Sibelius Scoring for Rookies with Special Guest Wang Jie

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An accomplished composer provides us with this valuable beginner’s guide to Sibelius-style self-publishing in classical music (or any genre that needs a score to be produced).


SoundBytes, May 2015


Introduction by David Baer

We feel privileged to be able to offer a tutorial by an extraordinary composer of opera, symphonic form, chamber music and more. Wang Jie is the real deal – a composer of serious music who actually gets paid to pursue her art.Not many composers can make that claim these days.When I say “serious”, however, I don’t mean somber.There’s great wit to be found in many of her compositions. Rather, I’m talking about composing for the concert hall, composing music that one needs to listen to more than casually.

I had the pleasure of meeting Wang Jie in the summer of 2014 at a conference in San Francisco.  I had no idea at the time that this pleasant young woman (ahem … young, certainly, compared to your editor here) had such stature and respect in the world of classical music. So, I was more than delighted when she agreed to write something for the magazine. Please join me in welcoming her to the pages of SoundBytes Magazine in which she will share her considerable expertise regarding Sibelius scoring software.

For those wishing to learn more about Wang Jie, visit her web site here:


You are a budding composer and one morning, instead of channeling pitches and rhythms, the symphonic muses offered you a kettle. Obviously, you rubbed it the wrong way – Wham (!), a Genie popped out and handed you a commission contract from the New York Philharmonic. You celebrated with your pet (good time to find out who your real friends are), and three martinis later you realized: oh shit, now what?

If there is any time in music history that a composer could pull this off without the backing of a legitimate music publishing house, a gang of engravers and editors, printers the size of an elephant, and signing away your copyright, it is now. I can attest to this as a one-woman show running a self-publishing operation from my studio apartment. My royalty checks are double sweet. Sibelius 6.2 is the way I roll.  

Since the mid-2000’s, consumer-market music notation software signaled the dawn of sheet music self-publishing. Self-published composers became the new black. They now enjoy active careers at the highest level. A well-known success story is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, who remains self-published to this day.

The two programs that dominate the music notation software market are Sibelius and Finale. The Sibelius vs. Finale discussion has ignited hair-rising debate amongst composers and music engravers. Think of it as the Mac and PC of the music publishing world. Both can achieve the highest standard in sheet music production. Put the final print side by side, only professionally trained music engravers can distinguish the cosmetic differences. However, the efforts required to achieve the final result are very different.

When professional engravers talk nerdy, it goes something like this: “Finale, by default does not get a lot of these things right. Multirests are horrible, for example, by default, in that you can do a part and when you print it, everything changes. Their reasoning for this is misguided, but for a novice user, they will end up with unpredictable, confusing results.”

At a time when digital life permeates every fiber of our lives, it’s hardly a stretch to recognize that the technologies we choose reflect our sense of style. We are no longer satisfied with mere functionality. I want to use programs that are in tune with my intuition, are easy to learn, responsive, and heck: even make me feel creative. That’s why Sibelius is my weapon of choice.

A Sibelius style creative process is characterized by a significantly easier learning curve, an interface that is “typing”-friendly, a default setting that offers you immediately good-looking, surprisingly effective results. Since these are some of the most well-designed aspects of the program, I urge all novice composers to take advantage of them from day one.

Sibelius or Finale, bottom-line, once you commit to learn either of them, master it. There are no bad programs, only inept users.   

With fire under your feet, let’s get you a quick start on Sibelius style sheet music production.


Get to Know Sibelius by Copying

First, I want you to learn from a rookie mistake I made. I foolishly tried to learn Sibelius 2.0 while composing my first string quartet straight into the newly installed program. Biting off far more than I could chew cost me six weeks in stress-management therapy. For your own sanity, I want you to separate the task of composing from the task of learning the program during your first week with Sibelius.

Try this instead: pick your favorite Bach Fugue and copy it. Next, advance to a Debussy Prelude. It’s never too ambitious to orchestrate one and practice navigating an orchestral score and making parts. Like in dictation classes, try to get to a level of proficiency in which you are not consciously thinking about what muscles must work together to input anything from a four-part Chorale to cross-staff quintuplets to eventually creating avant-garde graphic score.

But how is proficiency achieved?


Learn the Shortcuts – Memorize Them As Much As It Is Humanly Possible

Chances are, when you write your college History paper with Microsoft Word, you are not really thinking about your swift fingers tap-dancing across the keyboard. As I mentioned, Sibelius will shine for you if you simply know how to minimize mouse clicking and instead, “type” the music the same way that you would type the alphabet. To achieve this, you must learn the shortcuts. To really learn the shortcuts, go the extra step beyond the brain and start building muscle memories.

Sibelius 6 Reference > Power Tools > 5.12 Menus and shortcuts

You’ll soon discover that you need a full-size computer keyboard with the numeric pad. Keep your right hand glued to the numeric pad, not the mouse.


Sibelius Reference Is the Bible

I keep up with the latest technology and enjoy my digital books and movies as much as you do. But when it comes to one of the most sophisticated music notation software, you’ve got to have your cake and eat it too. Translation: order the hard copy of Sibelius Reference. I can’t explain the psychology behind it. But getting my hands “dirty”, highlighting, folding corners and abusing it in my physical reality give me the sense that I was training this marvelous technology to assist me anytime, anywhere in my studio. Plus, you will miss a real “lift me up” when nothing seems to work out:

The above is scanned from the out-of-print Sibelius 2 Reference. The digital Reference is an excellent option for searching a specific word:


Shortcuts I Use Everyday (Sorted by Importance)

Ctrl/Cmmd-z             Undo                         

Miss all the shots you want. Not going to hurt the program.

