Note Spacing in Finale & Sibelius : Matching Music In Print

Q: While I was reading your article about note spacing in Sibelius and Finale, an interesting idea came to mind: Do you think it is possible to recreate the exact note spacing of a certain publisher from a printed page or pdf file in Sibelius?

A: Great question! I assume you are referring to punctuation (the word used to describe the horizontal spacing between music characters).

Note spacing, or punctuation,  works in tandem with the physical layout of measures on the systems / pages, which is historically referred to as “Casting Off”.

For starters, it’s worth noting that duplicating a publisher’s *exact* horizontal music spacing (punctuation) involves more than consistent numerical settings. This is partly because there have been so many different types of processes for engraving music over the years:

  1. Punched on plate
  2. Lithograph
  3. Autographed (drawn)
  4. Stamping
  5. Photomechanical
  6. Music Typewriter
  7. Acetate and Rub-off sheets
  8. Computer

…and partly because punctuation, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily an exact science, and can fall into three basic categories:

  1. Mathematically perfect
  2. Mathematically imperfect
  3. Lyrical

In addition, other factors besides notes can affect note spacing. For instance, accidentals, note flags, articulations, material in other voices etc …

However, in spite of the variations which are inherent in all of the above  processes and categories, it should be possible to closely approximate the punctuation (horizontal spacing) of a particular published piece in either Sibelius or Finale by taking some measurements and setting up your software to duplicate these.

Note that you can  even apply different rules to different sections of a score to increase or decrease spacing widths, or approximate the “mathematically imperfect” and “lyrical” punctuation categories above, or address a specific concern where some circumstance requires a special consideration. More on that in a moment…

People often refer to “Proportional Spacing” for music. True proportional spacing means that mathematically, the space after a half note is twice the space following a quarter note, and the quarter note has twice the amount of space allocated to an eighth note. While this is a great way to begin to visualize how larger note values get more space allocated to them,  in practice, (with a few exceptions) the music can get extremely spread out this way, so music notation is not typically spaced “truly proportionally”.

Rather than a 2:1 ratio for successively longer note values (e.g. a half note gets twice as much space allocated to it as a quarter note), if you were to take sample measurement widths for the note spacing in an engraved music publication to obtain an approximate “scaling” or “ratio” for all note value widths, you would probably find it to be something closer to 1.5 to 1. (by way of example, when not using width tables for spacing, Finale uses a default “scaling” setting of 1.6179 to 1)

To further complicate the matter, the width allocated for increasingly smaller or larger note durations in published works is not necessarily the same mathematical ratio – for instance, the space allocated for a half note might be approx. 1.6 x wider than for a quarter note, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a whole note gets 1.6 x more space than the half note. That is to say, the width ratios between notes of different duration can be different.

Both Finale and Sibelius provide a way to enter different widths for specific note values which don’t necessarily have to be a fixed scaling ratio.

Historically, plate engravers would choose a specific note value as the “base width” for each system of music, depending on that system’s note density. For instance, a common “base width” for a quarter note might be 3.5 spaces, and the other larger or smaller note values would be some percentage of that base width. If a particular passage were more dense, then the “base width” could be narrowed to accommodate the additional note activity; for instance, the quarter note might become 3 spaces, with all associated durations decreasing proportionately in width.

While computer software can be very rigid in its interpretation of “rules” by comparison, a process to duplicate a particular publisher’s “note spacing look” would be to take precise measurements of the width (space) between various note values in your example piece, then enter equivalent values into Sibelius’ Note Spacing Rule dialog or in Finale’s Music Spacing Width Table.

From a technical standpoint, to match an existing publisher’s punctuation (note spacing) accurately, you may need at least a few variations of the Note Spacing Rule (Sibelius) or Music Spacing Width Table (Finale) in order to match passages of different note density.

Note (and rest) widths are historically measured to / from the left edge of the note or rest characters.

One really great thing about *both* Finale and Sibelius is their ability to punctuate (horizontally space) different sections of the same piece differently (this is possible since note spacing in both programs is not a dynamic process – note spacing settings can be updated as needed during a session and applied to a region as small as a single measure at any time by the user).

To account for note density and other factors, you can increase or decrease spacing width for a particular selected region in Sibelius very quickly by selecting the region and typing Alt-Shift Right Arrow or Left Arrow (Option-Shift-Right Arrow or Left Arrow on Mac) to increase or decrease note spacing.

Any edits you make to the Note Spacing Rule are saved as part of the House Style, which can then be imported into a new document (or again later into the same document).

You can also change and recall settings for the Note Spacing Rule dialog with the excellent (and free) Note Spacing plugin by Bob Zawalich (requires Sibelius 7), which has the added advantage of being able to save multiple presets for virtually any note spacing scenario.

In Finale, Music Spacing is a Library item, so you can save as many variations of note spacing as you want and recall them into your score. This allows you to load different spacing width tables into your score on a system by system basis, or as needed. The settings only apply to music you respace after loading the library so you can respace any system differently which you need to.

Finale ships with 5 preset music spacing libraries you can load in to try out.

I also recommend you download Jari Williamsson’s handy (and free) JW Note Spacing plugin. While this plugin doesn’t allow you to create and save your own presets, it does include all Finale’s preset spacing libraries, or equivalents, as well as a few others.

One obvious caveat – if your original published source was engraved prior to any type of computer software, there will be, by definition, very subtle variations bar to bar which are a natural component of hand engraving, and which are not something the computer software can do without manually overriding the automated note spacing in some way.

Other minor issues that you may grapple with are special case scenarios – for instance, extra space given to an accidental under certain circumstances, etc.

To get an accurate read of the note spacing settings used by the publisher, you may need to take several measurements of each note durations’ spacing across several systems of different note density  and use the one(s) most commonly found, or average them.

For more in-depth information on the Sibelius Note Spacing dialog and Finale’s Spacing Tables, please see “Understanding and Improving Music Spacing in Finale and Sibelius“.

for Nicolai Pfeffer

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