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!


WHAT’S SIMILAR?


Music spacing is automatically applied as you enter music into either program, although Finale allows you to turn off auto-spacing in its Program Options.

You can re-space the music at any time in both programs.

You can make manual adjustments which override the note spacing in both programs.

You are not limited to one note spacing rule (width) per document. For instance, in either program, you can re-space one page of a part (or your score) more tightly (or loosely) than another to facilitate a page turn, for instance.

Custom music / note spacing settings can be saved and loaded into a new score via a Library or House Style file.

When you lock the layout prior to spacing the music, each program will work within the constraints of the locked layout to give you the best possible note spacing it can.

Both programs offer fairly detailed customizable music spacing options, including being able to assign individual specific widths to each note duration.

 In addition to spacing the notes themselves, both Finale and Sibelius provide additional settings to avoid collisions of lyrics, articulations, chord symbols etc wherever possible.

Plate engravers measure widths from the left side of the characters. For instance, the distance between two quarter notes is measured by the space from the left side of the first notehead (or rest) to the left side of the next notehead (or rest).


WHAT’S DIFFERENT?


Finale’s “Fibonacci Spacing” is based on the golden ratio (approximately 1.6). This works in connection with a “base reference width”. (You can click the “Duration…” button to select a different reference note value).

Finale’s default reference width is a quarter note, 3.5 spaces wide. (Coincidentally, 3.5 spaces also happens to be the default width for a quarter note in Sibelius). To get the width of the half note (minim), Finale “scales” the quarter note width by the Fibonacci ratio (which is 1.6180339). The resulting half note width (about 5.67 spaces) can then be multiplied by the same ratio which becomes the whole note (semi-breve) width and so on.

The actual default “scaling factor” in Finale = 1.6179, which rounds to 1.618.

To quickly change the overall note spacing to something wider or narrower, simply change the Reference Width and re-space. For instance, if you change the reference width to 3.25 spaces, the spatial relationships between the different durations stay the same, but the overall spacing will be a little tighter:

 

Interesting factoid: International standard (ISO) paper sizes have a height to width ratio of 1.4142 (which is the square root of 2). For fun, try changing the music spacing “scaling factor” in Finale to 1.4142 (e.g. √2) and respace. You might be be pleasantly surprised at the results…

 

Sibelius, in contrast, uses a customizable spacing width table for note spacing rather than a specific ratio common to all durations. If I had to guess as to the origins of the default values in Sibelius’ Note Spacing Rule I would say they started out as a mathematical ratio, but then the widths of individual note durations were manually fine tuned by visually studying the classic published engravings of European publishers or by consulting with expert sources.

“Optical Spacing” is the name Sibelius has chosen for its proprietary note spacing, as in “looks right to the eye”:

 

 

What are the actual width ratios in Sibelius? With the exception of the spatial relationship between the quarter note and the half note, (around 1.7x), each successively longer note value appears to be in the range of 1.3x – 1.4x the width of the previous one).

As with Finale, you can quickly change the note spacing wider or narrower while keeping the same ratios between durations. To widen the default note spacing in Sibelius, select a region, then type OPTION-SHIFT-RIGHT ARROW (Mac) or ALT-SHIFT-RIGHT ARROW (Windows). To narrow the spacing, use the left arrow instead of the right with the above modifiers.

Although its name implies that it is only designed to make the music spacing more narrow, another option which allows you to quickly decrease or increase the note spacing is found in Sibelius’ Engraving Rules, under Notes and Tremolos > Note Spacings. Change this value and re-space the music (or a specific region):


EVENT SPACING


In addition to spacing the notes themselves, both Finale and Sibelius do their best to factor in enough extra space for notes in different voices, lyrics, chord symbols, grace notes, etc.:



ADDITIONAL PADDING AND FIXED OFFSETS


Both Finale and Sibelius also have controls to add addition specific widths between certain objects, padding around specific objects, and space before and after the music in each bar:


 

While there are some minor differences between what can be controlled, and how these controls affect the music spacing, basically, the two programs offer very similar features as regards additional padding and fixed offsets.

For both Finale and Sibelius, keep in mind that changing the spacing widths or spacing rules has no effect on existing music until these new rules are actually applied by respacing (or changing note values in an existing bar). What this means is that in either program, you can have regions of music that use slightly different spacing rules in order to facilitate the best possible page layouts.


DIFFERENT KINDS OF MUSIC SPACING


By default, the music spacing of Finale and Sibelius look different, because they follow different rules. But they don’t have to. You can apply “Fibonacci Spacing” in Sibelius or “Optical Spacing” in Finale.


APPLY “OPTICAL SPACING” IN FINALE


In addition to fixed-ratio spacing, Finale has its own customizable spacing width table for music spacing. It looks quite different than the one in Sibelius, but it essentially does the same thing. Go to Document Options > Music Spacing > Spacing Widths. Select the Spacing Width Table radio button.

