# What's the minimum number of measures in the last system

When laying out a score, there can arise the situation where the final measure sits alone on the final system.

I have had the comment that this should never happen, especially if the measure is made to fit the width of the page.

Is there a "correct" way of handling this ?

• redistribute to have at least 2 ( 3, 4, ? ) measures on the last system ?
• never have the last measure stretched over the page width ?
• other ?

Is there an authoritative answer for this ?

The "correct" way is to look at the whole score, to see where you have several measures on a system and one fewer (or one more) won't look bad. Before computers, this was done by hand before any of the final copy of the music was made. The process of splitting up the score into system-sized pieces, and dividing them into pages, was called "casting off". Of course in an orchestral score you might be leaving out staves which are completely empty, so the position of the system breaks might affect the number of staves in each system and how they fit on the pages - in general, deciding on the "best" layout is not a trivial problem to solve.

Ideally, you want the final page to be full of music, not just the final system - and for a long piece, you also want to end on a left-hand page, so you don't "waste" a blank page opposite the inside of the back cover.

Most computer notation software doesn't do any of that automatically. Poor layout is one of the "red flags" that says "this score was made by somebody who either doesn't know how to do it right, or doesn't care".

A professional notation program also allows you to change the relative spacing between different lengths of notes - i.e. the horizontal space between two quarter-notes, compare with the space between two 8ths, two 16ths, etc. That can make big changes to the total amount of space required for the music, without being "obvious" to a casual reader or performer.

As a last resort, you can split up measures so the first part of a measure is at the end of one system and the rest at the start of the next system.

The only situations where all these "tricks" fail are for very short pieces where there just isn't enough music for the changes to have any effect. In that case, a final system that is about half-full of music is more acceptable than s system with one bar that is ridiculously "spaced out" - especially since the last bar of a piece often contains fewer notes than the average bar, and therefore needs less horizontal space.

If you look carefully at professionally engraved scores, you can often see where these techniques have been used. The music doesn't just "fit neatly on the pages" by magic!

• Thank you for your comments. This is useful for my work and helps by giving some background. Have to admit though, I find the splitting of measures very "dirty" and would avoid them at all costs. Aug 7, 2017 at 7:21
• Funnily enough, LilyPond is quite close to achieving what you speak about :) The only thing I don't agree about with classical music typesetting is the necessity of full last page; IMHO this is just for marketing because it looks like you're selling a full thing, but the added value to the musician is minimal (unless you have a widow of course, that's pretty inconvenient to read even in music).
– yo'
Aug 7, 2017 at 11:15

Try not to leave an orphaned final bar. But if it's unavoidable, don't let it stretch beyond its natural length. Scores with short final lines are commonly seen. Ones with page-wide single bars are just sloppy work.

• Thank you for this concise answer. However, at what point should bars be "stretched" over the width of the page ? Once their natural length passes half the width ? Two thirds of the width ? Three quarters of the width ? Aug 7, 2017 at 7:24
• Well, unless the piece is really short (2- or 3-liner), it is a good practice to fill the last line. It's just not a good practice to do so by stretching the single last bar. You should rather reconsider all the line breaks to achieve the result.
– yo'
Aug 7, 2017 at 11:17
• The only answer to that, @Simon, is - whenever it would look better to do so. Your judgement call as a music engraver. A single stretched bar will almost always look horrible. Two or three might offend the eye less than a short line. Page layout is an art. Beware of notation programs that have a '4 bar per line' default (Sibelius tends to do this to Parts). It can be a good starting point. But you also have to consider that it's nice to have a new section start on a new line, make the end-point of a repeated section clear - not one bar into a new line (let alone a new page!) - etc. etc. Aug 7, 2017 at 14:03