top of page

[Finale] PolyWriter, the music notation software before Finale

In the previous article where I talked about how Mr. Phil Farrand created Finale, I mentioned PolyWriter, which he developed in 1984 prior to Finale 1.0.

It seems that PolyWriter was also released in Japan at the time, but unfortunately I couldn't find much information about it. However, for the original English version, a copy of the full user manual is available on the Internet.

(Source:『PolyWriter Users Manual』, Passport Designs, Inc. , 1984. )

This booklet, created 40 years ago, will be an interesting source of information when unraveling the history of Finale, which was released in 1988 and is now the oldest music notation software in use.

In this article, based on this user manual, I investigated the music notation software PolyWriter, which was probably the model for Finale.

1. introduction

1-1. PolyWriter development concept

The product introduction on page 6 of the user manual describes the development concept of PolyWriter.

(Source:『PolyWriter Users Manual』, Passport Designs, Inc. , 1984. )


The direct translation of thought into printed music has long been the dream of musicians. Somehow, the mechanical process of notating music interferes with spontaneity and creativity. The process tends to get in the way of capturing the idea.

As word processors have freed the writer, allowing the author to concentrate on creativity and worry about the mechanics later, so computer researchers and musicians have spent years seeking to bridge the chasm between imagination and the finished product.

It is with this in mind that Passport Designs, Inc. proudly introduces PolyWriter. A system to streamline your creativity and help you get down on paper what you feel when you play, without disrupting the flow of creative energy.

PolyWriter is the fully polyphonic, multiple part, multiple stave, music notation system. Its job is simple; to take what you play on an instrument klavier and turn it into printed music. We confidently state that PolyWriter is the easiest-to-use, most accurate music notation system commercially available today.

Developed over a period of two years by Phil Farrand, a professional music editor and accomplished musician, in conjunction with Passport Design's software engineering staff, PolyWriter takes a great leap towards realizing the dream - - translating imagination into written music.

As what Mr. Farrand mentioned in the interview, the concept behind PolyWriter is that it is a software that takes over the mechanical work of writing musical scores, allowing musicians to concentrate on their creation. This is also reflected in the introduction.

This is clearly expressed in the sentence “Its job is simple; to take what you play on an instrument klavier and turn it into printed music”, and it seems that one of PolyWriter's biggest selling points was its function equivalent to Finale's Hyperscribe Tool.

1-2. Features of PolyWriter

(Source:『PolyWriter Users Manual』, Passport Designs, Inc. , 1984. )


  • PolyWriter is fully polyphonic. It will accurately notate chords with up to 16 voices. 

  • PolyWriter is correct. It will properly handle ties, beaming, split-stemming, enharmonic, double-sharps, double-flats, seconds, 8vas, and more, in accord with standard notation practice.

  • PolyWriter is accurate. You may select resolutions as tight as a triplet sixteenth note.

  • PolyWriter is forgiving. If your playing isn't absolutely rhythmically accurate, PolyWriter adjusts it.

  • PolyWriter is versatile. You can select 8 different ways to score a piece, including an Orchestral Score that allows up to twenty-eight discrete, individually recorded, polyphonic parts.

  • PolyWriter is smart. Orchestral Score mode includes a library of 40 automatic instrument transpositions. Print the Conductor's score in concert pitch and each individual part in its correct transposition!

  • PolyWriter is full-featured. After a piece has been entered from the klavier, you still have tremendous flexibility to edit and rewrite as you see fit. Plus you can type in lyrics for vocal parts!

  • PolyWriter has a large-capacity. Music is dealt with as pages; there can be 2,512 notes per page and pages can be spread across multiple disks, meaning there is no top limit on the length of your pieces!

The above is the description of “FEATURES” on p.7, and it seems that two points were particularly important here: “fully polyphonic” and “forgiving”. 

Passport Designs Inc., which developed PolyWriter in 1984 with Mr. Phil Farrand, had previously developed another music notation software called Notewriter in 1983.

