Music by Andrew

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Finale and LilyPond

What happens when someone tries LilyPond after using Finale for years? Well, in my case I now like both programs, but for different reasons. Here are some of my thoughts about the two programs and music notation.

Chapter 2, Rachmaninoff

One of the first tests I wanted to try was to transcribe a difficult musical passage in LilyPond and Finale and compare both the working experience and the engraved output. I picked Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude 6 (Op. 23), mm. 27–30 because it’s a music engraving nightmare. The published version I have was hand-engraved on or before the copyright date of 1904 (click for full image).

photo of hand-engraved music

This example contains up to four distinct rhythmic voices at the same time, which is not uncommon in piano parts, but while the lower two voices appearing in the left hand are pretty straightforward, the upper two are more complex. This is because the top voice ascends to a bunch of octave-wide chords while the second voice falls inside those chords for much of the passage, weaving an intricate chromatic countermelody. To make matters worse, in beat 3 of the first measure the second voice jumps down to the lower staff before rising across the gap again. This is done to help the performer see that the first five of those rising sixteenth notes can be reached with the left hand, but it is an additional complication for the engraver. Fitting all of this on the page in a way that is legible, let alone beautiful, is a real test.

Entering the notes into Finale was very easy for me because I have been practicing, but the LilyPond input took me a long time and I had to hunt a bit to get the cross-staff notes and the cross-voice arpeggios. I don’t think the LilyPond entry was actually much harder than the Finale entry would have been if I had been brand new user, but it was more difficult than I was used to.

In transcribing this passage, I have attempted to do as few manual adjustments as possible, although the border between data entry and layout adjustment is fuzzy. I also omitted the “LH” and “RH” markings in both tests and I added a slur to the fourth measure where I believe the engraver may have omitted one. (The sequence suggests that the composer would have placed one there.) Here are the results (click images for PDFs):

link to Finale PDF
link to LilyPond PDF

My first observation is that both programs struggled with this passage. I clearly underestimated the difficulty here! I was actually planning to try another, denser passage in Prelude 13 (Op. 32), but I changed my mind after I saw these results. That’s why the titles read “Two Excerpts”.

On closer inspection, there are a number of differences that could be summed up by saying that the musical elements in LilyPond are more aware of each other than those in Finale. For example, the page layout in the LilyPond case is superior because the staff positions depend on the size and location of all the other elements, even the slurs. Finale, on the other hand, uses default spacings that make the slur in the first line collide with the composer’s name, and the slurs between the two staves are a disaster. This is why I have to do a lot of manual adjustments before a Finale score gets posted on this site. (I haven’t tried the vertical spacing plug-in for Finale, but I’m curious how smart it is.)

Speaking of slurs, the LilyPond slurs tend to lie close to the notes where the Finale slurs arch high into the space above the staff, with one exception: this particular excerpt contains slurs nested inside other slurs, which neither program liked. Finale’s slurs simply ignore each other, giving us a number of overlapping slurs, while the LilyPond slurs end up really big and stretch the two staves very far apart from each other. (This behaviour has been tagged as LilyPond bug #163.)

bad slurs
Slurs (hand-engraving, Finale, and LilyPond)

The Finale slurs appear to be very “pointed” because they taper down to a very thin line before ending in a sharp point. The LilyPond slurs have a more consistent line weight and taper to a smooth, curved tip. We can see the difference by zooming in on the right tip of the small slur in the previous example:

two slurs very close up
Two slurs at 16× magnification, Finale (left) and LilyPond (right)

Examining the right hand in the second measure of the excerpt helps us appreciate the work that goes into the preparation of beautiful scores by any method. In the image below I have selected the music from beat 3 to the ‘and’ of beat 4.

The differences in horizontal spacing can be attributed to the fact that the original engraver had the entire page width to work with, in contrast to our indented first lines. The Finale score has a particularly wide left margin that makes the note spacing difficult. But setting that aside, we see that both the human expert and LilyPond correctly offset the interlocking noteheads that land on the same beat, whereas Finale leaves them in their default location and makes it difficult to see which heads are attached to which stems. Again, this is a simple manual adjustment, but if it gets forgotten it can cause the performers some real stress, especially when an alto part crosses above a soprano part!

collision avoidance
Collision avoidance (hand-engraving, Finale, and LilyPond)

In the Finale sample, the C-flat is correctly placed and easy to read, while the D-flat has a horrible collision that makes us wonder which note it even belongs to. The difference is that each voice is spaced correctly by itself, but when placed together the spacing is unchanged and the voices collide. This is another case where LilyPond elements are more aware of each other than their Finale counterparts. Note that both of the digital attempts have the beams of the lower voice mashing into the noteheads of the upper voice (LilyPond bug #37). This is especially obvious in the second beat of the fourth measure:

beam collision in m.4
Beam collision (hand-engraving, Finale, and LilyPond)

Here’s a fun game of spot the differences. Apart from the collision and the horizontal positioning of the A-flat, which we already mentioned, I can see three differences. (Let me know if I’ve missed any.) First, the upper beam is different, and this time the LilyPond beam may be the less attractive of the three. Second, the lower tie is inverted in the hand-engraved version, and here I’m not sure which version I prefer. Normally in a two-voice passage the ties all go the same direction as the stems (up or down), which is the method taken by both Finale and LilyPond, and by the engraver in the second measure of our example. In measures 3 and 4, however, he places the ties on the octave in opposite directions, which is normal when there is only one voice on the staff. (The engraver could also be a she, but the odds of that in 1904 were small.) In this case, the pitches of the lower voice fall between the pitches of the upper voice, so keeping the ties pointing up does nothing to keep the two voices visually separated. I think I prefer the engraved version here but I don’t know why he didn’t do the same in the second measure. The tie direction he chose in the third measure avoids the ugly collision that we see in both of the digital versions.

The third difference I can spot in the example above is the missing accidental in the Finale version. Here the E’s are marked as flats to cancel out an E-natural that appeared in beat 1. Unfortunately, Finale does not automatically recognize the need for the lower E-flat because the natural occurred in the other voice. This is probably the most distressing observation I have made here. When two voices on the same staff have many accidentals, users of Finale (including myself) should beware! The second flat is easy to add, but if it gets overlooked the rehearsal could get very messy.

There are a number of smaller details, such as Finale placing the rests farther from the the staff than either LilyPond or our unknown engraver, or the fact that the human finds a nice way of cleaning up the tenuto marks (–) in measure 1, or even the fact that I like the LilyPond font more than the Finale font, but I’d better wrap up.

In conclusion:

back to chapter 1
go to chapter 3