Graphic notation workflow with Sibelius and Adobe Illustrator


Listen to the podcast episode

On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman talk about how to create graphical symbols and bring them into your notation software without sacrificing quality, as well as how to create complex graphics by just using the notation tools. We also cover exporting graphics out of notation software and into other programs. Listen now:

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
Graphical notation


Editor’s note: This post was originally published in November 2017 and has since been updated with additional content.

As Sibelius has matured, it has added many powerful tools for handling all kinds of less common music notation symbols, such as feathered beams, tone clusters, and even colorful noteheads.

Sometimes, though, the only way to get a particular graphic element into a score in exactly the right way is to draw it. When I first started including graphic elements like this in my scores, I would leave blank space in my score document, print it out, and then draw shapes and contours with a Sharpie marker with as much consistency as I could. This solution is ugly, error-prone, time-intensive, and will definitely not help anyone who is performing my music from an iPad!

I’ve spoken with other composers who export a score PDF from Sibelius or Finale, import that into a drawing application, and then draw right on top of the score. This is better; but, it still has a problem if you ever want to change anything in the original file, even if only to correct a typo.

Over the last few years, I have developed a hybrid approach that makes use of Sibelius’s export and import graphic features. In this video, I demonstrate my current workflow for creating graphic elements using the basic drawing tools in Adobe Illustrator and placing them in my scores in Sibelius. As an example, I draw a pitch contour in a violin part; but, this process can work for just about anything you might want to draw in your scores.


Aside: I use Illustrator here, which is an industry standard for vector graphic editing. But if you’re put off by the price and subscription for occasional use, I’ve really enjoyed working in Affinity Designer from Serif Labs ($50, one time). While I don’t have much personal experience with Inkscape, the free, open-source vector editor, I’m told that it’s quite capable. [Editor’s note: I use Autodesk’s Graphic (formerly iDraw), at $30 — another good vector design program.]

Step by step

  • Create the score in Sibelius, leaving space for all your graphic elements. It may be useful to print your score and sketch your graphics by hand to get a feel for the amount of space you’ll need.
  • Use Home > Clipboard > Select Graphic to export a single staff where your graphic element will occur, and export that selection to an image file. I used PNG in the demonstration, but anything will work. This is just to use as a guide.
  • In Illustrator, import your Sibelius graphic using the Place tool. Lock that as your background and create a new Layer.
  • Draw your graphics as objects in the new layer. (If you’ve never used a vector editor, this may take a little practice.) Then, hide the background layer so you can see only the shapes you’ve added, not the Sibelius graphic.
  • Export your graphic in SVG format. The settings here are important: Uncheck Responsive. Sibelius fails to import SVG files that don’t have a defined width and height. Don’t worry too much about the exact dimensions, though. The width and height of SVGs are not important like they are for raster-type graphics like PNGs, JPGs, and TIFFs. Vectors can be resized in Sibelius with no penalty.
  • Back in Sibelius, use Notations > Graphics > Graphic to place your image in the staff where it belongs. Be sure to hold Shift to constrain proportions when resizing your graphics so they don’t get streched or scrunched. Depending on your graphics and surrounding score elements, you may also want to move your graphic to the front.

By creating scalable vector graphics (SVG) in Illustrator, the result is sharp and can adapt to being printed and viewed at different sizes, just like any other font element, symbol, or line in your score. And it can look like anything you want! With more performers expecting to read from screens, we’re even more free to experiment with colors and shapes to add new kinds of meaning to our scores.

Of course, in most cases, we should probably stick with more widely accepted symbols when they express the meaning we are after. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. But the next time traditional notation falls short of conveying something, consider getting a little creative.


  1. Piotr

    Thanks for these tips. I actually have been using similar technique for some contemporary scores.

    Unfortunately, Sibelius handles graphics quite poorly… not to mention objects and handles that happen to be outside the page (hence this inability to grab a handle in this video). Automatic scaling and dynamic layout with those monochromatic graphics doesn’t seem impossible to implement. Maybe checking those collisions would be a but tricky, but definitely not impossible. It’s been long on my wishlist.

    Another thing about graphics, especially high resolution color images (front page logos for example) is that they make the scores work really slow…

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading, Piotr. Good catch on my handle-grabbing problem in the video. I *almost* re-did it to fix that, but I vamped long enough talking to cover it, a skill I learned teaching class, no doubt!

      I mentioned in the video that even with the most flexible format (SVG), Sibelius has some major issues with the defaults from Illustrator. I agree, that this is problematic. I would strongly discourage any raster graphics in scores without a really good reason. For logos and front matter, I’d do all of that in a proper document creation app.

      As long as it took the team to give us a reasonably useful text engine, I’m not holding my breath for better image handling.

  2. Steven

    Going down memory lane, did anyone here try doing this (but for creative layouts), way back in the 1990s with Finale and Illustrator? I was fascinated with George Crumb back then and attempted to recreate Spiral Galaxy, (hahaha, yeah right!). Imagine this in System 7 on a mid-90s Mac! Actually my Mac Quadra 650 (with its respectable 33MHz 040 CPU), performed quite well, but I didn’t.

    The Finale people created some sort of export plugin (eps output) for Finale. I vaguely knew Illustrator. So I tried and tried and tried, then got a migraine that lasted a month and QUIT!

    Anyone around here remember when that plugin came out? I recall some people were attempting to create modern notation, but some, like me, were also attempting crazy layouts. I’m sure some succeeded, but even though I was taking an Illustrator class, I did not.