Notewriter, like PolyWriter, is a music notation software that uses real-time input, but unlike PolyWriter, the input is monophonic (single note).

Figure: Notewriter's user interface

(Source:「The Gentle Art Of Transcription (Part 1) Setting the Scene」by David Ellis, Article from Electronics & Music Maker, April 1984. )

Also, it seems that at least the initial version did not have a quantize function, so editing notes after input was essential. Moreover, the editing process was not intuitive and required tedious work using command syntax, and as a result, it was difficult to transcribe fast passages and tuplets.

In light of these challenges, Notewriter was later introduced with a quantization feature with pre-selectable precision, as well as an option to convert Notewriter files to the format required by 4-track compatible software.

This flow later led to the development of PolyWriter. The reason why PolyWriter has the “Poly” in Polyphonic at the beginning of its name is likely due to this series of product development processes that started with Notewriter.

Also, the expression “PolyWriter is Forgiving” means that it is equipped with a more precise quantization function and can now “as tight as a triplet sixteenth note”.  This seems to have been a major step towards making the music notation software of the time commercially viable.

2. PolyWriter production flow

From now on, we'll take a look at its basic features, focusing on the early stages of the production flow: setup, note input, and editing.

2-1. Template

Creating music scores with PolyWriter started with something like what Finale calls a “Setup Wizard”.

First of all, you enter a file name and select a template from the eight types below, but this is a fixed template and you cannot change the instrumentation later on like in Finale, so you carefully need to consider it at the beginning.

  1. Treble staff: You can enter chords of up to 16 notes with only one input (no overdubs). Ledger lines are automatically added, 8VA can be applied, and the range is from 2 octaves below middle C to 1 octave above.

  2. Bass staff: You can enter chords of up to 16 notes with only one input (no overdubs). The range is from 2 octaves above middle C to 3 octaves above.

  3. Piano: Polyphonic input is possible on a 5-octave grand staff with only one input.

  4. Choir: Polyphonic input is possible on a 5-octave grand staff with only one input. For 4-part choir input consisting of SATB.

  5. Treble staff + piano: Separate overdub input for the treble staff and piano.

  6. Bass staff + piano: Separate overdub input for bass staff and piano.

  7. Choir + Piano: A 4-part, 2-octave choir consisting of SATB, plus a piano score that allows polyphonic input on the grand staff.

  8. Orchestra: Consists of up to 28 individually recorded polyphonic instrument parts, equipped with a built-in library that automatically allows unique transposition settings for each instrument, and outputs full scores at concert pitch and transposed parts.

Although the key could be changed (transposed) later, these settings were always in the major key, and for pieces in a minor key, it was supposed to be set in the parallel major key.

After specifying the key and time signature, you set the score density, that is, the number of measures per system, from 10 levels. Again this cannot be changed later, so you had to make careful choices about what the spacing between notes would be later on.

PolyWriter's spacing adjustment function seems to work on a measure-by-measure basis, such that measures with many notes are wider than measures with fewer notes.

However, this does not work on a system-by-system basis, for example in Finale, where consecutive measures with a large number of notes are automatically sent to the next system. It seems that users had to specify the bar width themself so that they could secure the measure width.

2-2. Quantize settings

The last setting after score density and input tempo was quantize.

(Source:『PolyWriter Users Manual』, Passport Designs, Inc. , 1984. )


This is the last factor you must select; the accuracy with which you must play. There are six possible RESOLUTIONS:

B: Beat resolution.

2: Half-note.

4: Quarter-note.

8: Eighth-note.

0: Sixteenth-note.

F: Full resolution.

One of the past problems with computerized notation systems has been their unforgiving accuracy; they will notate exactly what you play, which usually results in great strings of 32nd-notes and rests.

RESOLUTION is an automatic “rounding-off” (also called “quantizing” or “auto-correct”) factor which compensates for the fact that very few humans play with absolute rhythmic precision.

