Sibelius techniques for aleatoric music


Editor’s note: The author of this article, Neil Radisch, first published a version of it on his web site. He kindly allowed Scoring Notes to re-publish it.

Below are a collection of techniques useful for creating aleatoric music in Sibelius. Some are less commonly used Sibelius features, while others are hacks to stretch Sibelius beyond its originally intended use.


Hiding/changing barline for an entire system

Unlike many Sibelius elements which can be hidden using Home > Hide or Show > Hide or Show (Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-H), barlines are hidden by changing the barline type. Select the barline then use Notation > Barlines > Invisible to make the barline invisible. As of Sibelius 2018.1 you can select multiple barlines at once, and as of 2018.4 you can make a passage selection to operate on multiple barlines.

This can be restored to the normal default by selecting the barlines and pressing Delete. You can instead optionally change the barlines to Notation > Barlines > Normal, which in most respects is similar to restoring to the default normal barline, but in certain cases behaves differently.

Doing these actions will affect the barline for an entire system.

Hiding/changing barline for a single staff

There are situations, however, where you may want to hide the barline just for a single staff. To do this, you first have to create a new version of the instrument assigned to the staff. The instrument should be identical in every way except without barlines.

In the above example, the second staff is “Violin II”. We will create “Violin IIhb” which is identical but has hidden barlines.

Open the Home > Instruments dialog.

Find the instrument that is currently attached to the staff. In this case I selected Ensembles > Orchestral Instruments then Families in ensemble > Strings then Instruments in Family > Violin II.

Select New Instrument… . You will be asked if you want to create a new instrument based on “Violin II”. Respond Yes. You will then see the New Instrument dialog.

Change the Name in dialogs field to “Violin IIhb” (or whatever you want). This is the name that will appear in future dialogs. Leave the other Name fields as they are.

In the Notations Options area of the dialog, select Edit Staff Type… . You will now see the Staff Type dialog.

In the Barlines area of the dialog, deselect Barlines. Then click OK.

Click OK on the New Instrument dialog, but leave the Edit Instruments dialog up.

Find the new Violin IIhb instrument in the Instruments not in family area of the Edit Instruments dialog. Select it and click Add to Family.

You now have a “Violin II” instrument that does not have barlines. This instrument can be used wherever you want invisible barlines, and it will not affect the other instruments in the system. Use the Home > Change command to change instruments.

If we start with this:

Then we select the bars around which we do not want barlines.

Execute the command Home > Instruments > Change. You will see the Instrument Change dialog. Find the “Violin IIhb” instrument previously created and select it. You’ll now see something messy like this on the screen.

Select the unwanted text elements and hide them via Home > Hide or Show > Hide or Show (Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-H). The text will disappear leaving this.

Note that the second violin bar is missing its barline in the area we highlighted. You may still see the hidden elements in light grey. By default Sibelius will grey out hidden elements instead of hiding them so you can still click them. It does not affect printing. You can see a more WYSIWYG representation by deselecting View > Invisibles > Hidden Objects.

The same technique, using the built-in instrument “No instrument (hidden)”, lets you create cutaway scores.

Note Stems

Hiding note stems

Select the notes, then Notations > Noteheads > Type > Stemless (Alt-Shift-8)


Hiding noteheads

Select the notes, then Notations > Noteheads > Type > Headless (Alt-Shift-7)


Moving and angling note beams

The height and angle of note beams can be adjusted by dragging. Click on the leftmost side of the beam and you’ll get a handle that allows you to adjust the height by dragging. Click on the rightmost side of the beam and you will get a handle that allows you to adjust the angle.



While this is of limited use on its own, this feature is useful when working with cross staff notes. We can select notes on a staff and use Note Input > Cross-staff Notes > Above (Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-Up Arrow) to move the notes to the staff above, or Note Input > Cross-staff Notes > Below (Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-Down Arrow) to move the notes to the staff below. Then the beam can be dragged to improve the appearance of the bar (and the upper staff rest is hidden by selecting and hiding it with Home > Hide or Show > Hide or Show.


Feathered beaming

Feathered beams are accessible via the third panel on the Keypad.

Select the first note in the beam group, then apply the feathered beam command from the keypad. All the notes in the beam group must be of the same duration for this to work. (Editor’s note: See this Scoring Notes post for more tips on how to use feathered beams in Sibelius.)


Built-in shapes


Boxes are technically Lines in Sibelius. First select the notes you wish to box. Then pick Notations > Lines > Box. You will see a single line with a handle over the notes. Drag this handle down to expand the line into a box. You can also move the entire box by selecting an edge and dragging.

Thick line

While there are many different types of lines in the Notations > Lines menu, a thick line doesn’t exist and needs to be created. To create a thick line, bring up the Edit Lines dialog by selecting the dialog launcher button from Notations > Lines.

Find the existing line symbol (about 15 down) and select it. Click the New… button. You will be asked if you want to create a new line based on “Line”. Click Yes. You will now see the Line dialog.

In the Line area of the dialog, change the Width from 0.16 to 1. Then select OK and then Close on the prior dialog. The Notations > Lines gallery will now have a new element called “Line (2)” which is your thick line. You can rename this “Thick line” or anything that you wish. It can be inserted, moved and resized as any other staff object.

