Realization Reversed : from Performance to the Page

Western music notation is a fixed set of rules devised for expressing something that, by nature, is not fixed. Our current notation system has been culled and pruned over the last several centuries from numerous musical symbols and instructions down to the current set.

Professional musicians not only understand the meaning of these, but are able to interpret them with appropriate variation and nuance based on context.

Contemporary music notation software typically handles three main tasks:

  • Input / Transcription : both step time and real time
  • Display / Printing : the music notation on the page
  • Playback


When we enter music in step time in Finale or Sibelius, we use commonly understood symbols to specify start times and durations for notes and rests. We use symbols, text and lines to represent expression, techniques and volume.

Note durations are represented with a finite system of open and solid noteheads, stems and beams. We dot these noteheads or tie rhythmic values together in various combinations to show longer durations.

We express the volume or force of an individual note with dynamics text below (or above) the staff. More subtle variations of note length or dynamic force are indicated with one of a handful of articulations.

Step-time entry is a very precise way to enter the music to facilitate display and printing, but unfortunately, doesn’t address playback. A good performance is much more nuanced than these simple markings indicate. Both Finale and Sibelius offer “Human Playback” features, but generally, these fall far short of the mark.


When we import a MIDI file into Finale or Sibelius, or record in real time in Hyperscribe (Finale) or Flexitime (Sibelius) with a MIDI keyboard, playback can sound much more realistic. If we can somehow retain this performance and also show the correct notation, we’ll have the best of both worlds. Finale and Sibelius have to work out the rhythmic notation from the performance data which you’ve recorded or imported into the score.

In order for the computer to interpret played-in rhythms successfully, we first need to manually specify what the smallest rhythmic value should be. (Tuplet interpretation, if any, also needs to be specified in advance). The software will then “quantize” the visual rhythmic notation based on the minimum duration you set in the MIDI import or recording options dialog of your respective program:

Files that are exported via Music XML lose their live performance data.

TIP: One key to a successful MIDI import or Hyperscribe or Flexitime recording is understanding the rhythmic component of the piece before you begin.  Simply put, knowing the smallest common note value in advance will help you. If you are recreating notation from an existing handwritten or printed score, you can locate it on the page. If you are importing a MIDI file, you can determine it aurally by playing back the file in advance.

There are some cases on MIDI import where you might get a bar of something that doesn’t fit into the normal framework. For instance, a harp gliss in a piece which otherwise has nothing smaller than an 8th note. Here, you have to weigh your options and go for the smallest note value that provides the greatest degree of accuracy for the majority of the notation. Of course, if you are recording into Finale or Sibelius in real time, you can simply record in sections to address this. And, regardless of whether you are importing a MIDI file or recording into a staff directly, it’s very straightforward to enter a few places such as the gliss in step time.


As you work from an imported MIDI file, or record into Finale or Sibelius in real time, you’ll probably discover that you are actually hearing the timings and note velocities of your recorded performance on playback. This is because both programs retain the performance data in the file after calculating the notation. Finale calls this “Performance Data”, while Sibelius calls it “Live Playback”.

Globally turning off Performance Data / Live Playback is a non-destructive edit in both Finale and Sibelius. In Finale, use HP (Ignore Data) for Start / Stop time and Velocity etc. or set HP Playback to “None”. For Sibelius 7, turn off Live Playback in the Play Tab. For Sibelius 6, uncheck Play>Live Playback.

Generally, it’s nice to be able to hear your scores with a more “human” feel, rather than simply playing back the file mechanically. Once in awhile, though, human error creeps in, and you’ll hear a note that is just too soft or sounds out of time, even though the notation looks correct.

Fortunately, both programs have an easy way to fix these isolated playback / performance anomalies; you can adjust performance data such as timings and note velocity (volume) on a note by note basis. Here’s how:

In Finale, select the MIDI tool, then double click in the bar where the note you need to edit is located. When the dialog opens, double click on the selection handle for that specific note.  In the Edit MIDI note dialog, adjust the individual timings and velocity. (A start time of zero is quantized 100% to the beat.)

In Sibelius, select the note you want to edit, then open the Inspector (v7) or Properties (v6), and in the Playback section, adjust the individual timings and velocity. (A Live start position of zero is quantized 100% to the beat.) Note that Live Playback must be turned on to edit velocities, start positions and durations here.

Changing these values does not change the notation in any way. 

As a last resort, if you have a section that looks right on the page, but just isn’t sounding good, you have the option of simply clearing the live performance information for this region. This could be anything from a partial bar to a range of bars in either program.

In Finale, highlight the region you want to clear, then go to Edit>Clear Selected Items… first select “None”, then check only Performance Data in the MIDI section of the dialog. (note: this is a destructive edit.)

In Sibelius, highlight the region you want to clear, then use the Inspector (v7) or Properties (v6) as above, and uncheck the velocity, start position, etc. Note that you can also set these to a common static value for a selected region this way.

I hope you’ve found this short round trip from notation to performance and back again to be helpful.


Related: Expressive Rubato to Massive Grooves : Ensemble Playback That Sings & Swings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.