Better breath marks in Sibelius


Let’s take a breath, shall we? A few weeks ago I demonstrated a better way to apply commas, or breath marks, in Finale by creating them as expressions rather than articulations.

Sibelius’s implementation of articulations and expressions is somewhat different than Finale’s. And, since in Sibelius commas are typically placed as symbols, the method described for Finale isn’t applicable. Because Sibelius’s symbols can attach to any rhythmic position in a bar, they don’t tend to get displaced horizontally in the same way that Finale’s articulations do, so improving this was never a top priority for me in same way it was in Finale.

Still, it’s one area that I was never totally satisfied with. It’s tough to place symbols such as commas consistently in Sibelius — even the Sibelius Reference says that “the disadvantage of symbols is that their IQ is not as high as that of other objects…The moral of this is: don’t use a symbol where a normal object will do equally well.”

Commas clicked into Sibelius as symbols…
…resetting position doesn’t help that much.

Fortunately, a keen blog reader had a solution. (As I’ve said before, you can learn as much on Scoring Notes by reading the comments as you can by reading the article!) Composer/engineer Tom Lynn offered this suggestion: “In Sibelius I created a line with zero width (so invisible) and the comma symbol at the end. Then you can add it to the note you want and it will automatically adjust to the duration of the note. You can fine tune the placement in the appearance/position tab.”

Brilliant! Here’s how to do it.

Create a comma as a line

Go to Notations > Lines > Edit Lines. Select the line named Line and click New…, then Yes:

Name your new line something like “Comma”. Set the line to Horizontal and the Width to 0 spaces. For the End, click Symbol and select the Comma:

Your settings should look like this:

Next, head over to Appearance > Design and Position > Default Positions > Lines. Select your newly-created Comma line from the list. We’ll want to make some adjustments, as Tom suggests. I found that setting the Vertical position relative to staff to 2.5 spaces for both score and parts and setting the Horizontal position of right hand end to -1.75 spaces right of note worked well. I left the other settings alone:

Click OK.

Now it’s time to place your line. The trick to getting consistent placement here is to make a passage selection on the note after which the comma should appear. Do this by:

Selecting the note:

Shift-click the note to get a staff passage selection:

Type L for line and select your newly-created Comma line from the gallery:

For proper placement, it is important to refrain from selecting the entire bar, and also to not simply apply the line to the note selected without making a passage selection. This way, the end of the line will appear in the correct place and not break onto the next system.

Here’s that same passage of music with the commas placed in this manner, along with an additional example on the staff below (the lines of 0 width are greyed out and will not print; to prevent them from displaying on screen, uncheck View > Invisibles > Hidden Objects):

Everything looks good in the part, too:

What’s more, you can set these lines to have a playback effect by going to Play > Interpretation > Dictionary, selecting the Staff Lines tab and choosing your Comma line, and select Adjust durations of notes under line > Adjust last note by % of written duration. Try something in the 80% range.

Thanks, Tom, for this amazing tip!

Do you have a tip you’d like to share? Let us know, and perhaps we’ll write it up in a tutorial for the benefit of all of our readers!


  1. Ehler

    Thank you for this article! This is easily my biggest beef with Sibelius as a wind player!

    1. Philip Rothman

      I’m glad that you found it useful!

  2. Jane

    This is great. Thanks.

    How can I get that symbol to appear when creating a new score? I created the symbol, tried it out, then created a new file, input a note to test and it wasn’t there. I also restarted Sibelius.


    1. Philip Rothman

      Quick way: Copy and paste the line from your existing score into your new score. Or, export the house style from your existing score and use it for your new scores.

      1. Ehler

        Speaking of, is there a batch process way to edit your manuscript papers? Every time I make an update to my house styles, I want it to apply to each manuscript.

        1. Philip Rothman

      2. Jane

        Thanks so much, Philip. I wish you could be in my office all the time so you could help me. There are so many things to learn. I really appreciate the articles that you write.


  3. Dezső Czentnár

    Thanks Philip, it is very useful!


    1. Philip Rothman


  4. Derek Williams


    1. Philip Rothman

      Glad you found it useful, Derek!

      1. Derek Williams

        Cheers Philip – just sending this reply (which you can delete if it works) to test the email notifications are back up and running.

        Thanks for following up the query so promptly!

  5. Adrian Holovaty

    This is a very clever hack, but I warn against using it for anybody who’s planning to export their scores as MusicXML.

    If you use this comma technique and export your score to MusicXML using Sibelius’ native MusicXML export, the resulting XML file will contain *no* trace of that comma. I assume this is because the technique is purely visual, not semantic. Sibelius doesn’t know the *meaning* of that comma — only that it’s a symbol that should be displayed in a particular spot.

    The third-party Dolet MusicXML exporter from fares better. At least it includes the following in the MusicXML markup (minus angle brackets):

    ?DoletSibelius Unrecognized line style line.staff.plain.user.0000001?

    But, still, that’s basically useless for any other notation product (such as my own Soundslice) that might be trying to interpret it. “OK, great, evidently there’s a line here, with the obtuse name line.staff.plain.user.0000001 — we haven’t the slightest idea what to do with that.”

    I get that many engravers use Sibelius basically like Photoshop — using it to make “pixel-perfect” scores — but, more and more, a key role of a notation program is to edit *semantics* of notation, for interoperability across programs. Clever hacks like this help reinforce the “Photoshop” role, to the detriment of the semantic role.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Adrian – thanks for warning us of this downside. Of course, there are any number of notation adjustments that won’t make their way through MusicXML, but this one is particularly worth noting since it’s such a common notation.

  6. Douwe Eisenga

    Great idea! Thanks, works wonderfull, only with system- and pagebreaks the comma ends up at the beginning of a new system / page in stead of the end of the selected bar. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong……

    1. Philip Rothman

      Follow the instructions carefully in the post, especially with regards to making a selection.

      1. Huub Leijten

        I have the same problem as Douwe. I followed the instructions carefully. (I use Sibelius 2020.12) What could be the problem?

        1. Huub Leijten

          I did find a solution, thanks to the e-book USING SIBELIUS EFFECTIVELY. I use the plug-in: .Retract line ends’..

  7. Jacky G.

    If you make the line dotted, It makes the line harder to see.

    (Just a tip to make things look good on the printer)

    1. Sam Watson

      You can also make the ‘Gap’ as big as you want (I set mine to 10) then you don’t see any dots at all. Looks even better when printing!

  8. Miki

    Yes, ok. But: what if a system interruption does fall between the two measures ?
    Will the comma stay on the upper stave ?

  9. Paul

    Very useful, thanks. I think there’s a small mistake:

    >Create a comma as a line
    >Go to Notations > Lines > Edit Lines. Select the line named Line and click Edit…, then Yes:

    Shouldn’t that be “click New…”?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Paul – Good catch! This is fixed now.

      Also for all readers: With the new 2018.1 update, this works even better on a selection, as you can apply the line to many staves at once, or make a multi-selection of notes to apply to many notes at once.

  10. Bryan Higgins

    >different than

    Copy edit: different from

  11. Eye Roller

    Gosh, that’ll really help me produce better scores! Thanks, Bryan!

  12. Lally Deboux

    I wanted to say how much I appreciate your website. Whenever I have had a question or problem, Scoring Notes has always had, by far and away, the best response and solution to it. So thank you.

  13. Doc by day Musician by night

    Sibelius also manages to mishandle Caesuras (caesurae?)… and you can use the same workaround for them.

    It’s the same process with different default positions…
    I have found Horizontal position relative to note 1.5
    and Horizontal position of right hand end -3

    produces a nice caesura, on the top line, at the end of the bar.

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