Better bar numbers in parts in Sibelius


It is a well-established convention that bar numbers appear on every bar in film, session, theatre, and studio music, with good reason. No one likes wasting time counting “101, 102, 103, 104” to find their entrance when precious seconds are ticking.

Moreover, especially in theatre music, cuts or inserts can lead to non-sequential numbering (listen to our podcast guest Emily Grishman talk all about that), so having the numbers on every bar isn’t just a convenience, it’s a necessity.

The problem

Why don’t we often see bar numbers in concert music, you might ask? Generally, that music is less apt to be sight-read for the first time in rehearsal — players often have their music days or weeks in advance, and is instead rehearsed over a longer period of time, so wayfinding is less of the pressure cooker it can be in other contexts. Concert music is also more frequently published for sale and engraved for posterity — and what engraver wants to contend with bar numbers on every bar disrupting an otherwise beautiful display of pitches and rhythms?

It’s a problem encountered numerous times when you need to measure up to setting a high bar. (Last intentional pun-filled sentence, promise. Sorry.)

Seriously, though: Even if you’ve discovered the setting in Sibelius to display numbers on every bar in the parts, you’re left with positioning options ranging from bad to mediocre. Let’s fix this in Sibelius, once and for all.

The solution

Before we fix the problem, let’s review that aforementioned setting.

Set bar numbers on every bar

As a Scoring Notes reader, you may already be familiar with the settings in Appearance > Engraving Rules > Bar Numbers. The following settings will get you to the point where you have a bar number appearing below the staff, on every bar, and also number multirests, for good measure (ack, that was unintentional):

You might tweak these settings depending on your house style and font choices, but let’s establish this as the minimum needed to get Sibelius to display bar numbers on every bar.

Unfortunately, you wind up with undesirable results like this:

Magnetic Layout — a curse and blessing

What’s so bad, you might ask? After all, there aren’t any collisions, because Sibelius is using Magnetic Layout to repel items from one other.

But look at how far away the numbers appear on the first two systems. Sibelius is moving 93 and 98 away from the ties, but is also moving the other bar numbers on the system away as well, resulting it them being too far away from the staff.

Bar 117 compounds the issue. The number is moved because Sibelius is aligning it with the position of 114 earlier in the system, and then that results in the sfz being unacceptably far away from the notes.

What’s happening here?

The clue is in Layout > Magnetic Layout > Magnetic Layout Options — Sibelius’ “brain” for how to determine which way objects are scattered when they get in each other’s way.

As far as I can tell, all Sibelius default styles come with these settings in the Bar number section:

I won’t make a long post longer by describing every single setting. But until recently I settled for unchecking Grouped bar numbers to try to remedy the problem.

Taking that step led to this result:

And yes, that arguably looks worse, although at least I started with all the bar numbers in horizontal alignment. The best I could do — or so I thought — was to manually scoot any colliding bar numbers to safety. That takes time, and I was always missing one or two in each part.

Ah — but there was something I had overlooked. In the Grouped Objects area, what if I told Sibelius not to group bar numbers at all but just let each one do its thing? From there, the rest of the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.

After a lot of experimenting with settings, I settled on these values:

What’s different here from Sibelius’s defaults?

  • Grouped Objects > Group similar objects in primary group is unchecked, as just mentioned.
  • There are very generous values for Avoid collisions by moving (spaces) for Up and Down, which allow the number to steer clear of tied chords such as in bar 114, but a much smaller value for Left, which will nudge the bar number to the left of a clef or a note without straying too far. Right is disabled entirely.
  • Minimum distance around object (spaces) > Right is slightly adjusted to tighten things up a bit where needed.

The results

How does it look?

Oh, yes, better bar numbers indeed! All automatically!

Let’s select the bar numbers to see where Magnetic Layout has moved them from their default positions. The greyed out number is the default position and the purple number is the result:

You can see the ways, both obvious and subtle, where we are putting Magnetic Layout to work for us. We just needed to tell it what to do.

Now, there may still be instances where some adjustments are required. But I’ve been working with these settings for several weeks, and I’m not going back.

You may have to adjust your settings somewhat to account for your font and style choices, but this is the basic concept. Special thanks to my trusted colleague Joseph Trefler for helping test these out and to all the users who have suggested this!

Get this and much more in Scoring Express

The Scoring Express suite of templates, plug-ins, fonts, and more debuted recently in Chamber, Jazz, and Theatre & Studio flavors. These premium collections are based on the same templates I use in my professional work at NYC Music Services, and if I’m updating my own templates with these new bar number settings, then they must go into Scoring Express, too!

And that’s exactly what we’ve done, along with a few other new features, now released as version 1.2 of Scoring Express, where all of these custom settings are automatically set in the templates, manuscript papers, and house styles, so you can just get going with them in a new score, or import them into an existing file to instantly beautify your music and make it look as good as it sounds.

Pick up the Scoring Express templates for all of this and lots more.

While you’re at it, please sign up for our next live webinar: Monday, March 1, 2021, at 2:00 pm, where we’ll talk about all of the recent Scoring Express updates and leave some more time for Q&A. Registration is free, whether you’re a Scoring Express user or simply curious about all the fuss. Hope to see you then!


  1. Derek Williams

    Great job, Philip!

    Back in the day, from Sibelius 6, if I recall correctly, Magnetic Layout was a game changer in the time it saved me from fixing collisions, and I soon discovered how to turn it off for individual objects. What I had never realised, and you have now so patiently and painstakingly investigated for us, is how preferences could be set to refine this further.

    Now you’ve brought this to our attention, I can see several other objects in your Magnetic Layout Options screenshot that no doubt could benefit from a tweak or two.


  2. Tiago

    Great article Philip.
    It worked like charm.

    Thanks a lot.

  3. Bernie Cossentino

    Most excellent, Philip :)

  4. Philip Rothman

    Thanks, everyone! Glad you found it useful.

  5. Waldbaer

    These Magnetic Layout options are great and even Dorico does not give as many options there. But as long as I have a choice, I’ll never take the subscription… but I always appreciate your updates and tricks anyway, so thank you for this interesting tutorial!

  6. Andy Fielding

    Nice! Bar numbers are indeed helpful in rehearsal. The challenge is making them easy to see without adding clutter to the score. I think you’ve succeeded doing that here.

    That said, I—and most of the musicians with whom I’ve worked—find serif chord symbols considerably easier to read than sans-serif. Serifs aren’t just a holdover from older letting styles; they help distinguish characters from each other, making it easier for the unconscious mind to recognize them on-the-fly. It’s especially true on-screen, where even the best displays have far lower resolution than printed pages, requiring our brains to do more work connecting the dots (literally). Cheers!

  7. Vladimir

    These bar number settings, along with the slurs from the other article, should probably be made default in some next version of Sibelius.

  8. Cho

    Thank you so much

  9. Guzmán

    Thanks for your post!
    For some reason I can’t get any decimal values in the bar number settings. Sibelius automatically converts the number before closing it. If I type “0.5”, Sibelius changes it to “5”. I’m using a spanish keyboard. This doesn’t happen when I change the font size. Is there any way to solve this?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Philip Rothman

      It’s true; Sibelius can only do point sizes in .5 increments.

  10. Michael Cooney

    What font are you using for these numbers? I love how thin it is.

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