Note Spacing in Finale & Sibelius : Matching Music In Print

Q: While I was reading your article about note spacing in Sibelius and Finale, an interesting idea came to mind: Do you think it is possible to recreate the exact note spacing of a certain publisher from a printed page or pdf file in Sibelius?

A: Great question! I assume you are referring to punctuation (the word used to describe the horizontal spacing between music characters).

Note spacing, or punctuation,  works in tandem with the physical layout of measures on the systems / pages, which is historically referred to as “Casting Off”.

For starters, it’s worth noting that duplicating a publisher’s *exact* horizontal music spacing (punctuation) involves more than consistent numerical settings. This is partly because there have been so many different types of processes for engraving music over the years:

  1. Punched on plate
  2. Lithograph
  3. Autographed (drawn)
  4. Stamping
  5. Photomechanical
  6. Music Typewriter
  7. Acetate and Rub-off sheets
  8. Computer

…and partly because punctuation, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily an exact science, and can fall into three basic categories:

  1. Mathematically perfect
  2. Mathematically imperfect
  3. Lyrical

In addition, other factors besides notes can affect note spacing. For instance, accidentals, note flags, articulations, material in other voices etc …

However, in spite of the variations which are inherent in all of the above  processes and categories, it should be possible to closely approximate the punctuation (horizontal spacing) of a particular published piece in either Sibelius or Finale by taking some measurements and setting up your software to duplicate these.

Note that you can  even apply different rules to different sections of a score to increase or decrease spacing widths, or approximate the “mathematically imperfect” and “lyrical” punctuation categories above, or address a specific concern where some circumstance requires a special consideration. More on that in a moment…

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Archaic Techniques : Note Spacing : Centering Notes of Bar-Length Duration

“In traditional engraving, when a bar consists of a single note and there are no other durations in any part, the note is placed just to the left of the center of the bar. Such bars, by definition are usually fairly narrow. This spacing creates a better balance than a single note positioned at the beginning of the bar:

In widely spaced bars, the note can be placed closer to the barline so as not to appear isolated. When there are other durations in other parts, the single duration is placed at the beginning of the bar as normal.” 

from : Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation
by Elaine Gould (pg 41)

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Understanding & Improving Music Spacing in Finale and Sibelius

Note spacing on the computer is basically achieved by a mathematical formula. But music spacing is more than just notes – at any point in time, it’s a complex pairing of notes and various other musical information. Think of all of the variables that affect how the music looks on the page: stems, flags, accidentals, articulations, ties, lyrics, chord symbols… the list is a long one.

In order to give the best and most flexible results, the software’s music spacing feature should be able to provide three basic things : (a) mathematically perfect spacing (b) additional “event” spacing or “padding” in order to prevent collisions of specific objects (c) lyrical spacing, where music is theoretically spaced to fit the words instead of the words fitting the music.

If you look closely at how music is spaced by various music publishers, you’ll see that while no proportions are universally accepted, as a general rule, all of them follow similar practices.

In traditional plate engraving, music spacing is called “Punctuation”.

Even though Finale and Sibelius do a fair job of music spacing, there is definitely room for improvement. Hopefully, understanding how music spacing works in both programs will result in better looking scores and parts, regardless of which program you are working in. Of course, you may find yourself wishing for improvements you didn’t know you needed!

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