Getting the most from Sibelius: Part 4

In this series of blog posts I’m looking at a tool which millions of music students and professionals use every day: Sibelius.

I’m going to show you how to get the best results from Sibelius when using it for your degree work by looking at where Sibelius’s default settings don’t always produce the best results, and what changes we can make to improve the clarity and presentation of our scores. I will also be mentioning a lot of time-saving keyboard shortcuts, which once memorised will dramatically improve your Sibelius workflow.

I’m generally going to be referring to Sibelius 8, the most recent version, as it’s what most new users will encounter. I will sometimes mention previous versions, when there is a substantial different in functionality, so if you’re using Sibelius 6 or 7 you should still be able to apply most of this content.

The first three posts covered the basics of the programme through to working with large, complicated scores.

I’m going to continue the series with several posts dealing with advanced techniques and non-standard notation. This post deals with issues of spacing in complex scores.

Part 4: Advanced Techniques 1 – Spacing
Spacing Complex Music

Under the default settings Sibelius treats bars of varying density very differently. This means that when writing relatively simple music we simply don’t have to worry about spacing at all. When our scores become more complicated, however, a greater amount of control is required over the way Sibelius lays out our music.

Take for example this passage for flute and piano:

Sibelius has spaced this to give as much room as possible to each note, but in doing so has arranged the regular crotchets in the piano RH in a visually ugly and performatively unintuitive way, and generally distorted the rhythmic relationships within the extract.

We can force Sibelius to space the music regularly by adjusting the note spacing settings. These can be found at the left of the “Appearance” tab. If we make the widths of the note values directly proportionate to their duration (as in the example below), and leave everything else as it is, Sibelius will space the music (almost) exactly as it sounds, while leaving space for accidentals and other objects. By doing this we can be sure that rhythmic relationships will be visually preserved, even when the score deals with multiple simultaneous musical layers.

This substantially improves the layout of our extract. The music now looks much more like how it sounds, but is still completely legible.

The score is still not absolutely proportional: we can make it so by reducing all margins and spacers to zero. However, this makes ugly collisions much more likely and is of questionable benefit, unless mathematical regularity really is a necessity for your score (as it occasionally is).

This is only one example, but it’s worth investigating the possibilities of these spacing options as they can make a big difference to how easy it is for a performer or examiner to recognise the processes and structures within your score.

Controlling Extra Noteheads:

Staying with the theme of spacing, contemporary music often requires extra noteheads which don’t fall into the rhythmic structure of the bar. These can be bracketed trill pitches, multiphonic pitches, sounding pitches for harmonics, or various other things. These don’t traditionally fall into the standard rhythmic grid, and as such require a different approach.

Extract from Arcosolia by Sadie Harrison (Copyright University of York Music Press)

There are two ways of entering this notation into Sibelius. The quicker and simpler way (in the short term) is to use the built-in grace-note entry in the second panel of the keypad. By default these notes appear in front of the note they are attached to, but you can override this using the Inspector panel: select the grace-note and click “Inspector”, which is at the far right of the “home” tab.

By changing the X co-ordinate at the top of the inspector panel you can set the horizontal position of the grace-note to above or after the not it’s attached to. You can also attach grace notes to rests (which can then be hidden if needed).

The downside of this system is that as you add more objects to the score the changed position tends to reset or wander as the spacing of the bar changes. If your score only includes one or two moments where you need to do this, then the ease of the grace-note system may well be worth the instability.

On the other hand, if your score requires many extra pitches, and you don’t want to spend hours correcting their wandering positions, it’s worth using the second, more stable option. This involves adding the pitches to another voice – Sibelius supports up to four voices per staff, available through the 1-4 buttons at the bottom of the keypad. Sibelius orders these voices with 1 and 3 as ‘upper’ voices and 2 and 4 as ‘lower’. This means they will work better if voice 1 is the highest written pitch. Using multiple voices creates extra rests. You will need to hide these by selecting them and pressing ctrl-shift-H or simply delete.

In this example I’ve used the voices system for the first note in each bar, and the grace-note system for the second. I’ve used voice 1 for the bracketed pitches and voice 2 for the notes they refer to, as voice 2’s default stem direction is down (you can reverse this for upward stems).

In the first bar the notes are simultaneous, in the second I’ve displaced the bracketed pitch by a semiquaver. To achieve the small, bracketed notehead I’ve used the “stemless” notehead option available from the “Type” menu in the “Notations” tab, the bracketed option from the second panel of the keypad, and the “cue-sized” tickbox in the Inspector panel.

As you can see, the brackets are the same width for both pitches in the chord, which looks a little odd. Sadly there’s no way around this without creating loads (and I mean loads) of extra work for yourself.

Some spacing issues are best resolved by using a time signature different from the one that appears in the score. To find out how, stay tuned for my next post: Time Signature Trickery.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah Johnson 1 December 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you very much for this excellent series of blog posts. They have been especially timely for me as I’m currently preparing the final score of my project composition (Music 3) for assessment. Your illustrations and advice are exceptionally clear and easy to follow and the presentation is really interesting.. Much appreciated and highly recommended! – Deborah


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