This technique can be used to make assorted other custom lines like thick dotted lines, or large arrows.

Composite symbols

Often the necessary notational symbols are already available in Sibelius, and just need to be combined. In this example I created a bracketed repeat by attaching the repeat symbol Notations > Symbols > Repeat bar, left bracket Notations > Lines > Vertical bracket 2 and right bracket Notations > Lines > Vertical bracket to a hidden note. The symbols are positioned with Layout > Magnetic Layout > Object turned Off. (Editor’s note: See this Scoring Notes post, which in turn references a video tutorial on how to create composite symbols in Sibelius.)

Extra symbols via Unicode

In addition to the text and symbols normally available in Sibelius text objects (expression text, technique text, etc.), Unicode symbols can also be used anywhere you can enter text. Two symbols I’ve used are the “infinity” symbol, and the “double tilde”.

In the above example, both the infinity sign and the double tilde were entered as Technique text. The double tilde font size was enlarged and the symbol moved (with Magnetic Layout off) to position it on the stem.

On the PC, the infinity symbol can be typed by holding down the Alt key while typing 236 on the numeric keypad (not the top row of numerals). The double tilde is typed by holding down the Alt key while typing 247 on the numeric keypad.

The technique for entering Unicode code points varies from system to system. On a PC, Sibelius will only allow you to enter Unicode values that correspond to symbols in the current input code page (see below for further explanation). The text system inside Sibelius, however, seems to be capable of handling any Unicode code points, so it’s possible to copy and paste values from other programs.

The website is useful for the copy and paste technique. The site lets you browse the entire Unicode character space and copy characters to the clipboard for pasting into Sibelius.

In this example, I attached Hebrew letters to notes using this system.

Windows also has a program called Character Map which is located on the Start menu under the “Windows Accessories” category. This program allows you to browse all the font glyphs that are available on your system. It also provides a copy mechanism for pasting into Sibelius. (Editor’s note: PopChar is a good commercial product for PC and Mac that can help with this task.)

Unicode tech-y stuff

Unicode characters (also known as code points) are multibyte values that allow for the representation of over a million different characters. There are two problems that arise when working with Unicode values, one of display and one of entry.

On the display side, a code point can only appear on the screen if the display font has a glyph for that code point. Due to the vast number of code points, not all fonts will have glyphs for all code points. If the font in use does not have a glyph for the code point, you will either get a blank or a square box. In this case, selecting a different font may remedy the problem.

On the input side, you need a method for entering code points. The entry mechanism will likely vary from application to application. Windows has a mechanism that provides access to a subset of the code points from the keyboard (the aforementioned Alt+236 and Alt+247 for infinity and tilde). These code pages are selected based on the language your computer is using. The currently active code page can be found by opening a command prompt and issuing the command “chcp” (mine is 437). For more information on the code pages and the characters immediately available, see

Importing graphics

Importing graphics is the ultimate notational Swiss Army knife. When all else fails, you can draw it and import it. Sibelius allows you to resize and rotate imported graphics, making it an effective mechanism for more involved notation issues.

The key to getting attractive imported graphics is to use a vector graphics program that creates SVG files. Vector graphics will rotate and scale inside Sibelius without becoming jagged or pixelated. There are many free and commercial programs that create vector graphics. My favorite free application is Inkscape.

In this example I started by creating a sine wave shape in Inkscape, saved it as “triple curve.svg”.

Then I select the notes where I’d like the curve and import it via File > Graphic. When it first appears it will likely be poorly positioned and the wrong size.

The selection box surrounding the graphic has handles which allow you to resize, position, and rotate the graphic. The handles along the edge resize the graphic. The round handle in the middle (hard to see) allows you to move the graphic. The square handle just above the center allows you to rotate the graphic. Use the handles to position and size the graphic as appropriate. (Editor’s note: See this Scoring Notes post for a detailed tutorial on graphic notation workflow with Sibelius and Adobe Illustrator.)

Free-form note placement

It’s possible to lay out notes without regard to a time signature. The general technique here is to think in terms of the physical layout, based on a hypothetical rhythm or time signature. Then use various Sibelius tools for altering the notes visually.

There are a few rules of thumb that I’ve found useful when doing free form note layout.

  1. Since laying out notes in this fashion is primarily a visual construct, you’ll get better results if you work in one of the page view modes instead of Panorama mode.
  2. Though somewhat more tedious, horizontal movement of notes using the X offset in the Inspector is more reliable than simply dragging the note. Dragging the note often causes unwanted movement in the surrounding notes.
  3. Hidden time signatures, notes, and rests are your friends.

Example 1: A single staff with a bunch of notes

If your music is comprised of only a single staff, then layout is somewhat easier. You needn’t worry that positioning tricks will affect the other staves. Let’s look at how you could construct this:

This segment of music spans the width of the page, has no time signature and no barline.

