Sibelius : No time signature, no bar lines

A few days ago a composer contacted me to ask how to create a score which did not show either time signatures or bar lines in Sibelius.

Sibelius ships with a plugin called “Draw Free Rhythm Barline” which is designed to address this. The plugin is a great tool; however, for this particular situation, I found myself wanting to realize as much as possible by hand, since the graphical tweaks were so numerous and specialized.

A little back-story: During the 1960’s and 1970’s, composers started to write music in so-called free-rhythm; that is to say, with no time signature and no bar lines. What happened in practice is that musicians, to keep track of where they were, were adding bar lines here and there with pencils as visual markups.

(I actually am not sure when exactly some composers started to write music without barlines / time signature. I am aware of some Renaissance music which looks a lot like Modern works, but then I found a sample from 1889-90 by Erik Satie, Gnossiennes; my music samples would be the first line of Gnossienne 1 and then an excerpt from Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto).


Eventually, even before the era of music notation software (and the particular constraints software put on music notation) many composers came back to the practice of reintegrated both time signature and bar lines.

While bar lines provide an aid to the musicians for location and time, the audience should never be aware that they are having an effect on the performance; they should only be aware of the flow of the musical phrases. Time signatures and bar lines are merely visual structural markers to help the musician interpret the shape of the musical phrase (just look at how they came into existence).

My approach is to create the score initially with time signatures that follow the phraseological ideas and then, only, start to tweak the score graphically.


After the music has been laid out within the constraints of regular time signatures, I reorganize the music across these bar lines. In a work for solo harp (*would change to cello, as for the excerpt), for instance, there won’t be many rhythmic spacing issues, e.g. between staves. However, full scores can be quite another matter – you might have one instrument playing a 5:8 tuplet in the space of X beats and another playing a 7:6 tuplet in the space of Y beats, and furthermore, these don’t always start and stop at the same points.

Equidistant measure widths can help you create proper looking “containers” for these disparate durations.  For more information on creating true equidistant measure widths in Sibelius, see this tutorial.

The nature of equidistant notation is that some systems will look more widely spaced than others because of the density of the music. For non-metered music, a solution is to create system breaks at custom points so that no individual system appears to have to many or too few events.

We can use the Split Bars feature in Sibelius for this. Choose a split point mid-bar at the end of a system so that it breaks to the new system.  First, select the notes that you want to move to the new system,  then go to Home > Bars > Split, checking ‘add system break at split’ and change the barline at the split point to ‘normal’ (I’ll cover this in a moment).

Once you are satisfied with the general layout of your score, the next step is to hide the bar lines. Go to Appearance > Engraving Rules (⌘+⇧+E on Mac, Ctrl+Shift+E on PC) > Barlines and, from here, changing the ‘Default Barline Type’ to Invisible. Press OK and return to your score.


This causes all non-edited bar lines to be hidden. Note that if you have the View > Invisibles > Hidden Objects checked, you will still see these in light gray.  These Hidden Objects will not print, but this feature will help you locate these bar lines quickly in the future if you would like to show any of them or otherwise edit them.

The next step is to hide the Time Signatures. But there is a problem. If we just select and hide them (⌘+⇧+H on Mac, Ctrl+Shift+H on PC), we will be left with an unnatural gap before the first note of that bar, potentially ruining our carefully constructed design.

So, we actually need to delete the time signatures one by one and then re-space. Before doing this, you can type in some reminder text and hide it, which will serve as a placeholder for where these meter changes occurred originally, in case you need to edit anything later. Alternatively, instead of hidden text, you can use Comments to create non-printing meter location markers.

To delete a Time Signature, select it, then press Backspace (⌫) When the dialog pop-up asks you if you want to rewrite the following bars up to the next time signature (using the previous time signature), be sure to specify ’No’.


Now everything will be done. One word of caution, though – be aware of ‘empty bars’ as these do not provide a confirmation message when you change their meter.

This was a rather simple example all in 4/4 meter. At the end of the document you’ll find the same procedure for the Lutoslawski excerpt, if you think it is more interesting. Copyright for the Satie are Edition Peters, No. 9620, 1986. Plate E.P. 13380 (even though it is a public domain piece), while for the Lutoslawski it is published by Chester Music and I own the original copy of the score.

Of course, the non-metered “container” for note entry could be created in advance as one huge bar which the “Draw Free Rhythm Barline” plugin will subdivide, but in practice, it’s hard to know in advance how many actual total beats there will be in the score.  In addition, the music at certain points might contain an odd / different number beats, or the notes displayed might be based on a different denominator (8th, 16th or triplets etc), for instance.,

Furthermore, the composer may hand off music to his / her engraver a few pages at a time, in separate sheets, so the system for entry and editing must remain extremely flexible.

In summary, even though the appearance of the final score is without meter and bar lines, all music notation software is constrained by the program’s design and by mathematical rules (or “mathemusical” rules, if I may). Every object must be attached to whatever “grid” the software is designed to display notation within.  By definition, this implies bar lines, even if they are hidden.

So, to composers I suggest: Sibelius is amazing software which continues to impress me with its capabilities, but regardless of the music notation software you use, advance planning before entering your score into the computer will translate to greater efficiency, particularly for this scenario where the rhythmic component is complex or unconventional.

I hope this article is of help. To your successful music notation, everyone!

Michele Galvagno


Step 1: Basic note entry (virtual time signature calculation according to beam structure)


Step 2: Cancel Time Signatures and Reset Note Spacing (Appearance > Reset Notes ; ⇧+⌘+N (Mac), Ctrl+Shift+N (Win)


Step 3: Make Bar Lines Invisible


Final Considerations:

I could have written all the first line in ⁷⁹⁄₃₂ and the second in ⁵⁄₄ or the whole two lines in ¹¹⁹⁄₃₂ managing the beaming issue after, but I found it somehow simpler to do it this way and in any case more logical from a musical standpoint.

Michele Galvagno is a freelance music engraver and professional cellist whose main focus is contemporary music. Mr. Galvagno engraves music for number of living composers. LinkedIn

4 Replies to “Sibelius : No time signature, no bar lines”

  1. Very nice writeup! I had the feeling that you used the same kind of preplanning for the article that you describe doing for the unmeasured scores, so that when it was written, everything fell into its proper place.

    Quite a satisfying result!

  2. Thanks Bob for your nice comment!
    Such an honor to receive a feedback from you!

    Thanks for all your amazing creations with Sibelius!

  3. With regard to removing meter signatures, these don’t need to be done one-by-one. I typically delete them all by selecting the entire score (or the area of in it which I want to meter signatures to appear) and using the Advanced Filter to filter for Text–>Time Signatures. Using backspace at this point removes all meter signatures and respaces notes to avoid the gap at the front end of the bar.

    On the flip side, I can’t believe I’d never thought to change the default barline type for scores where I don’t want bar lines! Great tip.

  4. Thanks Scott for your advice! I have overlooked this option!
    Maybe just because when music gets very complicated and scores very big, removing everything together could cause the design to shift dramatically (if not properly locked beforehand, of course!)

    Thanks for your advice, anyway! :)
    All the best

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