If “classical music” is a niche market, and “new music” a niche within it, then those of us who care deeply about recent developments in notation software must be a small fraction of the population indeed; for us, the advent of Dorico, the first new industrial-strength notation program in decades, has been nothing less than thrilling. By now the circumstances surrounding its birth have been well-told. The progress of the software has also been painstakingly documented. But two and a half years after its initial release, I haven’t seen much written from the perspective of composers about the experience of working in Dorico long-term. I’ve been using it since the first version came out in October of 2016—at first gingerly, on small side projects. At that point I’d spent half my life using Sibelius.
As artists, and especially as composers, our tools matter. We’re using them to make musical scores, which are essentially tools for other people. Anything we can do to make our work more readable, standardized, error-free, and beautiful is something we should feel compelled to do. But our tools have to be well-made and streamlined enough for us to want to use them, too (otherwise we’d all be writing in SCORE). I can’t overstate how nice Dorico is as a daily tool. The interface is clean, crisp, and non-distracting; fonts and icons are sharp and tasteful; palettes and dialogues have efficient and sensible workflows. All the small design choices add up to a coherent whole, just like the details in a well-engraved musical score.
The process of composing is different for everyone, of course. I like to write straight into the computer, sitting at either a piano or a MIDI keyboard. And the actual day-to-day indecision of composing is fluid and graceful in Dorico—jotting down ideas quickly and then wrestling with them over long periods, transforming, cutting, splicing, and rearranging them every which way. You can edit without fear of triggering a cascade of errors and messes elsewhere in the score. The program will never protest about a tuplet; extramusical lines and indications move in lockstep with notes; extraneous rests are cleaned up for you; beams are re-beamed correctly. Its handling of rhythms is so good that it surpasses mere convenience and becomes an actual creative tool. All of these things initially felt, and continue to feel, like small miracles.
One of the biggest adjustments in Dorico is one of overall attitude; the program goes beyond merely placing musical symbols on a page. Instead, whenever possible, it strives to understand the musical intention behind those symbols. Its understanding of notation is astonishingly flexible and deep, but it does nudge you to write things in semantically standard ways. This is codified in the very organization of the program. For example, there’s no concept of a “line” as an abstract object, the way there is in Sibelius. Rather, there are entirely separate tools and options for pedal markings, tempo modifications, ottava lines, slurs, hairpins, and other line-like objects, each available only when contextually appropriate. All of these objects are customizable, but not endlessly so; I haven’t been able to recreate my dozens of special pedal lines from Sibelius.
This means that the program can’t be tricked into graphic notation the way Sibelius or Finale can. But in those programs, it was always a compromise anyway, stuck in limbo between a music notation program and a very rudimentary graphics editor, with the score losing all semantic meaning, objects constantly going astray, and part extraction a painful, manual endeavor. That said, composers who rely on aleatoric and graphic notations should hold tight for the moment, as they will feel constrained by Dorico. (Dorico does, however, handle open meter quite well—you can write freely with no time signature at all.)
The underlying structure of a Dorico project can seem daunting at first. In setup mode, one is presented with a list of players (either solo or section), and each player can be given one or more instruments to play. Instrument changes are handled automatically; the third flutist will be warned when to switch to piccolo, and the music for both instruments will magically appear in the same part. Or if you decide that actually the second flutist should double piccolo, you just jog over to setup mode and drag the piccolo instrument onto player 2—the piccolo music you’ve written magically moves to their part. I recently had to expand a percussion section from two players to three; I simply created a new player, dragged over the chimes, tam-tam, and crotales, and my third percussion part was done in seconds.
There are also flows, which are kind of like movements; each flow can contain as much or as little music as you want. Each can have different players assigned; not everyone has to play in every flow. Flows and players come together in layouts, which are like parts but don’t necessarily have to be. Each layout shows the music for one or more players using various layout options you’ve set up (for different kinds of scores or parts). In the special Engrave mode, you’ll find page layout features, similar to frame chains in InDesign; even in its current very basic form, this is an amazing way to control what music appears where. What all this layered complexity means in practice is that you no longer have to maintain separate files for various aspects of a single project (say, a reduction, a full score, a “parts” score, a vocal score, and separate files for each movement). Everything is contained in one file, all options remaining changeable at any time.
