Finale: Understanding Expression Positioning

Expression Positioning in Finale

I used Finale for years knowing that there were all sorts of options in the Expression Designer for how the Expression should get positioned, but without necessarily understanding what all the different terms meant, or how they would actually affect the resulting position of the Expression. Looking at dropdown menus like these tended to make my eyes glaze over:

I have come to appreciate the power of understanding how these settings work and setting them properly. The more things naturally pop into the places I want them to by default, the less time I spend adjusting them by hand later!

Horizontal Alignment

First, it is important to understand that all positional settings relate to the “handle” of the Expression, indicated by a small square when the Expression Tool is selected. Text will extend to the left or right of the handle depending on the Justification setting. The handle also represents the baseline of the text. In cases where an expression takes up more than one line of text, the handle is the baseline of the top line.

Once you’ve chosen the appropriate justification setting, you get to choose how the handle itself relates to the music. You can, of course, have the handle simply anchor to your click position. It is more useful to have the Expression relate to either notes or the measure.

Attaching to notes

After the option to use your click position, the first several options offer positions relative to notes. Finale gives you option the option of aligning to the left or center of either ALL noteheads or only the PRIMARY notehead(s), meaning noteheads that are on the “correct” side of the stem (when there are 2nds in the music, one or more noteheads will need to be moved to the opposite side of the stem). The only option for aligning to the right of a notehead is to choose “Right of All Noteheads.” You can also align with the stem. The following figure summarizes these different options for aligning to notes:

Attaching to measures

The remaining options in the Horizontal Alignment dropdown menu relate to features in the current measure. You can align to either the left or right barlines. You can also align to the left edge of the Time Signature, which is the correct placement for tempo markings. You can also align to the right edge of all non-music information that would occur at the beginning of a measure: Clef, time signature, key signature, and Forward Repeats (which would occur after those other entries). The “Start of Music” option means the left edge of the first note or rest in the measure (unless it the measure consists of a whole-measure rest, which is centered in the measure). Finally there are options for having the expression centered in the measure, either between the barlines, or centered on the music itself (defined by the “Start of Music” point and just to the left of the right barline). These last two are best used in conjunction with setting justification to center. The following figure summarizes these different options for aligning to elements of a measure:

No matter what you choose as your alignment point, you can also then set an additional offset: Positive numbers move the expression to the right, negative numbers move it to the left.

Vertical Alignment

Even more than with Horizontal Alignment, some of the options that go into vertical positioning can bear some explaining.

The first Vertical Alignment option after using the click position is “Staff Reference Line.” What, you may ask, is the Staff Reference Line? It is simply the topmost line of a standard 5-line staff! It should be noted that this is a fixed point, and in fact it is the only vertical alignment option that is not dependent on some other variable!

The next potentially confusing options are “Above Staff Baseline” and “Below Staff Baseline.” For years I misunderstood these options as either being above or below some mystical entity called the “Staff Baseline,” but this is wrong! In fact, the Expression Tool has two independently adjustable lines, one above the staff and one below (I think I would have figured this out sooner if MakeMusic had used hyphens, as in “Above-Staff Baseline” and “Below-Staff Baseline”). You can choose which one you want to adjust by choosing it from the Expression Menu:

These Above/Below Staff Baselines can be dragged up and down using Positioning Triangles similar to those found in the Lyric and Chord tools (quick recap: The leftmost triangle sets the basic position, the next adjusts it for the current staff, the next adjusts it for the current system, and the fourth one isn’t particularly useful!). In the bottom left of the display you can see an indication of the settings of these triangles, as measured from the middle staff line. I have my measurement units set to “Spaces” (a habit I picked up from Sibelius), so here you can see that the position of the Above Staff Baseline is 6 spaces above that middle line:

The default settings for these baselines is 6 spaces above or below the middle staff line, respectively.

You can choose to align to the top or bottom note in a chord, in which case the handle lines up with the center of the notehead at the top or bottom of the chord.

You can also choose to align to “Above Entry” or “Below Entry.” In these cases the handle aligns with the highest or lowest drawn element of the note in question. For example, if the stem is going down then the highest element is going to be the notehead of the highest note, and an Expression set to “Above Entry” will be aligned with the highest point on that notehead. On the other hand, with the stem going down the lowest point will be the end of the stem, so an Expression set to “Below Entry” will have its handle aligned with the endpoint of the stem. This is more easily visualized than explained, so note the relation of the following expressions (or more specifically, their handles) to the noteheads and stems:


Finally, there are two options that provide a powerful combination of “Above/Below Staff Baseline” and “Above/Below Entry,” each with its own additional offset. Using “Above Staff Baseline or Entry” means that an Expression will use the Above Staff Baseline plus the Additional Baseline Offset setting, unless using the Additional Entry Offset results in the Expression being higher, in which case those settings take over. In other words, it will use whichever setting is highest, moving the Expression up and out of the way when your music creeps above the staff.

Exploring the Defaults

Armed with (hopefully) a better understanding of how the various Vertical Alignment settings work, let’s take a brief look how Finale’s default settings for some of the Expression categories are set up, and how they work in the real world.

The Technique Text and Expressive Text categories are both set up to be 2/3 of a space closer to the staff than the corresponding “Staff Baseline,” with an additional entry offset of 1.5 spaces. Here are the defaults for Technique Text:

Expressive Text is the exact opposite:

Let’s look at how these settings interact with real notes. In the second system of examples, the dotted lines indicate the Baseline+Offset setting, so you can see how the position changes once notes are added.

Once you understand how the system works, you can start making intelligent decisions on how to tweak them to taste. For example, just in looking at the screenshot above, I might start by slightly lowering the “Additional Baseline Offset” of Technique Text so it is closer to the staff. I might also play with the “Additional Entry Offset” values for Expressive Text (increase it so it’s not so tight) and for Dynamics (decrease it so there isn’t such a large gap, and so that they will line up with Expressive Text).

Jacob Winkler is the Artistic Director of the Seattle Girls Choir, and an instructor in Finale and Sibelius for the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program. He is frequently engaged as a choral singer for film and game soundtracks, including the Halo, Assassin’s Creed, and World of Warcraft series. LinkedIn

4 Replies to “Finale: Understanding Expression Positioning”

  1. Thanks for posting this article, this was very helpful! However, it does demonstrate a fundamental flaw in Finale’s software architecture. For piano, harp, organ (or any grand staff instrument) dynamics (f, mf, etc.) and written dynamics (cresc., etc.) should be placed roughly in between the treble and bass clef staves. For vocal/choral lines, the dynamics belong above the staff and should adjust upward as needed to avoid running into lyrics. While instrumental lines should have their dynamics below the staff and adjust down as needed.

    The only way to manage these 3 different positioning requirements, using Finale’s current architecture, is to make 3 different categories of dynamics because Finale can’t intelligently distinguish which type of staff the dynamics are being attached to.

    When writing for symphonies and choruses, this issue becomes overwhelmingly taxing on efficiency. This post is super-helpful in explaining how Finale thinks about Expression positioning but we really need MakeMusic to improve its software architecture to make these features useful in a practical sense. Thanks again for the article!

  2. Hi!

    Thank you for a great blog!

    I was wondering if you could address in which order different elements in a score should be placed: Dynamics/Articulation/Tuplets/Technique text and so on?

    Kind regards,


  3. Son of a bitch, man! I have been using Finale since ver 1.0, and I NEVER understood this. You are right about how helpful the modest, little hyphen can be. Thank you so much.

    BTW, for me the offset is measured in inches, not spaces.

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