Esc     Stop editing/Select None/Cancel          

In other words, get me out of this hyperactivity! 

Ctrl/Cmmd s             Save                          

Always followup Esc with a Save. It should be your first Sibelius reflux. Trust me, you don’t want to learn this the hard way.

R         Repeat selection   

Highlight/select anything, type letter “R” to repeat immediately after. Try it with chords, ostinato, isorhythm, etc.

Sometimes removing notes works better than inputting them. Particularly when working with tuplets. I call this sculpting – just carve away what’s not needed. For example, the passage below are mostly Sextuplet. Create one sextuplet template and type letter R to fill the staff. Then hit “delete” to carve away!


Ctrl/Cmmd+Shift I               Re-input pitches

 This is possibly the most under-rated shortcut in Sibelius. It frees you from rhythmic values and focuses on pitches. It becomes especially powerful when dealing with more recent music featuring complex rhythm and non-systematic pitch material. The above example was inputted in this order:

1) Tuplet base layer: any pitch (say D), Ctrl/Cmmd 3, D,D,D, Ctrl/Cmmd 5, D,D,D,D,D, Ctrl/Cmmd 6, D,D,D,D,D,select sextuplet, R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R,R, select Piano upper staff bar 225 to 228, Ctrl/Cmmd click to paste in Piano lower staff bar 225)

2) Delete individual notes to show rests.

3) Ctrl/Cmmd+Shift I to input pitch.

Minimal “finger print” solution. A 5-minute-operation, tops.

Ctrl/Cmmd+Shift n             Reset Note Spacing

Inputting music is like loading books onto a shelf, the finishing touch is lining up the book collars perfectly. The equivalent of the finishing touch in Sibelius is this powerful shortcut, except it’s all but one easy key stroke. It gives you the Sibelius default note spacing as it is set in House Style>Note Spacing Rule … all of sudden, your score just looks more ordered, a step closer to a professional feel. The aesthetics of note spacing has long been a sour topic among professional engravers, where they begin a long process of fine-tuning by hitting ctrl/cmmd+shift n. All things considered, the Sibelius default note spacing is probably good enough for your first gig.

W        Switching between Full Score and Parts

This one can be a lot of fun. Try it with bar 33 of Timpani highlighted in Full Score: it cuts through all the instrument lists and takes you straight to the bar 33 of the Timpani dynamic part. I also set a different desktop image for Full Score and Parts, to maximize the visual reminder of entering Dynamic Parts.


Advanced Editing – a Few Tricks

Presenting your performers with a professional-looking score/part enhances their personal investment in your music. You must present your sheet music with the care and respect you want from them. To achieve that, Sibelius default will no longer be enough.

What is an Atonal score?

A clever transposition tool Sibelius users have enjoyed for 10 years (while Finale 2014 just caught up last year). Without getting into the history of transposing scores evolving out of fashion, it’s a C Score with dynamic parts automatically transposed to various instruments’ native transposition. For example, an Atonal score with no key signature showing will result in a Clarinet in Bb part transposed a Major 2nd higher with no key signature showing, either. For example:

Full Score:

In Parts:


Fine tune note spacing

There will be situations where you must manually enter space values for notes to avoid ugly note spacing, collisions, to distort alignment (aleatoric music), or in the example below, to force alignment. Cmmd/Ctrl+Opt/Alt P to view Property Window > General. Highlight any object to observe the X and Y axiom values: they indicate object’s distance from default position. Obviously, these values can be altered.

Notice the 0-0 value in the Clarinet note (Gray objects are Hidden Objects):

If I highlight the piano chord, you’ll see altered X value in order to force align:


Handy References

MOLA Guidelines

Sibelius Forum

MOLA 2014 Sibelius vs. Finale presentation:


Gear Up for 21st Century Music Publishing

This is not the place to cut corners. Do the research and invest in quality.

Checklist: Mac/PC with Sibelius/Finale installed, High Resolution Display (size matters!), MIDI keyboard (optional), Laser Printer with tabloid capacity, MOLA Guide, Tabloid paper (and a nearby Print Shop with professional stack cutter), ¾ inch Micropore Surgical Tape (lots of them).

My current gear for your reference:

15 inch Macbook Pro (late 2013) with Sibelius 6.2

Since switching to Mac some ten years ago, I have never looked back. But I’ll admit that a PC is equally capable of handling the technical requirement.

The university installed Sibelius 7 on my work computer and after using it for a year, I still haven’t felt the need to upgrade my personal computer. Obviously, if you are buying a Sibelius license, get version 7. (New Sibelius coming out soon.)

23-inch Apple Cinema Display (2006)

My eyes thank the display every time I work on a big score with two-dozen systems. I still scroll up and down for the full score but with the 23 inch, a full page of parts can be examined comfortably. It especially comes in handy with layout edits.

Korg nanoKEY Slim-Line USB Keyboard

I have written two symphonies with this little thing. It weights nothing so I bring it everywhere. It sits nicely between my display and mac keyboard, taking up little desk space.

Ricoh Aficio AP610N Black and White Laser Printer

Ten years, fifty thousand pages later, this printer only jammed once, only on its second toner, only the most reliable machine I own.

French Construction Whitewash 70 weight Text 11 x 17 (& 10 x 13) for final prints

For acceptable final prints, anything thinner will show through the text, anything thicker will be a hassle to page turn, anything brighter or smoother will decrease readability under stage lighting. Needless to say, save your piggy bank by using the cheapest Staples 20 pound copy paper for draft prints and proof-reading.

Mysterious Binder

Prelude: MOLA Guide. Fugue: Style Guide from certain major music publishing house.

3M Micropore Surgical Tape (1 inch)

For taping parts by hand. Rookie mistake: using Scotch tape. You’ve been warned.












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