Faking special stems in Sibelius

While working on a recent project I was faced with the challenge of recreating two varieties of custom stems. While Sibelius does offer a set of custom stems as symbols, the fact that these can not be attached to notes makes it difficult to work with them in practice. If there a lot of them in use, each one needs to be manually placed and, should anything change in the formatting, they easily slide around and need to constantly be checked. Plus the particular symbols I needed for this piece were not available.


The first type of stem basically has an “s” through it to signify a kind of exaggerated pitch fluctuation/vibrato. Here is a sample from the original manuscript:


Turning to the Sibelius forum, I found a post by user Jeremy Hughes suggesting replacing the “z” (buzz roll) symbol on the keypad to achieve a note-attached stem symbol. In this case, it worked well. In the symbols edit window I simply replaced the “z” (which I wouldn’t need for this score) with an “s”. This came from the ‘1st and 2nd endings’ symbol set.

I found it useful to copy the ‘1st and 2nd endings’ text style and make the font size a little bit smaller. Depending on the exact symbol you need, you may need to experiment with the symbol positioning to make sure it is where you want it for both up and down stems.


Replacing the “z” symbol
Replacing the “z” symbol


My new slightly smaller text style for the “s“.
My new slightly smaller text style for the “s“.

Now whenever you need that stem, you can just select the 6 on the third keypad and your new symbol will cross the stem and stay attached to and move with the note. Here it is in use:


That was a great start and a big help, but didn’t really offer an option for the second type of stem.

The tremolo symbol is note-attached and could theoretically also be replaced in the same manner but I needed to use it elsewhere in this particular score.

The second custom stem I needed is a diamond shape that the composer uses to signify a certain type of “half-harmonic“ playing style for strings. Here it is in the original manuscript:


It occurred to me that I might be able to fake the symbols using a diamond notehead placed on the stem at the desired position.

The actual diamond notehead is a bit oblong and didn’t center on the stem. But I did find that symbol 43 in the “special notepads etc.” group could work well.

Again I copied the text style for this group and made a version in a smaller font. Then I created a new symbol using the small version:


Then in the notehead edit window, I created a new type using this symbol. You may notice I only needed to replace the quarter note symbol for my needs. Also, I found a horizontal offset of .69 spaces centered the symbol on the stem as desired. Obviously I didn’t want the notes to playback or display accidentals. Transposition was not relevant since this was a concert score with all non-transposing instruments. Originally I also set leger lines and stems not to display. We will see in a minute that this was counter-intuitively not correct.


Now in order to use this new notehead, I just had to enter notes at the desired vertical position.

In this case I decided to try to emulate the manuscript but you could also choose a fixed interval depending on your needs. A 4th or 5th would have also produced good results. Here is what that measure looks like now:


Now just select the notes you added and change them to the newly created notehead type


and you get this result:

As you can see, there are two small problems. On the 6th note group of the measure the stem and leger line are missing. This is why it is important to have these display with the new notehead that you create. When your new symbol/note is the top of a chord the other notes inherit its properties.

This is also why the next (7th) note has a leger line that is not needed. The new symbol inherits the properties of the top note in the “chord”. For such cases (which were fortunately rare), I created a “normal“ notehead with leger lines deselected:


Select the top note of the affected chord (in this case the A) and change it to the normal notehead without leger lines. This is then inherited by the other notes in the chord (including the diamond symbol). Here is what the final measure looks like:


These are the steps I used to recreate a specific situation but they shouldn’t be too much different for any type of stem you want to create. Since you can import graphics into the symbol list, you are not even limited to the symbols that Sibelius provides. You can then use text styles (or scale an imported graphic) to adjust the size for your needs. The offset settings in the notehead edit window allow you to find the best horizontal placement and where you choose to add the extra notes allows you to define the vertical position.

This is a bit of a complex work-around but if you have a lot of custom stems it will save considerable time and effort to have them stay put and move with the notes they are attached to.

Excerpts from “Aus Kindertagen: verloren” by Iris ter Schiphorst used with the kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes, Bote & Bock.

2 Replies to “Faking special stems in Sibelius”

  1. Great post! I find the idea of reusing bits of existing features when you are not enable to create new ones fascinating. There was a post Robert did a while back on making up new lines and you can modify clefs and articulations by replacing symbols.

    It is a clever way to get make you need. Kind of like making a gourmet meal out of leftovers!

  2. Thanks for the comment. And especially thanks for all of the work you have done for Sibelius users! I can’t count how many cumulative hours of work your plug-ins have saved me over the years.

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