Triple Harpsichords, Cross-Staff Beaming, revisited

This is a substantial re-write and clarification of a post made January 4, 2010.

Daniel Spreadbury, Sibelius Senior Product Manager and writer of, kindly posted about my story on using PhotoScore and Sibelius to produce a new edition of Bach’s Triple Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1064.

In my post, I mentioned problems I had with cross-staff notes in keyboard parts. Daniel explained that I was going about it the wrong way.

I contend that I was going about it in a way that makes sense to a keyboard player or a composer. I have read the reference manual. In the process, I revealed what I think is a bug or deficiency in Sibelius. Setting aside the the age-old “it’s not a bug, it’s an undocumented feature” argument, let me explain how I did it and how Daniel recommends doing it. At the end, I’ll explain why I wish that Sibelius would handle this situation differently.

Let me use a new, more simple example.

Above are two bars from the grainy PDF of the urtext.

The two hands play an unbroken melodic line an octave apart, in parallel. There are no rests in the line played in either hand. Because the melodic figure goes through some low notes, it’s properly notated by having the right-hand part move down to the bass clef and then back up again, following the arc of the melody. There are cross-staff notes in this example, but there is no need for cross-staff beaming, due to the particular note groupings.

Example One

How I did it

I chose to notate this in Sibelius by entering all the right-hand notes in Voice 1 in one unbroken line, and then selecting certain notes and applying the “Cross Staff Notes” commands to move those from the treble staff to the bass staff.

I entered all the notes in Staff 1 in Voice 1 (blue noteheads). Then I entered all notes in Staff 2 in Voice 1 (blue noteheads), and flipped the beams and stems in Staff 2 down, below:

Next I used the “Move Down a Staff” command on the notes that needed to cross staves. This includes two notes that are not only cross-staff, but also cross-beamed. [Postscript: Yes, I realize I’m moving one note that was not moved in the Urtext. You go to all the trouble to make nice canned examples and then at the end you realize you overlooked one little detail.]

The only problem, below, is funky beams on the cross-staff notes in the second bar:

This is not an error: sometimes it’s the shape you want. In my case, I wanted to adjust them like this, below, which can easily be done by selecting each beam and dragging:

And that’s all there is to it. But the problem, as I will detail below, is that in more complex and dense examples, Sibelius does nothing automatically about collisions in many elements: noteheads, accidentals, stems, beams, and slurs. Here is my example from the previous post:

2. What happens when you tell Sibelius to cross staves

The recommended method

This involves setting things up very differently, like this:

In Staff 1, create notes in Voice 1. Enter 8 16th notes, then a half-note rest, then in Bar 2, a half-note rest, followed by 4 16th notes and 2 8th notes.

In Staff 2, create notes in two Voices. In Voice 1, enter a half-note rest, followed by 8 16th notes, a dotted-eighth, 4 16th notes, and a half-note rest.

Move to Voice 2 (green noteheads) in Staff 2, Bar 1. Enter the line shown below.

Next, select only the two notes highlighted in red, and use the “Move Down a Staff” command on those two notes alone.

See below:

Once the notes are moved, just as in the previous example, drag those funky beams into place:

One remaining problem: This is a convenient fiction. What we’ve notated in the recommended method is three voices and a bunch of rests, whereas in what J. S. Bach actually wrote, there should be only two voices and no rests anywhere. To complete the illusion, we have to find the half-note rests and use the Hide command. Below you can see them greyed-out.

Unfortunately, outlined in red above, Sibelius has spontaneously flipped the stem directions on two beam groups as soon as you use the “Hide” command to conceal the half-note rests that were visible before. So in the last step, below, I have manually flipped the beams back where I want them:

When you print out the score, all the note heads will be black, and there will be no indication to the performer that you have performed a little slight-of-hand by using three voices where there should be two.

Evaluating the recommended method, you can imagine that under certain circumstances it would take more work than my method. Mapping out extra voices, switching note input to different staves, lots of extra rests that have to be hidden after the fact, and problems with beams and stems flipping where you don’t want them. So why did Daniel recommend this method? One more example, and then my conclusion is below.

Collisions: Example 2

Here is another example from the Bach Triple Harpsichord Concerto. In these two bars, there are notes that cross staves inside of every beam group.

How I did it

It makes musical sense to me to enter Staff 1, Voice 1, four groups of four eighth notes, and then go to Staff 2 and create Voice 1, four groups of four eighth notes.

Then, in Staff 2, select the last three notes in each group of four:

Apply the “Move Up a Staff” command. You get this mess:

Flip the beams in Staff 1 Voice 1 where you want them, drag on each of the Staff 2 beams to get the correct orientation and adjust their angles, move the staves closer together, and maybe do some more dragging to optimize things:

The recommended method

Create two voices in Staff 1 and no voices at all in Staff 2.

Hide the whole-note rests in Staff 2.

In Staff 1, Voice 2, select only the first notes in each four-note grouping.

Apply the “Move Down a Staff” command, and the result is this:

Now you can drag the beams into position and move the staves closer together.


I now know the recommended method to use Sibelius in order to get the desired results with cross-staff notes. But I don’t like it. That’s why I’ve gone to all the trouble to document this. Software gets improved when users express their opinions about features.

Sibelius advertises collision avoidance as a major feature that make life easier for you when you create scores. It does. But those features are not implemented at all on cross-staff notes. If you actually use the cross-staff note commands where it makes musical sense, you may create further problems that you have to fix manually. My interpretation of the recommended method boils down to this: avoid using the cross-staff commands whenever possible. Only use them on individual notes when there is no alternative.

In the absence of Sibelius addressing this issue, you need to use the recommended work-around of entering notes in the score in a different order than a keyboardist would play them, creating extra rests and extra voices, and then hiding them after the fact.

Be Sociable, Share!

One thought on “Triple Harpsichords, Cross-Staff Beaming, revisited”

  1. I think the moral of this episode is : when you try to do something in a computer program and YOUR method proves lumpy, assume there’s a better way and try to find it!

    Luckily you were using Sibelius, which has an amazingly fast and effecient support system based on both the official forum at http://www.sibelius com and the Yahoo mail list. I would venture that if the first time you encountered the clumsy result of cross-staffing you had presented the problem in on of these places, you would have been offered a solution (or two) within the hour.

Leave a Reply

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