Notating Free Rhythm in Sibelius 7

Rumor has it that it's not possible to notate free rhythm in Sibelius. Not true! Tobias Escher shows just how easy it is do it when you know how.  

While most music is made up of sets of bars with the same length, you may want to notate a piece which does not use conventional bars at all or has a free rhythm. The rumor that it is not possible to notate free rhythm in Sibelius persists, but it is false. You can and it is not even difficult.

Before we begin, let us quickly think about what we might want to do:

  1. Notate a melody in free rhythm, without barlines
  2. Use bars of different length, but without changing the time signature every few notes
  3. Notate a bar that is longer than one line
  4. Notate noteheads without stems
  5. Notate notes without connected beams

This should give you all you need to notate 99% of your daily music. You can also notate intricate gregorian chant, up to using special fonts, but in most cases this "faux-plainsong“ notation will be sufficient.


#1 - Notate in free rhythm

If you have a predefined set of notes you want to notate in free rhythm within a piece, you can just create a bar that is as long as you need: Look at the screenshot, there are two bars of 4/4 filled with notes. Now we want to enter some notes that do not use the 4/4 time signature, but are to be played freely. Let’s assume those notes combined are 15/8 long. What we will do is briefly switch to a 15/8 signature and then back to 4/4.

notate in free rhythm 1


Make sure nothing is selected in your score by hitting Esc. Click Time Signature in the Notations tab of the ribbon or press T and enter 15/8 as in the image below.

notate in free rhythm 1b


Press Enter and click immediately after the last note of the two filled bars. Then enter your notes for the free rhythm. When you have done this, switch back to 4/4 by inserting the time signature just like you did with the 15/8. You score should now look like this:

notate in free rhythm 1c


All you need to do now is get rid of the 15/8 time signature and make clear that this section is to be played freely. Click on the 15/8 signature to select it and press Backspace. Choose 'No' in the dialog that pops up.

notate in free rhythm 1d


The 15/8 signature will be gone, but the measure will still be there, as will the 4/4 after the bar. To make absolutely clear that this section is to be played as free rhythm, you can now add a double barline after the second bar: Go to Notations > Barline, select the Double Barline and put one after the second bar and one before the 4/4. 

notate in free rhythm 1e


Add a little Technique Text (Cmd/Ctrl-T) to the first note of the irregular bar and type "free rhythm“ or something similar. Your score will look like this:

notate in free rhythm 1f


#2 - Use bars of different length

If you have many bars of different length, too many to always create a time signature, delete it, and so on. But there is an easy solution: Create a new score. For this example we will use the Treble staff manuscript paper, and leave everything as is with the exception of two things: set the time signature to 126/4 like in the screenshot and the key signature to Open key/atonal. Click 'Create'. When the score has loaded, you can enter your notes as usual, just keep on inputting until you want to set a barline. Go to Note Input > Plug-ins and click 'Draw Free Rhythm Barline'. Sibelius will input a barline and calculate the time signature.

Using bars of different lengths


Input new notes and repeat the procedure until you are finished. Then click on all the time signatures, right-click and select 'Hide' or 'Show' to toggle show/hide them. Done!


#3 - Notate a bar longer than one line

If you need to notate a phrase which is too long to fit into a single line, do this: Use the same method as in 2), but set a Free Rhythm Barline when you want a line break. If Sibelius does not continue with the next bar in the next line, you can click the barline and press Return to force a line break. Continue inputting notes and creating barlines until you are done. One thing you will need to take care of are the barlines at the end of a line. If a bar stretches over two or more lines, there must not be barlines at the end of a line. Making them vanish is easy: Open Engraving Rules - Barlines and set the Default Barline Type to Invisible.

Notate a bar longer than one line


You can then input all the barlines you actually want to be visible by inserting new ones from Notations - Barline, just as before. Done!


#4 - Notate noteheads without stems

If you want to hide the stems on all noteheads (for plainsong), select all the notes and select Notations > Type > Stemless. Done!

Notate noteheads without stems


This is also the place where you select special noteheads.


#5 - Noteheads without connected beams

Sometimes you want to have stems, but need all the notes to be separate and use no beaming. Again select all the notes, switch to the third keypad layout and select 'No Beams'. Done.

Noteheads without connected beams


I hope this tutorial helped you get your free rhythms done quickly and painlessly. 


Tobias Escher started playing the piano at an early age and was drawn to the pipe organ. He since then works as a freelance organist and choirmaster and as a composer for media projects in his own studio. His love for the Mac platform began in 2005 with a humble mac mini and has since then grown to a serious addiction. He regular... Read More

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