Dorico tries to be this smart about everything, and if that makes you nervous, it probably should; software doesn’t usually do a great job at intuiting decisions that can often come down to taste. However, Dorico ends up being right surprisingly often, by which I mean “correct according to the principles of Elaine Gould.” If everyone switched to Dorico right now and used the default settings, the global level of engraving quality would rise significantly. But much of the beauty of music engraving lies in the degree to which composers use standardized systems in personal ways. Dorico needs some work in this area; so far, there’s no equivalent to Sibelius’s ‘House Styles’ feature which makes transferring settings and customizations to new scores easy. The program can occasionally be maddeningly priggish in its pursuit of correctness. If you happen to enter a playing technique not in its pre-populated dictionary—even something relatively standard like alto sul tasto—it will respond by doing…nothing. You’re left guessing as to why the phrase you just typed has disappeared. You can, of course, add alto sul tasto to the dictionary, but this is a step which takes you out of the flow of composing; Dorico should offer to do it for you, at the very least. Similarly, if you start typing words into a dynamic, Dorico will attempt to translate them; “p very dark” becomes, hilariously, “molto p dark.” Dorico gets clever with dynamics in other ways, too, horizontally grouping them as well as linking them vertically between staves. This is a good idea but in practice often leads to unintended deletion, addition, or redundancy, especially in tall scores where you can’t always see the entire system onscreen at once.
Large projects are frustrating in other ways, too. There’s no equivalent to the ‘focus on staves’ feature from Sibelius, so orchestral scores can quickly become unwieldy in galley view (panorama), especially as the percussion section grows. The program also has an unfortunate tendency to slow down as the project expands; all that behind-the-scenes intelligence comes at a cost. Certain operations become almost comically slow, such as adding a new instrument. I appreciate the work Dorico is doing in the background to beautifully respace and reflow everything, but a progress bar would be courteous. After spending months writing a large piece for chorus and orchestra using Dorico, switching to Sibelius to perform some quick edits on an old score felt amazingly snappy by comparison, even for simple things like moving dynamics. (This contrast brings back memories of the switch from Classic Mac OS to OS X two decades ago; OS X felt slow for a few years, but it was nonetheless so clearly better that I preferred to use it anyway.)
Dorico is still new, and the issues I’ve outlined will surely be resolved in time. To switch to Dorico today involves making a delicate calculus of time and features gained and lost, the inevitable learning curve of a complex new program, and of course, whether or not the final results are worth it. And the scores Dorico makes are, indeed, beautiful. Its note-spacing algorithms alone have ruined me forever. I find myself wishing I had time to re-engrave old Sibelius scores, which now look wonky and haphazard to me. Dorico’s engraving style is, by default, bolder than Sibelius or Finale, which gives music a purposeful, stolid look on the page or screen. But it’s graceful, too; the visual weights of symbols, slurs, noteheads, and dynamics are wonderfully harmonized. The intelligence of Dorico’s note and accidental spacing also means music can be more tightly spaced, both vertically and horizontally, while still being readable. This is important for sight-reading, because the eye can parse more music, more quickly. The overall effect is significant enough, I think, that it will lead to materially better performances and rehearsals with fewer errors. And isn’t that, in the end, what music notation comes down to?
For me, the decision to switch to Dorico felt almost preordained. It’s the exact intersection of so many of my obsessions—music engraving, typography, user interface design. For the most part, my music uses the standard notational practices in which Dorico excels at the moment, and I’d been frustrated with Sibelius’s longstanding shortcomings and design flaws for years. Should you switch from whatever you’re using to Dorico? That depends on your needs and predilections. At the very least, keep an eye on it; Steinberg’s been adding both major features and small refinements at a breakneck pace, and Dorico 3 is said to be just around the bend. If you’re serious about engraving and you frequently have strong feelings about software design, I think you’ll love working in Dorico as much as I do.