Since the music consists only of filled black noteheads, you can pretend that you are dealing with quarter notes, add it all up, and start with a time signature of 23/4. Set the time signature of the bar to 23/4, then enter the notes (as quarter notes) and the rests. You should have something that looks like this:

Select the barline between the 23/4 and 4/4 measure and pick Layout > System Break. This will force the 23/4 measure to span the system (width of the page).

Make the barline at the end of the 23/4 invisible (Notations > Barline > Invisible).

Select the time signatures and hide them (Home > Hide or Show > Hide or Show or Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-H).

Make all the notes stemless by selecting the measure and Notations > Type > Noteheads > Stemless or Alt-Shift-8.

Add the parenthesis to the relevant noteheads (Keypad page 2).

Your music should now look like this:

The notehead positioning is close, but not exactly what we want. The first and last notes should be closer to the edges. The first run of noteheads should be more spread out. The final run should be closer together. In this single staff case you can try and do some of the horizontal positioning by dragging notes, but you may find that unexpected things happen to surrounding noteheads. Often dragging a notehead does not move it, but moves the neighboring noteheads instead. Though somewhat tedious, using the X offset in the Inspector dialog gives reliable and expected results.

Finally, add the other assorted objects (dynamics, slurs, hairpins etc.). Some of these may have to be positioned manually since applying X offset values to noteheads causes some problems with the ornament positioning.

Example 2: Free form notes against a strict rhythm

If you consider this from a physical layout perspective, the stop staff in the first bar is similar to a septuplet. The second bar, a nonuplet. That is exactly what we’ll do. Enter the notes as septuplets and nonuplets, then hide the unnecessary visual elements.

We start like this:

Select the tuplet symbols and hide them via Home > Hide or Show > Hide or Show or Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-H.

Set the notes to stemless (Notations > Type > Noteheads > Stemless), and add the boxes (Notations > Lines > Box).

Example 3: Multiple staves with free form notes

The strategy here is to take the maximum “beats” across all staves and use that as the time signature (which we then hide). If we think of the noteheads as quarter notes, the bottom staff can be thought of as having 31 beats, so we’ll use 31/4 as our hidden time signature.

While the Inspector dialog is good for fine tuning the spacing, the more coarse spacing is better done with hidden objects. Consider the third and fourth saves. In the third staff, the seventh notehead roughly spans eight noteheads in the corresponding position on the fourth staff. This layout can be achieved by following the third staff note with seven rests (or notes), which are then hidden.

Before hiding elements and making fine adjustments, the layout might look something like this:

As a larger example of what can be done in Sibelius, here is a piece of my own called “Semiotics”.



  1. Galvagno Michele

    Great tutorial!
    Watch out, though: in the first section, if you change the type of the barline to normal after having changed it to invisible you will not restore its type but overwrite it, possibly causing a lot of head-scratching in case of multi-rests and so on.


  2. Andrei

    Excellent and most helpful! Thank you Neil and Philip!!!

  3. Stephen Begley

    Great tips! Thank you, Neil. However, if you want an irregular length measure – say 73/32 – it is quicker to use the barlines features than to calculate the time signature. Enter your notes in the regular time signature then decide the position of the first and last barline; select the note just after where the new barline should be then HOME/BARS/SPLIT and BARLINE AT SPLIT > NORMAL. Then, select all the notes in the passage you want in the new irregular time signature and HOME/BARS/JOIN. The Merge bars dialog will open; select NONE from the drop down list and hit OK. The new passage will appear without time signatures before or after so you may have to play with the time signatures if you want to restore one after the new merged measure or delete the odd measure immediately after the new merged measure and also, play with the bar numbers if you are including them. This method takes the work out of trying to calculate the irregular time signature, which – if it is in a ten minute cadenza – can be something of a head-scratcher!

    If you then combine this with Bob Zawalich’s Note Spacing plug in you might then respace the irregular measure alone by applying ‘Proportional Spacing’ and ‘Apply preset to selection’: this measure can then be marked in (seconds) duration and if your orginal notes were metrical in design, the result will adjust accordingly taking into account any tuplets along the way. The rest of the score would be in regular rhythmic sapcing.

    There’s always a bit of playing around with these techniques and sometimes the results are not quite what you would expect but there is often more than one way to skin a cat.

  4. Peter Cumpanas

    Sehr geehrte Damen und Herrn,
    ich schätze sehr das Sibelius Notenschreibprogramm aber was mir sehr zu schaffen macht ist die Tatsache das fast Alles in der Englischer-Sprache erklärt wird und die Vorzeige Videos sowieso.
    Man bekommt immer Neuigkeiten aber leider in Englisch, da denke ich manchmal: warum habe ich mir das Avid-Sibelius Programm gekauft. Es gibt viele Musiker die kein Englisch können.
    Ich hoffe das sie dieses Problem lösen werden dann bin ich überzeugt das Ihr Prestige steigen wird!
    Viele, viele Musiker werden dankbar sein.
    In Respekt und Freundlichen Grüßen,
    Peter Cumpanas

  5. Andrei

    Herr Cumpanas,
    Sibelius ist auch auf Deutsch erhältlich. Einige Tutorial Videos sind möglicherweise nur in Englisch, aber es gibt mehr Englisch als Deutsch Sprecher in der Welt. Viel Glück!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *