The curse of "US Letter" paper in the USA, and Dorico

I’m writing to explain a small problem that I have found to be very irritating for many years, and to make a feature suggestion for how Dorico might handle it in the future. First I must provide some lengthy background.

Those of you not in the USA may not be aware that we in the USA have our own unique standard size for paper, called “US Letter”. The rest of the world uses A4-sized paper. Yes, it is just like us in the USA to defiantly and counterproductively use a totally different system for something that the rest of the world has happily standardized upon. Standard A4-sized paper is practically unobtainable in the USA, and therefore nobody in the USA uses A4 and few of us even understand what A4 is.

A4 is 210 mm x 297 mm.
“US Letter” is 8.5 x 11.0 imperial inches, or 216 x 279 mm. This is an entirely different aspect ratio; our paper is shorter and wider than A4.

This creates problems for those of us in the USA. Something formatted for A4, when printed in the USA, gets automatically scaled down to a smaller size (94%) to fit on US Letter paper.

The reason I’m writing about all this is that Dorico (and coincidentally Sibelius), befuddles musicians in the USA by starting out new documents formatted to A4. Most of us poor users in the USA are too ignorant to notice the difference. Sibelius, furthermore, would let you create a new full score in US Letter but then the individual extracted parts would default to A4. I have seen hundreds of Sibelius documents, or PDFs created from them, which were made by musicians in the USA who were totally unaware that they had created documents in A4 – which is why their printouts always look different than the dimension they had formatted in the score.

You think you are creating a document with a staff height of 7.0mm, for example, but because of the A4 vs. US Letter discrepancy, when it is printed out on a printer in the USA, the printer automatically scales everything down to 94%, resulting in a staff height of 6.6mm, which is not what you intended.

If one is aware of the problem, and takes a completed Dorico or Sibelius score document formatted for A4 and reformats its layout to US Letter, this can result in unexpected changes (to the user). While margins themselves stay the same, the whole page is widened. This can result in changes in the number of bars/measures on certain systems, the precise placement of many symbols, and other problems. The program might automatically re-flow and make layout changes (even shifting measures/bars across page breaks) that the user does not want. In Dorico this would also impact Engrave mode and Master Pages, the precise placement of page numbers, headers and footers, and more.

I would like to make a feature suggestion: that Dorico take steps to save us poor ignorant USA users by helping to see to it that for a user in the USA, Dorico never defaults to A4 for any layout or flow. I mean to say that I think that a Dorico installation on a computer used by somebody in the USA should be set up with global preferences to use US Letter only, and that the user should only get A4 layouts if the user chooses to over-ride the setting.

I propose that when the Dorico installer for Windows and Mac first runs, it has a dialog box asking the user to choose “Worldwide Paper Layout – A4 Size By Default” or “USA Paper Layout – US Letter Size By Default”.

I also suggest that Dorico add a new section to the menu bar Preferences: General that says something like “Paper Size: Worldwide Paper – A4” or “USA Paper – US Letter”.

Then all flows and all layouts in any document created in that installation of Dorico would always adhere to one or the other unless the user over-rode something on a layout-by-layout and flow-by-flow basis.

A person outside the USA might make the mistake of thinking that Dorico on a Mac or Windows computer would choose page sizes for new documents based on the default page size selected in the user’s printer, but this is most emphatically not the case. All my printers are set up for US Letter by default, yet I see full scores and extracted parts (or layouts in Dorico parlance) coming up A4 all the time.

All this may seem trivial to you, but I have seen this unfortunate USA-against-the-world situation create problems for printing and formatting in many kinds of word processing, desktop publishing, graphic design and printing systems all my life, not just in music notation software. I am hoping Dorico can give me some help with this.

When I have a document set up in US Letter dimensions in Sibelius, and I export a MusicXML file, and then import that file into Dorico 1.1, Dorico sets up the resulting document in A4 dimensions, which is wrong. The document thus created is going to stay that way unless I realize that I don’t want this and I think to change the layout settings, hopefully before I go much further in preparing the score.

