Using tone clusters in Sibelius


Tone clusters, also called note clusters, or just clusters, are a shorthand notation for several adjacent notes played at once. Groups of notes like this can be difficult to read, and in many cases specific pitches are not required.

In this comprehensive post, we’ll discuss many different ways to represent tone clusters in a notated score, and how to achieve those results in Sibelius.

There are accompanying Sibelius scores in Sibelius 7 format that include all the examples shown, and from which you can copy any of the examples into your scores so you can investigate their behavior. The names of custom objects used in this document refer to definitions of custom objects in those scores.

Clusters in Sibelius

Sibelius can represent clusters in several ways, each of which has issues that can make them awkward to use. Here are some examples of clusters represented by different objects.


In most cases clusters will not play back. To play back, put hidden notes in an unused voice at the same location as the clusters, or add an extra staff to contain the notes and then hide that staff. For this document I am assuming that any cluster made of notes will be silenced by selecting the notes, going to the Inspector, and, in the Inspector properties, in Playback, unchecking Play on pass or by using a special notehead, and playback will be handled separately.


In some cases you can insert notes with hidden noteheads to provide stems, flags, dots, and accidentals, and overlay symbols, lines, or text over the invisible noteheads. You can instead add separate symbols for accidentals and other parts, or create composite symbols that include other symbols, which will keep the symbol’s parts together as layout changes.

Accidentals can be placed at various locations on a cluster, and you may need to create your own sets of symbols if you need specific and reproducible accidental positioning.

Precise and approximate pitches

The use of clusters rather than groups of noteheads already adds some degree of approximation. When the top and bottom pitches are specified, accidentals are often included, and ledger lines shown.

Rectangles without noteheads are usually less precise, and may be positioned anywhere on or off the staff, to provide rhythmic information rather than pitches.

Half and whole Notes (hollow noteheads)

When using lines, symbols, and certain noteheads, hollow shapes can be harder to find than solid ones.

Stability when score formatting changes

Except for some clusters made of noteheads on a single staff, all the clusters described below will be affected when bars change size or when spacing between staves changes. You should either try to wait until the score layout is stable before adding clusters, or expect to update them. Be aware that clusters in parts will likely format differently from the main score, and you will need to check all parts that contain clusters.

Copying clusters from the sample document

If you open the accompanying Sibelius data score, you can copy clusters and then paste them into your score. (You must use Home > Clipboard > Copy (Ctrl/Command+C) to copy and click and Home > Clipboard > Paste (Ctrl/Command+V), rather than Alt+click to paste into a different score.) Pasted clusters will retain the size and positioning of the original cluster if you select a note or bar before pasting. Magnetic layout is turned off for clusters in the data score.

Sizing clusters

Once defined, the size of noteheads and symbols will not change.

  • If you insert symbols from the Symbols menu using More Options, you will have to option to make the symbol Normal, Cue size, Grace note size, or Cue grace note size.
  • Text clusters can be resized by changing the font size.
  • SVG graphics can be dragged to any desired size.
  • Lines can be dragged to any length or adjusted in the Inspector.
  • Box lines, used for white rectangles, can be dragged to change width or length or both, or adjusted in the Inspector.

To set the height of a line in the Inspector, first set the bottom position in the End: Y field. In this example, the line starts one staff line below the middle staff line, which would show up as 0 in the Inspector. Now set the Y field to be one space for each note. In the example, the line is 6 noteheads high (from -1 to 5 spaces).

To set the width of a box line in the Inspector, adjust the End: X field until the box has the desired width (in spaces).

Positioning clusters

If you are not copying from another score, clusters will be inserted at the horizontal (X) and vertical (Y) positions specified by their definition and the values used in Appearance > Design and Position > Default Positions. The vertical position is typically related to a staff line, so most will start above the staff and will need to be moved to the desired position. If you create custom line styles, text styles, or symbols you can adjust the horizontal or vertical positions to minimize the amount of repositioning required.

Categories of clusters

I will discuss three types of clusters and various ways to implement them in Sibelius.

  • Henry Cowell type
  • Rectangles
  • Arbitrary graphical shapes

Henry Cowell-style clusters

Henry Cowell specified the top and bottom pitches of clusters with noteheads. If actual notes are used they can provide accidentals. If symbols are used, add separate accidental symbols. Here are some examples of Cowell-style clusters:

Implementing Cowell clusters

There are different implementations for each note duration. Clusters can generally be written across staves by extending the separator stems or lines across the staves.

Cowell-style – using notes

Cowell-style, quarter notes stemless noteheads

Use stemless notes in the same voice and add a thick vertical line. You must define a custom thick line (0.4 space width Vertical line thick used here). Zoom in to place line with Layout > Magnetic Layout off.

Cowell-style, flagged notes

One notehead is stemless, the other has a stem. 2 voices; hide rests and add a thick centered vertical line, zoom in to place the line. You must define a custom thick line (0.4 space width Vertical line thick was used here) with Layout > Magnetic Layout off.

