Lead / Top Line Chord Notation for Rock, Jazz & Pop Charts in Finale & Sibelius

Lead Line Chord Notation, also referred to as Topline Notation is a shorthand notation convention that is sometimes used for rock, jazz and pop guitar or keyboard charts.

Lead Line / Topline notation is a good way to get the chord voicings you are looking for as a composer or arranger, particularly if you don’t actually play guitar (or piano); it allows you to specify melodic motion of the chords without having to supply details of voicings you may or may not know are practical (or possible) on that instrument.

To create this type of notation, visually, the stems are extended past the noteheads to show that the chords are voiced below (or above) the written lead notes. Here is an example:

Let’s take a look at how to create this type of notation in Finale and Sibelius.


In more recent versions of Finale, you can define both stem direction and length of stems from within the Staff Attributes Dialog or with a Staff Style:

The Stem Settings sub-dialog allows you to control stem length and direction:

Check “Use Vertical Offset For Notehead End of Stems” and offset from the Notehead. The Stem Direction radio buttons at the top can be set as desired.

I’ve associated an Up Stem negative value (-2 spaces) with a Stem Direction of Always Up, and a Down Stem positive value (+2 spaces) with a Stem Direction of Always Down. This essentially equates to “Top Voice of Chord” (stems up, with stem extending downward) and “Bottom Voice of Chord” (stems down, with stem extending upward).

I’ve arbitrarily chosen in this example to extend the stems in either direction by two spaces. While it would be hard to state that there is a set convention for the length of the stem extension for this notation style, stem extension length of one octave is fairly common (longer than what I show here).  A value of +-3.5 spaces for (1) and (2) will give this visual result.

Since it is possible to create these settings as two different Staff Styles, you can create a separate Staff Style for each case, and apply each Style as you need it, even for partial bars.

Note that while this is one good way to get the correct visual look, since there aren’t any actual notes below (or above) the lead note of the chord, only the lead melody line will play back using this method.


If you want to play back chord voicings underneath your lead line while displaying the Lead / Top line notation style, one method is to use the Special Tools > Note Shape Tool. Select the Note Shape Tool from the Special Tools palette, then, while holding down the Shift key, select all the notes below the lead line:

With the notes selected, double-clicking will bring up the Symbol Selection dialog. Type the Space (null) character, and OK the dialog. All of the noteheads below the lead line are no longer visible, the stem is extended properly, and as an added bonus, your voicings will play back:

You can control the stem extension length with the pitch of the lowest note in the chord. For instance, if you want the stem length equal to one octave, add an octave below each note of the lead line in your chord voicing as the lowest note in the chords.

The Special Tools method, while a good breakdown illustration, is not very practical. First, if the harmony notes in the chord voicing have accidentals, these accidentals will still be visible, and you’ll have to hide them manually. (Using Speedy Entry, you can set the cursor to each pitch and press the Star key on the Keypad to hide these). You’ll also have to manually flip the stems in some cases, *and* unless you want visible duration dots and ties for the headless notes, you’ll need to hide them. Fortunately, there is an automated way to do all this.


While I’m always interested in learning how things work, it’s really all about getting things done quickly, efficiently and painlessly. Once again, plugin architect  Jari Williamssohn has come to the rescue with a plugin called… wait for it…. JW Topline Notation. The plugin appears to automate a variation of the Special Tools method (shown above), performing all these steps automatically; hiding the noteheads and their associated accidentals in one step.

The plugin follows the “octave” stem length convention method, even adding a hidden (and silent) note one octave below the lead / top note if the chord voicing spans less than one octave. It also visually hides duration dots for the headless notes as well, (although it leaves the ties to facilitate playback).

The plugin also includes a “revert” function to get your written-out music back quickly.

Download the free JW Topline Notation plugin (and other useful plugins) here: Mac | Windows


In Sibelius 6 or 7, stem extension can be controlled as part of the settings for a particular Notehead. In Sibelius 6 choose House Style > Edit Noteheads. In Sibelius 7, choose Edit Noteheads from the Noteheads Group in the Notations Tab. When the dialog opens, select the first “regular” notehead style, and then choose New to create a new notehead based on this existing one:

… then scroll down to the end of the list to locate your newly created notehead. Select it, and press the Edit… button.

