Note Spacing & Locked Systems in Finale

Q: “I’d like to create a document with one measure per system in Finale, with a different time signature per system, and where the width of each measure varies according to the time signature so that the distance between quarter notes is the same for each measure, regardless of the time signature.

I can do this by manually dragging the Edit System Margin handles, but was hoping that this spacing (measure varies according to time signature) can be done automatically somehow.”

A: It’s a great question. I hope you won’t mind if I reel this out a bit, since it will allow us to look at the relationship between note spacing and the measures and systems which encapsulate that spacing:

 By default, Finale’s music spacing (note spacing) attempts to flow the music automatically based on the width of its reference note duration.

Normally, when allowed,  the number of measures on a system in Finale is dependent on the number of note events contained within them. When the width of the combined note events on a system would be greater than the width of that system, Finale moves the next bar down to the next system (This is essentially how Sibelius works, too). The more dense the music in these bars is, the fewer bars of music will flow naturally on a single system using note event based spacing.

Static objects which demand horizontal space, such as clefs, key signatures, time signatures, space before music, repeat signs etc also factor in to where a system break will naturally occur after music spacing is applied.

But while note spacing affects the number of measures on a system if unchecked, it is subservient to the width of the systems themselves. If you lock a system so that music can no longer flow based on events, the events themselves do their best to follow their note width “rule”, while while also attempting to balance themselves within the total locked width space. For instance, the note spacing of one bar will expand to fill an entire system if that measure takes up an entire system.

By locking the systems, you are forcing the physical note spacing encased by one measure to expand into the horizontal dimension of the entire system container; e.g. the distance between notes will stretch to fill that system, regardless of the time signature. Music spacing is affected in both directions; if you force more bars of music onto a system, the space between the notes must decrease.

A real-world usage of balancing note entry within a locked system grid is found in old-school “Hollywood” style commercial copying, where each system nearly always contains 4 bars, irrespective of note density.

By default, Finale uses the quarter note as the reference width for note spacing, with a default width of 3.5 spaces. Assuming a left margin of 1″ and a right margin of .5″, the system width of a letter sized page (without the margins) is 84 spaces (7 inches). In order for the spacing to look “normal” for those quarter notes, you would need 24 quarter notes to fill that system. (24×3.5=84).

That doesn’t mean that the note events are no longer a factor in the spacing, however. In fact, if you build a piece of music that is all quarter notes in a number of different meters on a page with a much larger width, or look at the music in Scroll View, or unlock the systems to allow the note spacing to flow based on the quarter note reference width, you will see that the quarter note width is visually the same for each bar, regardless of meter; a bar of 2/4 with two quarter notes is 50% of the width of a bar of 4/4 with four quarters.

If you wish to display a single bar of music on a system that actually shows the music spaced as if it were flowing free of the system width constraints, you are on the right track; You need to adjust the system margins.

You might wish to do this, for example, if you are creating a series of isolated one or two bar musical examples aligned with the left margin. One way to do that is by dragging the system margin handles, as you say; but of course, this isn’t very accurate. Another quick way which is going to give you consistent results is to make these adjustments numerically.

Select the Page Layout Tool and then lasso-select the box at the bottom right of the system you wish to move. If you are not already seeing the Edit System Margins dialog, select it from the Page Layout Menu. In the dialog, you will see four boxes for entry that correspond to the top, left, right and bottom margins. For the following we will change values for the right margin:


Let’s use the Letter sized page referenced above with a 1″ left margin and a .5″ right margin. The full system inside those margins is 84 spaces which is the width of 24 default quarter notes. Removing time signatures, key signatures, and all other considerations for the moment, a bar of 4/4 at defaults is therefore 14 spaces wide. Subtract that number from 84 and you end up with a left indent from the margin of 70 spaces.

Of course, the reality is, you might have a clef, a time signature, a key signature or a forward repeat (or all of these!) at the start of the system, and so this has to be factored in as an offset. For now, let’s arbitrarily allow 10 spaces for static objects at the start of each system, which means we’ll now indent the right margin 60 spaces for a bar of 4/4.

With that formula in place, and of course, assuming all quarter notes, we can make the apparent note spacing and bar width for any meter look correctly spaced – a bar of quarter notes in 5/4 is 17.5 spaces wide at defaults, and so we subtract that from our system width minus our start of system 10 spaces, which gives us 56.5 spaces and so on.


That’s it! Even if you aren’t doing isolated musical examples, hopefully, this information is helpful in understanding how Music Spacing and Locked Systems work together in Finale.


for Anne Clark

2 Replies to “Note Spacing & Locked Systems in Finale”

  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply. I’ve been able to use your explanation to write out several charts that are much easier to read.

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