Cowell-style, half notes

Same staff: use different voices (1 and 3 here), drag stems down and up, and hide rests (you could also use a single voice and add a vertical line for one of the stems).

Two staves: notes are in the same voice. Drag stems down and up. Fix the stems if staff separation changes.

Cowell-style, whole notes

Notes are in the same voice and add two vertical lines. Turn Magnetic Layout off if it’s easier. Lines will not adjust if the pitch changes or bar width changes.

Cowell-style, narrow range

Put a line, in this example a custom Vertical line thick, to the left of the notes. If there are accidentals, the bar goes between the accidentals and chord. Drag accidentals carefully to the left or use Shift+Alt+Left Arrow to make room before the note. Do not use Appearance > Position > Reset Position later.

Cowell-style, using symbols

These are standard Sibelius symbols from the Clusters group. They are not exactly Cowell-style, but they are close. Sibelius provides one symbol for each interval between a 3rd and a 9th. Position these manually, or display rests and select the rest before pasting or creating a symbol.

These are composite symbols built from Round notehead symbols and Cluster lines, which can be stacked to make taller clusters. You can find these symbols defined in the accompanying Sibelius score and copy them to your scores.

These are Cowell-style clusters from the Clusters group in the Symbol table, in a score that uses the Norfolk house style, or uses the font Norfolk Special Extras Std as the Music font for Special symbols (extra) by going to Notations > Symbols > Edit Symbols > Music Fonts…  These will not be visible if the font is not installed. 

You cannot create a new music font that uses this font to “mix and match” these symbols with symbols from other fonts, due to limitations in the way third-party fonts are handled, but if you are using Norfolk fonts, these will be the available cluster symbols.

Rectangular clusters

Clusters made of custom square noteheads

Custom notehead symbols (Square Cluster Notehead Black, Square Cluster Notehead White) were made slightly larger (using a modified Music Font) than the default Shaped note 6 square notehead to avoid gaps between notes stacked vertically. A notehead style was then built using those symbols. You can build chords with these noteheads.

These custom noteheads work quite well for black notes, but are not as good for white, due to top and bottom borders on each notehead. Even for white notes, though, these can be useful if you want to show specific pitches.

Noteheads provide flexibility and easy playback control. Note that the stem will be in the middle if they are 2-wide.

Rectangular clusters using symbols

These are fixed size, though there are four size options for symbols in the More Options dialog for Notations > Symbol. (Access this dialog by clicking More Options at the very bottom of the Symbol gallery.) The available sizes are all smaller than the Normal size, though. Sometimes it is worth creating the symbols larger than usual to take advantage of the available smaller sizes.

  • The first 2 rectangles below are taken from the font Norfolk Harp Standard (March 28, 2019 version or later). They will not appear if that font is not installed. You may be able to find similar shapes in other fonts or create symbols from SVG graphics files. (The white rectangle is the hardest to find.)
  • The 3rd symbol is a composite made of stacked Sibelius On rim symbols.
  • The 4th symbol is the Sibelius Tenor Drum symbol, which is not quite the desired size, but which may still work.
  • The final symbols are single and stacked Sibelius Cluster symbols.

Composite symbols can be created by combining existing symbols in Notations > Symbol > Edit Symbol, so here are some rectangles with added vertical line symbols added to rectangles. Symbols and most lines cannot be flipped, and you need separate up and down versions.

Cluster custom noteheads from black and white Norfolk Harp rectangular symbols

These are notehead styles that use the black and white Norfolk Harp rectangular symbols as symbols for notehead styles. The advantage of doing this is that you can access stems and flags easily.

The symbols as defined are centered compared to the stem so they work both as both up stem and down stem, but you will often need to adjust the stem length. The examples below are unadjusted.

These are silent and show no ledger lines so they can be used outside the staff. There is only a single notehead, so it does not work well with dotted notes or multiple ties (see last example).

These are, however, stable when the layout changes.

Clusters made from lines

This series of tips is thanks to Jeremy Hughes.

Lines are by far the easiest objects to adjust for height, and the fixed-width black line is very easy to use, since its width will not change. Black rectangles are custom black vertical lines. Set the line width to 1.25 spaces, and in Default Positions set the horizontal position to .63 spaces. Cluster line black is used in the example score.

In the Inspector set the height to be 1 space per note. To adjust the height or width in the Inspector follow the instructions given in the section Sizing Clusters above in this document.

White rectangles are custom Box lines; the example score uses Cluster line white (box). The border width is set to 0.19 spaces, and in Default Positions the horizontal position is set to .09 spaces.

The White line can expand in width as well as height. Be careful when moving not to accidentally change the width. Use the Inspector to set the desired width.

You will need to make several adjustments if adding a white line directly from Lines menu, rather than copying and pasting.

Instructions from Jeremy Hughes on how to size and position White Box Lines

  • Select a note and create a box line

It appears as a line above the staff, with the rightmost handle selected. At this point, it extends from the originally-selected note to the next note, if one exists. The behavior if there is no further note in the stave (or the original object is a bar rest) is that it spans one quarter-note.

