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.