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)


If you work as a music engraver, once in awhile, you may be asked to “center” whole notes in the bar. While neither Finale or Sibelius offer a specific feature to achieve this type of spacing, there are certainly examples of this traditional music engraving practice from more than one publisher.

As noted by Elaine Gould above, there is a basic caveat: When there are other durations in other parts, the single duration is placed at the beginning of the bar as normal. So, this technique can’t be used in score situations where there are different rhythms at the same location in the score. The start point of semi-breves (whole notes) must be in line with the other shorter notes sounding concurrently at the downbeat of the bar. It is only when these bar-length notes appear by themselves that this centering  is considered to be aesthetically pleasing.

Modern scores no longer adhere to a “centered notes of bar-length duration” practice. Perhaps for readability, the benefits of consistent symbol placement outweighs the older plate engraver aesthetic.

But enough about that. The fact remains that sometimes, this house style look is required. Fortunately, if you are ever asked to do this, it’s pretty simple to achieve in both Finale and Sibelius. Here’s how:


In Sibelius 6 or 7, you can use modified settings in the Note Spacing Rule. In this case, we won’t use the regular “note spacings” values in the Note Spacing Rule at all; set the values for specific durations all to zero, and then, set the “minimum space around noteheads (including dots)” to around half of the bar width you want to wind up with. You’ll also want to set the values of “minimum space after start of bar” and “minimum space before end of bar” to zero, so that these numbers don’t add additional “padding” to the bar’s width.

For instance, setting the “minimum space around noteheads (including dots)” value to “4 spaces” will produce a bar width quite close to the default whole note or default whole bar rest; 4 spaces on each side of the notehead, plus the width of the semi-breve (whole note) notehead itself:

Note that while ideally, you want zero values for each of the note durations above, it isn’t actually possible to enter all zero values in the Note Spacing Rule dialog, since Sibelius requires that each successive note value be longer; throwing up an error message that prevents you from using these settings. To get around this, enter the smallest possible widths Sibelius will allow in increasing value –  .10, .13, .16, .19, .22, .31 spaces (from 16th note to double whole note).**

Tip: Export a house style with your current score / note spacing rule settings, then modify the Note Spacing Rule and save your “centered” note spacing rule as part of a second house style so you can quickly recall this custom spacing rule in the future.

Breves (double whole notes) in 4/2 time, dotted half notes in 3/4 time,  dotted quarters in 3/8 time etc. can also be set to “center” using the same idea; there is a slight perceptual difference with stemmed notes, but keep in mind it is the notehead which is being centered. Basically, you’ll will want the “minimum space around noteheads (including dots)” value to be less if the bar-length duration is 3/8 than for 4/4.

No extra space is allowed for accidentals; none is needed (unless the bar is extremely compressed).

For the proper aesthetic, you may want these bar-length duration notes just left of center. For additional horizontal control, once the bar-length duration notes are centered, you can optionally use the X properties of the Properties Palette (called the Inspector in Sibelius 7) to offset the notes left of center to taste.

**9/10/12 : Sibelius 7 users may soon be able to take advantage of automating this process with a new Note Spacing plugin by Bob Zawalich. An additional advantage of using the plugin is that it will not prevent you from entering zero duration values as shown in the settings above.  I will post more info as available.


Finale users who own the full version of TGTools have a very quick solution. Select the bar length duration notes with Mass Edit, then use the “Modify > Shift…” plugin to center the selected notes:

If you don’t own TGTools, use the following technique:

  1. Select the whole note measures with Measure Tool.
  2. Double-click to bring up the Measure Attributes dialog.
  3. Check and add “Extra Space : at Beginning” – a value somewhat less than half the measure width usually gives a good result.

This takes a little bit of trial and error, but you should easily find the right value to center the notes within the measure. For the proper aesthetic, you may want these bar-length duration notes just left of center.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it.

~ robert

2 Replies to “Archaic Techniques : Note Spacing : Centering Notes of Bar-Length Duration”

  1. Thanks for this tutorial! Exactly what i was looking for.

    Do you know how to implement this in Sibelius 8? After copying the formular it shows
    an error-message saying I have to make sure that the spacing increases with larger note

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Martin,

      I just tried the note spacing rule dialog settings above with v8 and get the same result. I haven’t tested this yet in a real setting, but there is a workaround which is to use very small values that increment in the note spacing rule. Starting with “short notes”, I just tried 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, 0.4 spaces etc for the successively larger note values. The results won’t be strictly accurate, but the difference of a 10th of a space should not create issues for most cases. Hope that helps!


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