  • Type Shift-Space

Because the rightmost handle is selected, you can extend or contract it by typing space or Shift-Space (like most lines). Typing Shift-Space contracts the line so it spans, in effect, zero beats of music. Using the appropriate default position settings for the box will give it the desired width.

  • Without changing the handle selection, type Command-Down Arrow (Mac) or Ctrl-Down Arrow (Windows) one or more times.

This opens up the box vertically in one-space increments by extending the bottom of the box downwards. It doesn’t change the attachment points of the line. If you prefer to drag with the mouse to open it up, constrain the movement with Shift-drag, or the attachment point may change.

  • To extend the top of the box upwards, select the leftmost handle (type Alt-Left Arrow twice) and then raise it using Command-Up Arrow (Mac) or Ctrl-Up Arrow (Windows). To move a box of the correct size vertically, select the box itself — not either of its handles — and use up or down arrows, or Shift-drag.

Boxed text styles (with or without text)

This series of tips is thanks to Kai Struck.

Type text using custom boxed styles Cluster Box Text Black and Cluster Box Text White. These are defined by going to Text > Styles > Edit Text Styles, choosing the relevant text style, Edit…

  • Border > Shape; choose Box and Erase Background
  • Border > Default Frame Size; choose Use fixed-size text frame
  • Font > Advance Formats; use reduced Line Spacing.

To create boxes without text: create the text object, then without typing any text, press Esc, then Undo (Command/Ctrl-Z).

To select the boxes: make a passage selection, filter for staff text, and position and size with the Inspector. You can also click inside a box until handles appear to select it, or shift-drag a marquee selection around any box.

If you use View > Invisibles > Handles, you can click on a handle and use the mouse or arrow keys to change the size or move the text.

These function similarly to Lines, but can be a little more difficult to manipulate. The white boxes are opaque, which may or may not be desired. Turn off Erase Background in Text > Styles > Edit Text Styles to make them transparent. You can also make opaque rectangles using SVG graphics files.

Using visible stems, flags, and accidentals with rectangular clusters

If you use rectangular lines or symbols in the staff and want to retain stems or accidentals, you can create notes and apply headless noteheads to those notes. This will retain the stem, flag, dots, and ties.

Zoom in and drag the rectangle to where the noteheads were (turn Magnetic Layout off).

White key, black key, chromatic clusters (using rectangular noteheads)

Apply correct accidentals to top and bottom notes and put a cue-sized accidental symbol above or below the chord (not for chromatic clusters).

Cluster glissando

Use a thick line to indicate movement (2 stacked Beam lines used in this example). A custom line whose width matches the cluster width can be used instead.

Arbitrarily shaped clusters using SVG graphics

This is an example of cluster-band notation, varying in width and pitch for an entire string section (as shown in Kurt Stone, Music Notation in the Twentieth Century). Import SVG graphics for this. This can be tricky to get right. Some hints for making SVG import work in Illustrator and Sibelius can be found in these Scoring Notes posts:

You can also make rectangles from SVG graphics which can be used directly or converted to symbols.

I hope some of this information will be found useful.

Some information in this document was provided by Jeremy Hughes and Kai Struck in a post in the Sibelius technical support forum.


  1. Derek Williams

    Thanks for this Bob! Useful as always. Early on, faced with these challenges, I ended up creating my own noteheads and other symbols, because the proprietary notation in Sibelius had issues with readability and size, and as you know, simply pasting graphics loses the advantages of resizing, enharmonics and transposition that comes with the built-in notes algorithms.

    I’ll take a look at your attachment and keep it as a resource.

  2. Luis Acosta

    I guess I need an example of the problem for which this is a solution to understand its significance. E.g., a passage where it doesn’t sound the way it is written. And why use symbols other than notes to represent notes? I think this post would have been more beneficial to me in a video where I can see then hear. Maybe it’s just my lack of sophistication about this topic. In which case a video would definitely be the way for me to get it.

  3. Luis F. Acosta

    Please, forgive my ignorance.

  4. Bob Zawalich

    Sorry if the purpose of this post is not clear. There are numerous “standard” notations used to represent clusters, and this tutorial was intended to describe a number of them and suggest ways they can be produced in Sibelius. Hardly any of them can be used directly, so I produced a score with examples of various notations so people could copy from that score and experiment with them in their own scores without having to go through all the steps required to create them.

    Other than the notations that involve noteheads, none of these will provide playback. They are intended for notation only. You can, of course, produce and hide notes if you want a particular appearance and playback at the same time.

    1. Luis

      Hi, Bob. Your purpose was very clear. It’s just that the first example with the notes in a cluster led me to wonder why one would want to write it some other way. I didn’t see the reason for doing it some other way, but obviously there must be since you invested significant energy into putting this article together. I just think that maybe a video with a walk-thru for my obviously musically impaired brain to geek out with you. :-)

  5. Luis

    Left out a chunk:
    …brain would have been neat in order to geek out with you. :-)

Leave a Comment

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