For now, check “Use Default Width if Duration Not In Table”.  Now, click the Widths… button. You can use the Next and Previous buttons to scroll through the table and see what widths are currently assigned to each You’ll notice that Finale allows you to set individual widths in its table for both non-dotted and dotted values from 64th notes to double whole notes:

 

To closely approximate Sibelius, we first want to duplicate the widths for every non-dotted value from 16th notes (semiquavers) to double whole notes (breves). Since Sibelius does not have specific widths for individual dotted values in its Note Spacing Rule, simply delete any existing dotted note values for now and let the default width durations based on the current settings kick in. Of course, you can customize any aspect of this to taste at any later time.

You should end up with 7 different spacing widths, plus a zero duration reference width at the start of the table. Here are the Default Sibelius values, all in spaces:

  • Duration = 0, spacing width = 3.5 spaces (the “reference” width for values not listed)
  • Duration (optional) = 128, spacing width = 1.41 spaces (32nd note – or “short note” in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 256, spacing width = 1.94 spaces (16th note in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 512, spacing width = 2.53 spaces (8th note in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 1024, spacing width = 3.5 spaces (quarter note in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 2048, spacing width = 5.94 spaces (half note in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 4096, spacing width = 8.19 spaces (whole note in Sibelius)
  • Duration = 8192, spacing width = 10.56 spaces (breve in Sibelius)

As you scroll back through the list to check your entries, you’ll notice that with the exception of the reference width of 3.5 spaces, the fractional part of the numbers appears differently after the decimal point. Don’t worry, these non-rounded values are very close. Be sure to apply the changes before exiting the main Document Settings dialog. You can also Save the table  as a Library by going to File > Save Library > Music Spacing for recall at any time into another score.

The JW Note Spacing Plugin by Jari Williamsson has a setting for the above “Optical Spacing”, as well as other spacing options you can experiment with. Navigate to Downloads, and then to the section of plugins for your OS:


APPLY “FIBONACCI” (OR OTHER RATIO BASED SPACING) IN SIBELIUS


The Sibelius Note Spacing Rule has the flexibility to closely approximate Finale’s Fibonacci spacing ratio, (or any other fixed ratio such as the 1.4142 “square root of 2” ratio mentioned above.)

Start with the existing 3.5 space reference width for a quarter note (crochet). Leaving that value as is, multiply it 1.618, which yields 5.66 spaces (rounded) for the half note (minim). Multiply *that* number by 1.618 to get the rounded value for the whole note (semibreve) and so forth:
  • Duration = “short note”, spacing width = 1 spaces
  • Duration = 16th note, spacing width = 1.34 spaces
  • Duration = 8th note, spacing width = 2.16 spaces
  • Duration = quarter note, spacing width = 3.5 spaces
  • Duration = half note, spacing width = 5.66 spaces
  • Duration = whole note, spacing width = 9.16 spaces
  • Duration = breve, spacing width = 14.82 spaces

PROPORTIONAL SPACING


You may have heard the term “Proportional Spacing” related to music – this is where the space allocated to one note value is exactly half as wide as the space allocated to the next largest note value. While this isn’t generally ideal for music spacing, it is possible in either program.

In Finale, select the region and go to the Utilities menu. Select “Music Spacing > Apply Beat Spacing to Current Part / Score”. Each beat is spaced non-linearly first, then spaced within the beat linearly. (This is the equivalent to using Note Spacing and specifying a value of “2” in the “Scaling Factor” field of the Spacing Widths dialog.)

Finale also has a Time Signature Spacing option. With this option, each note is spaced linearly regardless of duration.

 In Sibelius, edit the values in House Style > Note Spacing Rule so that the ratio for each larger note is always 2:1 (e.g. double the width of each successively larger value). So, if your 16th notes (semiquavers) are 1.5, then your eighth notes (quavers) would be 3, your quarter notes (crochets) would be 6, your half notes (minims) would be 12 and so on.

Proportionally spaced music can help musicians with dyslexia.


WHAT’S MISSING?


It’s been my observation that both programs seem to do a better job of spacing music in 4/4, 3/4 or 2/4 than meters where the denominator is something other than 4. It would be nice to see both programs offer an easy, intuitive way, (and perhaps some additional controls) to get good music spacing results for any meter.

Finale’s Spacing Width Table is in need of a UI overhaul. Most people understand different note values; few understand  “Enigma Durational Units” to enter a width for a note value. One dialog with all of the values in one place would help, too.

Sibelius needs a control to prevent hidden notes / staves from being factored in music spacing. This is particularly problematic in a situation where a staff is hidden at the bottom of a score (e.g. a piano reduction) but the notes in the hidden staff are still being factored into the overall score spacing.

Do you have any comments, music spacing techniques, workarounds or issues you would like to share? Please post them here, and remember to also contact Finale or Sibelius for feature requests and bug fixes.

