up and running in a very short time. Getting your music down on the screen is much quicker, too: this is the first Intel-compatible version of Sibelius, with a corresponding hike in the minimum system requirements, and from the first it feels like it's been turbo-charged.
Sibelius' speed and responsiveness were always impressive, even on the Acorn. This may be why it tends to appeal to musicians who need quick results, such as commercial arrangers.
Save your snippets
The switch to universal binary isn't the only change from previous versions of Sibelius: there's a whole host of new features. One of the most useful, we suspect, will prove to be the Ideas Hub.
This is a place where you can save a snippet of work - whether that's a simple melody line or a whole section of a work - for re-using later in a work.
Any saved Idea is automatically transposed into the right range for the instrumental part it is later pasted into. Sibelius 5 also comes with a large number of pre-programmed Ideas, which will mainly be of use in the education sector. Sibelius can be set to mark these preset Ideas clearly within a piece of work, so it's clear which parts of a student composition are the student's own work.
Mention should also be made of the incorporation of VST and Audio Units plug-ins - together with undoable plug-ins (yes!). In fact, the playback aspects have been greatly enhanced - due mainly, we suspect, to the company's acquisition in 2006 by Avid, owner of Native Instruments.
All in all, then, an upgrade well worth having - if only the price weren't so prohibitive.