    1. David MacDonald

      Hi, Steven. Thanks for reading. I absolutely did that when I first started experimenting with EPS exports! It was always great fun to pull apart the carefully engraved vector graphics in Illustrator.

      I haven’t tried it yet, but there are some new features in Illustrator CC 2018 that might make it much easier to do a nicely curved staff. Check out the examples in the help docs for the new Puppet Warp Tool. I thought of Crumb when I first read about it, and I just haven’t got around to trying it yet.

  3. Peter Roos

    What about drawing notations (the new feature introduced in Sibelius 8.0), or do those not print out?

    1. David MacDonald

      Good question, Peter.

      There are several reasons this is significantly different. First, as you pointed out, the drawing annotations tool (note, not “notations”) is really for markup and editing, not to be shown in the score. Annotations are not shown in parts and I don’t think they copy and paste well like normal score objects (though I may be wrong). You don’t have much control over the way they look, and they’re drawn with the mouse only. Even when I use the Pencil Tool in Illustrator, my curves are smoothed out. The goal is to make something look specifically like it *wasn’t* drawn by hand. For those reasons and more, I would never use the annotation tool in Sibelius to draw anything that I wanted the performers to see.

      Thanks for reading.

  4. David Ocker

    Thank you for this. I’ve been doing similar things for some time with Inkscape and I have no complaints about Inkscape’s capabilities or price. While the power of a vector graphic is that it can be resized, I’ve found that the graphic’s margins are important. Inkscape has a command called ‘Resize Page to Content’ which shrinks the margins of the graphic to minimum. If you don’t do this the graphic’s handles will be miles away back in Sibelius. Maybe this is similar to the Artboard command you mention. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can find called Responsive (whatever that is) in Inkscape.

    I find this method super useful for adding music to footnotes or for lists of gong pitches in an instrumentation list, something short which needs to appear identically in several places. I create this additional music in a separate file exactly as I want to see it and export it as SVG graphic. Most of the time Sibelius insists on SVG margins the size of a full sheet. I reduce the margins in Inkscape and import back into my master Sibelius file. Now the footnote can be placed anywhere – usually below the bass part at the bottom of the score page set to show only in the score while another copy, set to show only in the part, can be in whichever parts actually will need that footnote.

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading, David. I think of Illustrator as the “industry standard”, and while that is changing thanks to Sketch and Affinity Designer and Inkscape, I stuck with it because it’s what I grew up on and use. I have a student working on similar things in Inkscape and it just looks foreign to me. I love your use of SVG for graphically rich footnotes! I’ll have to try that. It might also be good for things like timpani tunings or handbell sets. You’ve got me thinking about lot to try!

      The feature you’re describing about shrinking the page size is also possible in Illustrator: Object > Artboards > Fit to Artwork Bounds (Illustrator calls it an Artboard rather than a Page.) That’s a little different than the export setting tweak in terms of the overall project, but the resulting exported SVG is the same.

      Now, to the thing about “Responsive” SVG …

      — NERD ALERT!! —

      Responsive is a weird way of describing it. I didn’t get into the very geeky details in the article or video, but it comes down to SVG’s lower level format. SVG is an XML-based format for describing vectors. If you open an SVG in a text editor, it will look a lot like an HTML document, and in fact, SVG files can do really magical things on the web. Because of that, an SVG’s width and height are optional when used this way. They can be defined by the parent container on the web, and some web wonks would argue that they _should_ be defined by the parent container, not the SVG itself. Because of this, Illustrator defaults to that. However, since Sibelius is creating a fixed size score and not a responsive document, it doesn’t know how to handle this kind of flexible image size.

  5. Kai Struck

    Very nice demonstration! Thank you!
    Perhaps a little trick if you need to fine tune the graphics later on (so you don’t have to reimport and reposition by hand)
    After you imported a graphic right click on it and under “graphic”->”change link source” you can choose to link to your graphic so every time you edit and save your graphic e.g. in Illustrator or Inkscape it updates in Sibelius.
    The Sibelius Team did a very good job here because Sibelius will always keep a copy of the external linked graphic in the sib file. So even when you deleted the external graphic file it isn’t lost completely. Sibelius will tell you about the “missing” graphic when opening such a score and ask you to browse for it. If you don’t do then it will still work with the copy.
    A feature wish for Sibelius would eventually be that it could do a better Job of respecting image sizes on import.

  6. Kino Haitsma

    Hello David, thanks for this video, it is very helpful. Could you do a video on exporting Graphics from Sibelius also? I can never quite get super crisp exports of selections I make in Sibelius. When I grab a few measures and export them into for instance Word, I always get grainy staff lines and notes. I would appreciate any advice on that.
    Also, what are you using to change applications so quickly? I see this popup (at 16:35 for example)

    1. David MacDonald

      Hi Kino, thanks for watching and reading! Exporting graphics from Sibelius is pretty simple. If you use the Graphic Selection, you can go into the export options (File > Export > Graphics). You’ll get the cleanest results from an exported SVG graphic, but that might not import nicely into some applications. If you want to alter the resolution of the export, you can tweak the Dots Per Inch setting (under Size). You should probably be ok with anything around 300 or higher.

      For the application switching, I use the Mac system shortcut cmd-tab. However, in this video, I’m using an app switching utility called Contexts. It’s not doing anything here that you can’t do with the built-in app switcher, though.

      1. Kino Haitsma

        Hi David,

        many thanks!

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