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

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 a couple of different ways to create this type of notation in Finale.

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 the JW Topline Notation plugin.

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 here: Mac | Windows


Lead / Top Line Chord Notation in Finale & Sibelius

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