String Numbers for Notes on Notation Staves in Sibelius

Some educational materials color or mark the strings on which notes appear for a stringed instrument. This document describes how string numbering can be used with plugins in Sibelius scores.

For notation staves there is no user indication as to which strings a note is assigned. Plugins can access string number for notes, but only if the notes had been copied to a Tablature (Tab) staff and copied back.

Tablature Staves

Tab staves are designed to show which string a note is on, since each line represents a string. Sibelius provides plugin support to tell which string number is used in Tab staves. Each such note has a string number (StringNum, starting at 0, which is the string with the lowest pitch). A Tab staff also has a mechanism to return the number of strings in the instrument, and the sounding pitch of each open string. This lets a plugin determine the Tab number of a note, should that need arise, since it is not available directly.

Notation Staves

This section only applies to stringed or fretted instruments, excluding percussion instruments, voices, keyboards, brass, woodwinds, etc.

You may have tried running plugins like Color Notes on String, and nothing happened. The plugin dialog explains what you need to do to have the plugin work, but here is a more detailed explanation. A fair amount of setup is required to make a notation staff support string numbering.

String Numbers

When you input notes to a notation staff, they are given the string number -1, which means “unknown”. However, if you paste notes from a Tab staff to a notation staff, and File > Preferences > Note Input >Remember fingering when copying to a notation staff is checked, the notes in the notation staff will retain the string information from the Tab staff, and take them along if you paste these notes elsewhere.

This works great if you copy elsewhere in the same instrument, but it can cause problems if you paste notes with string numbers from a notation staff to a staff for a different instrument (like guitar to mandolin) or to the same instrument with a different tuning. The original string numbers from the notation staff are retained in such a paste, and they will be wrong.

This is actually not a problem unless you paste the notes into a Tab staff where the strings are set to different pitches, or if a plugin relies on the string number.

If you transpose notes with string numbers in a notation staff, either with the arrow keys or with Note Input > Transpose, the string numbers are reset to -1, which I suppose is better than keeping the previous, likely incorrect, string numbers. If you need access to the correct string numbers you will need to update those notes.

Pasting from a Tab staff is the only mechanism by which a user can get string numbers onto a notation staff. The string numbers are thus only valid with reference to the Tab staff where they originated. A plugin cannot write to the StringNum field, so for it to change a string number it would have to delete the note and add a new note with the same properties but a different string number.

Pitches for the Open Strings

Only Tab staves have a mechanism for returning the pitch for each string. However, there is an interesting workaround for this. Since Sibelius 6, Home>Edit>Instrument has provided a field called Tab instrument to use for string tunings, and this has been accessible to plugins since version 7 (the InstrumentType field InstrumentTypeForChordDiagrams). If your notation staff has a correct Tab instrument set up, a plugin in Sib 7 or later can access the pitches and number of strings from that instrument.

There are problems with this workaround. By default, most instruments are set to Acoustic Guitar, standard tuning (no rhythms)[tab] for the tab staff. This is fine for a guitar in standard tuning, but a guitar tuned to DADGAD will get the same, but incorrect, Tab staff. Mandolins, banjos, and bass guitars will have appropriate default Tab instruments, but they may not match the desired tuning, so you should check. Violin family instruments also use Acoustic Guitar, which is totally inappropriate. (Pianos and vocals and most other instruments this makes no sense for also use Acoustic guitar).

A user can change the associated Tab instrument, though a plugin cannot. The list in the Edit Instrument dialog contains all the Tab instruments defined in the score, and if there is not a suitable choice, you can create such an instrument, and it will then appear in the list. You could then add it into a House Style or Manuscript Paper to access the instrument in other scores. You can use a Mandolin Tab staff for a Violin, and a Bass Guitar for a Contrabass, because they typically have the same number of strings tuned the same way. You will need to make something up for a cello or viola, though.

Preparing a Notation Staff to Use String Numbering Plugins

A notation staff needs to have 2 things done to it:

  1. In Edit>Instrument choose a Tab instrument that has the correct number of strings and the same pitches on each string as your desired instrument.
  2. Assign a string number to each note in the notation staff.