~robert

See also:

18 Replies to “Understanding & Improving Music Spacing in Finale and Sibelius”

  1. Perhaps this would be a different issue entirely, but in Sibelius for several versions now, I’d just like to have whole rests display in the center of the bar. They do if you leave the bar alone, of course, or if you delete existing notes out of the bar, but if you’re not using Flexi-time input and you hit the 0 key to insert a whole rest in a 4/4 bar, it shoves the rest clear to the left edge of the bar where a whole note would go. I haven’t been able to figure out if that’s a spacing issue or an engraving rules issue, but I never see professionally printed music that looks like that.

    1. Hi Justin,

      While these non-centering rests aren’t technically a music spacing issue, I agree with you that having 2 different possible orientations for a whole rest (for instance, in a bar of 4/4) seems incorrect. It’s just a matter of different workflow – skip over the bar to create the centered bar rest rather than enter it as a “real” whole rest (which is needed for showing 4 beats of rest in meters larger than 4/4, for instance).

      As long as you are in the second keypad of Sibelius, hitting the zero key will advance you into the next bar, and leave a centered bar rest. You can also use the zero key in the second keypad to convert a “real” rest to the default bar rest.

      If you are entering notes from the first keypad, you can also skip over a bar leaving the whole rest, using CNTRL-RIGHT ARROW (windows) or CMND-RIGHT ARROW (mac) to advance the cursor to the next bar.

      Finally, you can download Bob Zawalichs Replace Rests With Bar Rests Plugin. (if you are on Sibelius 7, use the Install Plugins feature). The plugin will convert all existing left aligned whole rests to centered bar rests in one shot.

      ~robert

    2. There is a difference between a “whole rest” and a “bar rest”. A whole rest, like a whole note, goes at the beginning of a bar, while a bar rest is centered. Sibelius has no way of knowing that you meant a bar rest, especially since it is only a bar rest in 4/4 or cut time.

      1. Good point, Jeff. Thank you. A “bar” rest represents a full bar of rest in any meter (essentially it can mean any number of beats), while a “whole” rest represents a specific number of beats, and Sibelius horizontally aligns it on the beat, just as it would with a whole note.

        ~robert

    1. “Thank you for posting the example attachment.

      In the “Event Spacing / Additional Padding and Fixed Offsets” section of the article, you can see one difference in the way that Finale and Sibelius handle scaling of events.

      Finale has checkboxes to avoid collisions of certain types of events, where Sibelius has a numeric entry field for the user to define (1) the space before accidentals, (2) the space around ledger lines. Sibelius also has (3) a “Minimum Distance Between Stems” setting in its Engraving Rules. While certainly not perfect either, Sibelius is able to automate the spacing of your 3 examples to taste with user adjustments to these settings. It would be great to see more of this type of spacing control in Finale.”

      ~robert

      via the Finale Forum

  2. “You can space one part in one way, another part in a second way and the score in third. Or you can space just one section of a part in a specific way. The edit scope is only the current viewed part/score and current selection.

    Just be aware if the Automatic Music Spacing setting is ON in Program Options! If you space with settings that isn’t the default for the document, you probably want to turn AMS OFF for safety.” (in Finale)

    via the Finale Forum

  3. Wow, Robert! This is some incredibly useful information. This might be a dumb question but I thought I would ask. You mentioned that plate engravers measure widths from the left side of the characters. Does it follow that Finale’s default 3.5 spaces for the quarter note is measured from the left side of the quarter note (or the bounding box thereof) to the left side of the next character (bounding box)? Thanks again and I just want to say that JARI ROCKS!

    1. Thanks, Chad. Its actually a great question.

      While I can’t answer with 100% certainty that Finale and Sibelius both measure note placement left edge to left edge, it seems to be the case.

      In Finale, set “minimum distance between items to zero”, “space before music” to be zero, and then set the reference width of the quarter note to one space. Now enter 4 quarter notes with stems up in the first empty bar immediately following a barline, followed by 4 quarter notes with stems down in the subsequent bar. You’ll note that the left edge of the notehead in the first bar touches the barline, as does the stem in the second bar. The distance between the four quarter notes each measure out at one space.

      ~robert

  4. Hi Robert,

    als always, I really enjoyed reading this cool article! Thanks a lot! I tried to find this“Minimum Distance Between Stems” setting in the Sibelius Engraving Rules. Do you know if it’s still there in the current version? It could be a real time saver… All best and many thanks!

    Nicolai


    1. Hi Nicolai

      in Sibelius 7.x and later, the “Minimum Space” settings are found in Note Spacing Rule, which is located in the House Style Group of the Appearance Tab. Hope that helps!

      ~Robert

  5. I need to have the same note spacing for all notes.
    This is particularly required to make a PowerPoint slide for church song with KOREAN lyrics.
    What’s the best way?

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