For example if you’ve selected 8th-note RESOLUTION, all notes with a duration equal to or greater than a sixteenth note are rounded up to become eighth notes. Notes with lesser duration are ignored. 

In BEAT RESOLUTION the resolution factor equals the beat notes you selected in METER. FULL RESOLUTION notates exactly what you played; you may be surprised. 

As stated in “Resolution” on p.20, other music notation software at the time had insufficient quantization functions, so their timing recognition accuracy was unforgivable, and the input results were often too detailed*.

With this in mind, PolyWriter is equipped with a practical quantize function, and you can select its effectiveness from six types: whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, and complete reproduction (quantize function OFF). I was able to.

*This probably mainly refers to Notewriter, which is the direct predecessor of PolyWriter mentioned above. The user manual describes it as “an unforgiving legacy product, a forgiving PolyWriter”.

2-3. Note input

Input is basically done using what Finale calls real-time input “Hyperscribe”, but to help with this, there was a feature that displayed the beat and number of measures at the bottom right of the screen, as well as an audio metronome.

PolyWriter also allows you to listen to the playback audio output of up to 16 voices when recording or overdubbing, so you can hear what you're playing as you play.

2-4. edit

When editing, use the W, Z, A, and S keys located on the left side of the computer keyboard to move the cursor on the screen up, down, left, and right to select notes, and specify the pitch using the piano keyboard. Compared to Notewriter, it seems that it was possible to work more intuitively.

You could also change the pitch or value of a note, or add a soprano part to a measure where you've already entered an alto part.

What's interesting is that the user manual suggests that this editing function can be used not only to correct parts that didn't play well during real-time input, but also when composing music.

(Source:『PolyWriter Users Manual』, Passport Designs, Inc. , 1984. )

Other Uses of Change Notes

In addition to giving you the opportunity to fix errors in your playing, CHANGE NOTES is also a great resource for composing. 

We all have times when we wish to notate a part for another performer which is difficult to play ourselves. By playing the correct rhythm on a single key during transcription, we can allot space and “raw materials”. Then, using CHANGE, we can insert the pitches we really want afterwards. 

Another instance is when we wish to notate exceedingly complex or fast-changing polyphonic textures. Again, by playing just a few voices in the correct rhythm during transcription we allot space and “raw materials” to construct what we really want later. Once the measures are in place we can change those simple notes into dense chords and clusters. 

This method, introduced on page 39 of the user's manual, is often used today when using music notation software to enter phrases that have the same rhythm but differ only in the pitch of the notes.

Since this is explained using the word “composing”, it is thought that PolyWriter was developed with the intention of being used not only for producing music notation, but also as a composition tool.

This was perhaps first practically possible with PolyWriter, which was able to implement more user-friendly editing features than past music notation software such as Notewriter.

The mid-1980s, when PolyWriter was introduced, may have been a historically important period when music notation software began to evolve from a mere “notation tool” to a “composing and arranging tool” due to improved editing functions. 


In addition to these advanced quantization and editing features, PolyWriter also recognizes and adjusts accidentals, adds appropriate beams and stems, and automatically adjusts the spacing of notes and rests. 

These functions seem to have been especially helpful when creating scores with multiple parts, such as orchestral scores.

Figure: PolyWriter orchestral score format example

(Source:「The Gentle Art of Transcription (Part 2) Printing the Part」by David Ellis, Article from Electronics & Music Maker, June 1984. )

However, even with PolyWriter, which has evolved to this point, it was still not possible to add, insert, or delete measures, nor was it possible to copy and paste. 

My next question is, when did a product with the editing functionality that allows you to compose and arrange music on the screen, like modern music notation software, come into being.

I guess it was an early version of Finale, I’d like to look into the details another time.

[Reference materials]

※ Unfortunately, we did not know what kind of operation screen PolyWriter had, but on this website, you can see the process from PolyWriter startup until the menu screen appears, which is probably reproduced on an emulator.



The finale intensive course is being held in parallel on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. Click on the banner below for details. (Lecture is given in Japanese. ) 

bottom of page