Understanding & Controlling Staff Height (Size) in Finale

I thought it might be good to devote some time to reviewing Finale’s Staff Height (Size) controls, since this seems to be a misunderstood area of the program.

There is a reason for the seemingly unrelated numerical values which have remained in Finale’s Page Format Dialog > System Scaling since very early versions. A bit of an historical perspective may be a good place to start.

Prior to the era of computer note-setting, plate engravers (music engravers) used a system of universally accepted staff sizes. There were 8 standard staff sizes, of which 5 were in common use:

from "The Art of Music & Engraving" by Ted Ross
from “The Art of Music & Engraving” by Ted Ross

Each of these numbered staff sizes was associated with a unique trade name. (Nº3 – Nº7 were the most commonly used):

  1. Nº1 “Giant” – used for instruction books, elementary band
  2. Nº2  “English” – for instruction books, elementary band
  3. Nº3  “Regular, Ordinary or Common” – for sheet music, concertos, classics
  4. Nº4  “Peter” – for folios, organ works, etc.
  5. Nº5  “Large Middle” – for bands, sheet music
  6. Nº6  “Small Middle” – for chorals, condensed sheet music
  7. Nº7  “Cadenza” – for pocket editions, cue lines in piano parts
  8. Nº8  “Pearl” – thematic advertisement

While these staff sizes were standardized, if you were to carefully examine the work of different plate engravers using this system, you would see that there was quite a bit of subtle variance in the staff heights between publishers and works. For example, a Nº2 staff used by one engraver might vary as much as the thickness of a line from a Nº2 staff used by another engraver. A similar issue was common with metal typeface sizes in publishing. Variances like this are one of the basic caveats of foundry metal typesetting.

Personal computers offered a way to create a more accurate (and theoretically more consistent) approach approach to typesetting. Adobe Systems was a forerunner in developing fonts and creating computer typesetting standards (like “postscript points” which supplanted the traditional point measurement unit for computer desktop publishing).

In typography, a point is the smallest whole unit of measure.

Adobe was also an active developer in the early days of computer music publishing. Adobe’s venerable Sonata font designed in 1985 by Cleo Huggins was the first truly professional publicly available music font.

My colleague Mark Johnson informs me that in the mid-1980s, Adobe defined staff height for music staves as the distance between the centers of the top & bottom staff lines, regardless of their thickness. And thus a space is conveniently always exactly ¼ of that. Today it is common to refer to staff height as measured in spaces.

So what does this all have to do with Finale?

When you go to Document > Page Format > Score… and look at the values in System Scaling, they may not seem to make much sense:


If the resulting System Scaling is 85%, why is Scale System set to 100%? And why is that number in the Staff Height field an odd number to begin with?

The answer to the last question is that Finale’s default unit of measurement is whatever you happen to have active in Program Options at the time. Here, it is shown in Inches. The unit of measurement can be changed within this dialog itself to Inches, Centimeters, Points, Picas or Spaces.

Finale’s design is much easier to understand if you use spaces for the unit of measurement and whole numbers for the Staff Height. One space is essentially the space between two staff lines (see above), so “a” space is “one” space. Set the Staff Height to be 4 Spaces, and Scale System to 100%.

Your staff height should be showing as 4 spaces. Now, change the unit of measurement to “points” and you will see that Finale defines its basic default staff size as 24 points, which equals 4 spaces (and is a whole number).

So, there are a couple of different takeaways from this. First of all, if you actually want to create a staff size that is a percentage of Finales’ default size, the most clear approach is to first set the unit of measurement to spaces, then start with Finale’s default staff size of 4 spaces. Now type your percentage into Scale System. This way, Scale System and the Resulting System Scaling will match. Tidy, and all of the numbers make sense now:


If, however, you are required to create a very specific staff height such as “20 points”, first set the units to Points, then type “20” into the Staff Height field, and make sure that Scale System is set to 100%.


(If you are asked to create a specific staff height in mm, use Centimeters, and divide the value by 10 – e.g. move the number one space to the right of the decimal point, so 7mm becomes .7 centimeters and so forth.)

That’s all there is to it.


16 Replies to “Understanding & Controlling Staff Height (Size) in Finale”

  1. Robert –

    How enlightening on many levels. Though I consider myself a near-power user (having been a Finale guy since v. 3.0 circa 1993), I never understood this staff scaling business.

    Do you use the “spaces” measurement unit for any reason beyond defining staff heights? For reasons I no longer remember, I’ve been using EVPUs for ages.

    Also, when comparing staff height for scores and parts (within the same doc.), do you change the *scaling* or the *staff height*?

    Thanks for this great info!
    ~ Rick

    1. Thanks for reading, and for your comments, Rick!

      Do you use the “spaces” measurement unit for any reason beyond defining staff heights?

      Yes, actually. In more recent years, I have been using spaces for all Text Expression Categories, as these measurements are related vertically to the staff (I use inches for page margins).

      There are several reasons I’ve come to really like using spaces as a unit of measurement for text placement:

      1) it is easy to visualize vertical distance from the staff in spaces. There is already a “ruler” right there in the form of the staff itself, and spaces above and below the staff, while not exactly this, can be viewed as being a similar distance from the staff as ledger lines…

      2) I like the idea of using simple, smaller values to specify input. While, admittedly, I had EVPUs memorized for every measurement situation at one point in Finale, there is something simple and solid about using small whole numbers like “3”. And, it makes a certain amount of sense to measure things consistently the same way, even if it means sometimes inputting a value like 1/2 a space.

      Where EVPUs come in handy for me are very small values like barline thickness; for the same reason I like spaces above, and inches for page margins. Fewer digits to express the same thing. It’s much more straightforward to think of barline thickness as 2 EVPUS than .00608 inches or .07292 spaces. Or, for page margins, to use values like .5 inches rather than 144 EVPUs.