Once in the dialog, name your new notehead something appropriate, then use negative values to extend the length of stems beyond the notehead for either stems up or stems down situations:

For Stem Up, I’ve used a negative value to lengthen the stems by 2 spaces. For Stem Down, I’ve used a similar setting. I’ve arbitrarily chosen in this example to extend the stems of either direction by two spaces beyond the notehead. While it would be hard to state that there is a set convention for the length of the stem extension for this notation style, stem extension length of one octave is fairly common (longer than what I show here). A value of +-3.5 spaces for Stem Up and Stem Down will give this visual result for both stem directions.


If you want to play back chord voicings underneath your lead line while displaying the Lead / Top line notation style, first, enter the chord voicings as regular notation, and then filter to select all but the top note of each chord. Change these selected notes to Headless noteheads (Notehead #7) which will hide these notes and their associated accidentals, leaving only the Top / Lead line and the extended stems:

Note that the above method is not without its caveats. For one thing, durational dots will display even if the notehead is hidden, as do ties (the ties are needed to facilitate proper playback, anyway). But, of course, there is a solution. You can enter the lead line by itself with the notehead stem length adjustments above, then put the remaining chord notes in another voice, and hide that voice.

ADDED 7/28/13

Here is a further observation related to creating Topline notation in Sibelius. In a chord, if the top note is the only notehead that is not Headless, then ledger lines will show if the Headless notes are outside the staff. Note that it doesn’t matter what the ledger line visibility setting for the Headless notes is in this case – the visibility of ledger lines is controlled by the top note of the chord.

If the single normal notehead is something *other* than the top note (with all other noteheads being headless), then the ledger lines will not show. The problem is that the “regular” stem will be too long if you try to use a note other than the top one as the “lead” note.

Therefore, to create Topline notation where the visible lead line is within the staff, and where the Headless notes display without ledger lines, and *also* where the chord voicing plays back from a single voice, a second “normal” notehead must be defined and used as the visible lead line:


for Brian Monroney

7 Replies to “Lead / Top Line Chord Notation for Rock, Jazz & Pop Charts in Finale & Sibelius”

  1. This is excellent stuff, Robert. (As usual.)

    What I would also like to see in the future is a tutorial on jazz chords, period. I think I sort of figured them out, but not really. Of course, one of the problems being that there yet has to be a “standard” way to notate jazz chords. But even still, no matter what system you decide to use, there has to be a way to do it. I’ve come close by loading the Baroque chord symbols and going from there.

    Any suggestions? Or maybe that would be a tutorial subject for the future. Or maybe it is so simple, I’m missing it. But I do have a renowned vocal jazz arranger who wants to be able to enter the jazz chords and create a comp track, but the MiBAC jazz rhythm section generator leaves much to be desired and the Band in the Box plugin also doesn’t seem to do the trick, but I can’t remember, it’s been such a long time since I tried messing with it.

    1. Thanks for the good words, Brad.

      I’ll give some thought to a new blog post devoted to jazz chords in Finale. I would agree that out of the box, this is more complicated than it should be.

      In the meantime, our colleague Paul Samitz has come up with a pretty good system for chord symbol entry in Finale, which is outlined in this blog article titled “Chords by the Numbers in Finale”:

      Another related post on chords is here:
      which is specifically about the triangle major 7th symbol in Finale.

      Best wishes,

  2. @Brad: For creating quick play-along tracks for practice, iRealb is a great app – for Mac, iOS or Android. It has an easy to use editor that allows you to input most chord qualities. The play along styles and comping instruments are somewhat limited but it’s a very useful tool regardless.

    As for jazz chord entry in Finale, I can vouch for the Samitz method Robert links to in his reply – I have downloaded and simplified the .mus version of Paul’s charts for both Jazz and Broadway Copyist a bit for my own needs, and I keep a printed copy handy with the most often-used suffixes highlighted in yellow. After a while you will find that you memorize the suffix numbers for many of the chord qualities and it goes quite fast. At least learn to type :0 (colon zero) after the Root the to bring up the Chord Suffix Selection Dialog – this is pretty fast if you don’t have your chart handy.

  3. Thank you for sharing.

    I am using Sibelius, and followed what you did. Working great.

    I just wonder if I can make a longer stem for Stem Down.
    I mean,, instead of having extra line upward, make the stem itself longer downward makes more sense to me. That’s the way I wrote for the handwritten charts. Because it’s top note already, making longer stem implies chord structure..?
    I wish I could draw a pic. Hope you understood me..
    Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Kate – In Sibelius, it is easy to extend the stem length.

      In the Inspector, the Y position for notes is the difference of the stem length from the default length. So you can just select a bunch of notes and set Y for all of them in the Inspector.

      Hope that helps!


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