Here are the steps to accomplish this:

  1. Enable File > Preferences > Note Input >Remember fingering when copying to a notation staff
  2. Make a passage selection of your staff. Go to Home>Instruments>Edit Instrument and choose a Tab instrument that has the same number of strings and same open string pitches as your instrument. Use Mandolin Tab for a Violin, and a Bass Guitar for a Contrabass or other 4-string bass. If there is no appropriate Tab staff for your instrument, as with a viola or cello, create a new Tab staff and then assign it to your staff.For a viola, create a new instrument based on a mandolin Tab (Find the Mandolin tab instrument in European Guitars). Rename it and change the pitches to C3 G3 D4 A4.
    For a cello, create a new instrument based on a mandolin Tab (Find the Mandolin tab instrument in European Guitars). Rename it and change the pitches to C2 G2 D3 A3.
  3. Create a temporary Tab instrument using the Tab staff you just chose.
  4. Select any notes that you want to contain string numbers, use Home >Edit>Filter Notes and Chords, then copy those notes and paste them to the new Tab staff. You may want to adjust the parameters in File > Preferences > Note Input > Guitar Tab Fingering to get the notes closer to your desired string assignments.
  5. Adjust the string choices for notes in the Tab staff by selecting a number and dragging it up or down to a different string, or use the up and down arrows to do this.
  6. Select all the notes you want to copy back to the original staff, and paste them to the original staff.
  7. Delete the temporary Tab staff.

This can be a fair bit of setup. In the end, you have to decide if the amount of setup required is worth the benefits of the plugin, and that depends on how much work the plugin would save you compared to the setup time.

Plugins I have written that that use string numbers

These process notation or Tab staves. They only process notes that have StringNumber set up, and do not need the fret position on the string or the number of strings, so they do not require an associated Tab staff:

  • Filter Notes By String (Filter and Find)
  • Colored Noteheads on String (part of Colored Notehead Styles) (Color)

This plugin processes notation staves. It will only process notes that have StringNumber set up, and notation staves must have a valid associated Tab instrument. This requires Sibelius 7.1.3 or later:

  • Color Notes On Strings

These all work only with Tab staves, which need no setup:

  • Fix Tab Collisions (Guitar)
  • Fix Banjo Tab Collisions (Banjo)
  • Banjo Play Fretted 5th String (Banjo)
  • Circle Tab Half Whole (guitar)


I hope that this information will make working with the string numbering plugins more successful, if not less tedious.

Plugin developer note: How to specify string numbers

In ManuScript, the StringNum field is set up so that 0 is the lowest pitched string. For a standard-tuned guitar, the numbers are E-0, A-1, D-2, G-3, B-4, E’-5. In the real world, most instruments number the *highest* string as 1, (E-6, A-5, D-4, G-3, B-2, E’-1) and if you want to have the highest string be string 1, you need to know the number of strings in the instrument (available through the associated Tab staff for a notation staff) so you can map StringNum to your displayed string number. Here is how I have dealt with this in different plugins:

  • Filter Notes By String: String 1 is the highest string. The user specifies the number of strings in the dialog. This means it will only be correct if all selected instruments have the same number of strings. Once you have filtered the notes, the Go To plugin has a “selected objects” option which will let you browse through the selected notes.
  • Colored Noteheads on String: Strings are described as “lowest, 2nd lowest, 3rd lowest”, etc., effectively calling string 1 the lowest, but avoiding actual numbers.
  • Color Notes On Strings: Originally string 1 was defined as the lowest string. I reworked it to use the associated Tab instrument to provide the number of strings, so now string 1 is the highest string. This allows me to recalculate on the fly if there is an instrument change or a selection contains multiple instruments with different numbers of strings. This is only possible in Sib 7 or later.

If you have access to a Tab staff that matches a notation staff, you can find the number of strings in the instrument and the sounding pitch for each open string. Knowing this, a plugin can determine which fret (or equivalent position for non-fretted instruments) a note is on. It can subtract the pitch of the open string from the sounding pitch of a note, and get the distance in semitones, which is the fret number for an instrument with semitone frets.

This will not work for quartertones, or for instruments like the mountain dulcimer, which has a diatonic fretboard, and the 5-string banjo has to be treated specially as well to deal with the 5th string. But for guitars and mandolins, and even violins, for example, this works very well.


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