      3) As I’ve done more work as an engraver and copyist, I’ve come to believe that visually consistent placement of specific object types in Finale trumps numerically accurate placement of objects. Music is much easier to read if one can count on finding text of the same function at the same size and font, and in the same location relative to the staff. This is one of the reasons for the Category designer.

      Also, when comparing staff height for scores and parts (within the same doc.), do you change the *scaling* or the *staff height*?

      For commercial scores and parts, I categorically use 100% page size and reduce the staff size accordingly by a percentage in both the score and the parts (using the default 4 spaces for staff height). For publishing, I am typically creating staves at a specific point or mm staff height. The nice thing about Finale is that either system is possible. As you start creating scores and parts using a measurement unit that allows you to think in whole numbers, you’ll likely have the correlations memorized before too long. e.g. that 91% staff size is actually 22 points, etc.


  2. Robert, would you mind maybe doing the same with Sibelius? I searched your blog and couldn’t find anything about controling staff size, distance, etc. I realize there’s instructions but when I try to follow them they don’t work.
    Thanks very much

  3. Hi Robert. This is an excellent post! In answer to Art’s question, it might be worth mentioning that, in Finale, text point sizes are relative to an 8.467 mm staff, while in Sibelius, text point sizes are relative to a 7.0 mm staff. The Finale reference staff is thus 21% larger than Sibelius’s, so whatever point size your font is at in Sibelius will need to be multiplied by 1.21 in Finale to approximate the same size.

  4. Thanks for the great post!
    I think it would also be worth mentioning that when you change your staff height in Finale, you then have to refresh the layout from the Page Layout menu for the changes to actually show up on screen. This had me confused for a while.
    Thanks again for the helpful tips!

  5. Great article. I had never understood the purpose of the “staff height”. Now it makes sense.
    I see three different ways of accessing this adjustment:

    1) from the “Document/Page format” menu
    2) from the “Page Layout/Resize Staff System” menu
    3) by selecting the “Percentage tool” and clicking on the staff (“resize staff tool”)

    I assume these all have the same function but offer different levels of control?

    Also, is it correct that change the staff size does not affect the staff line thickness?

    Thanks for the great posts. Very informative.

  6. Rick,

    Thanks for the good words. Yes, staff height adjustments can be made from the three locations you mention.

    Please note that (1) Document > Page Format is a setting for future changes: it does not change the current state, while immediate change to the staff size can be made using (2) Page Layout > Resize Staff System with the same controls. Number (3) Percentage tool is also applies immediate change, but *only* provides a the “Scale System” field shown elsewhere for System Scaling; there is no visual readout of what the staff height or resulting System Scaling.

    For this reason, If you are going for accuracy, I might stick with using (1) and (2).

    Staff line thickness is controlled via Document Options > Lines and Curves.


  7. Hi Robert

    I was wrestling with a problem: why did two documents visibly have different stave sizes, despite my carefully giving them identical settings?

    After some Googling I came across your review of Finale’s Staff Height controls. At first it still didn’t solve my problem, because I knew the controls you described. But further down the page I found the crucial info:

    “Please note that (1) Document > Page Format is a setting for future changes: it does not change the current state, while immediate change to the staff size can be made using (2) Page Layout > Resize Staff System with the same controls.”

    I was trying to solve my problem from (1) where I should have used (2).

    It’s not obvious, at least not to me, when controls work only on future changes and when they change what already exists. Do you agree? Could program designers make this important distinction clearer? It would be so helpful if, on making a settings-change, there were a pop-up alert making it clear whether the change would be retrospective or not.

    Pleased to discover your site. Thanks for your help!

    best wishes
    Peter Nickol (UK)

    1. Peter,

      Thanks for the good words. I absolutely agree that Finale’s UI controls that can immediately update only a subset of the House Style elements of only part of the document is confusing for the end user at best, and represents additional labor where changes are required.

      This is one area where Sibelius really has an edge; there, the process of conforming a document to a House Style is a matter of importing it and choosing which elements you would like to conform to the library file’s settings.

      I have contacted MakeMusic support over the years several times to ask that this be improved, but this is such a misunderstood area, I’m guessing they aren’t getting a lot of feedback. Recommend you contact http://makemusic.custhelp.com/app/ and request that MakeMusic provide an easier and more intuitive way for Finale to conform several documents to the same House Style…


  8. Robert,

    Thanks for the excellent article. So is Finale’s “staff height” relative or absolute? In other words, if I define staff height as 4 spaces, and all other settings being equal, will the staff height be the same absolute size on an 8.5×11 page as it would be on an 11×17 page?

    1. Hi Adam,

      The beauty of the system is that it can be either. If you set the relative scaling to 100% then whatever you use as a size in the Staff Height is absolute. For instance, 20 points. If you set the Staff Height to *its* 100% value (e.g. 4 spaces) then the relative staff height is simply entered as a percentage in the “And Resize System” field.


  9. Thank you Robert! I’ve been using Finale since about 1998 (on Windows 3.1), and have always found its apparent inability to keep even the simplest measurements like “0.5” from developing an ugly series of decimal places, incredibly annoying. Being English, I used centimetres as my unit of measurement …

    … until today!

    Thanks to your excellent explanation in your article, I’ve switched to using points, and tweaked my default templates accordingly. So much nicer, with round numbers, including fractions, which stay round!

    1. Yes! Go to Page Layout > Resized Staff System (System Reduction) – from there you can choose a range of measures or from start to finish. You can also change the size of the staves / systems for more than one instrument at a time here, so it is very versatile.

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