Examination of the MusicXML code in my tests reveals that the MusicXML 3.0 specification seems to include support for paper size. My XML document from a score formatted for US Letter contains this code:


whereas a document created from a score formatted for A4 contains this code:


Given this, why does Dorico 1.1 fail to take the page size and dimensions in the MusicXML document into account, and automatically reformat a US Letter score into an A4 score?

I understand Dorico’s stated principle about ignoring MusicXML data regarding layout of musical elements, and re-flowing the music engraving of any input MusicXML, because Dorico thinks they have superior algorithms for engraving spacing. That’s fine. But totally ignoring the basic size and dimensions and aspect ratio of the user’s chosen and specified paper is not a good thing.

The units for the paper height and width are “tenths of a staff space”, not unchangeable distances like millimeters or inches.

If there is a block containing and/or entries before the , they define the conversion to absolute length units (in two different ways, for different entities in the score - nobody said this was going to be easy…)

But all this relies on somebody’s code assembling all the pieces of the puzzle, and then identifying the end result as a standard paper size like “A4” - which is rather pointless unless you want to preserve the exact formatting in the MusicXML file, which you probably don’t. If you did, why bother to import it into Dorico at all, when you could print the score direct from the MusicXML file?

Well, Rob Tuley, A4 is A4 and US Letter is US Letter, and I’m here to tell you that it makes a great deal of difference to me. It may be “rather pointless” to you, but I’ve had 30 years of struggle with this issue regarding graphic design and layout in all areas of publishing, not just in music, which is why I’m appealing for Dorico to be more aware of these issues on behalf of their numerous users who live in the USA.

Furthermore the MusicXML code I listed above specifies things adequately.


The ratio of 1596 to 1233 is 1.294, and this is the aspect ratio of US Letter paper. This code describes a document set up to be formatted and printed on US Letter paper.


The ratio of 1697 to 1200 is 1.414, and this is the aspect ratio of A4 paper.

So all Dorico would have to do is a simple calculation of the value of page height divided by the value of page width, and this would indicate whether the user wants the resulting document to be A4 or US Letter.

And to reiterate, a user in the USA would never want to format a document to A4 if the user intended anybody in the USA to print out this document. We cannot obtain A4 paper; even if we could, it does not fit in our ring binders or folders, and it does not fit in our envelopes.

It is plausible that a composer in the USA would want to format scores for A4 specifically to email them to musicians who do not live in the USA, to be printed on A4 paper overseas.

But dealing with this discrepancy is an aggravation to us users in the USA.

If anybody on this forum from Canada or the UK would be willing to claim me as family and sponsor me for immigration, I would take you up on it. I would never have to deal with US Letter paper again, and what is more, I could get much better health care.

But 1.414 is not “the aspect ratio of A4 paper”. It’s the aspect ratio of any size of A and B paper.

Similarly 1.294 is the aspect ratio of 11x17 paper as well as US letter.

Some scores (e.g. organ music) are often printed in landscape format, so you also need to test for 0.707 and 0.647.

And what happens when the paper size is 9x12, or 10x13? Those are common sizes for orchestral parts and also for solo keyboard music.

Maybe you personally don’t care about any of those details, but IMO it doesn’t make sense for a general purpose program to focus only on one specific case - and the USA is a pretty small minority of the world’s total population :wink:

Incidentally, according to one of the large UK office supplies chains’ website on paper sizes, Canada doesn’t use the ISO standard sizes - and Wikipedia says “In Canada, US paper sizes are a de facto standard. The government, however, also uses ISO paper sizes.”

I agree with Wheat that a simple global setting for paper size would be useful, especially for us Americans whose printers etc. are all US Letter sized and not A4. Incidentally, this impacts iPads as well, where the A4 pages are scaled down when printed to PDF for iPad use as well. Seems like this should be an easy one to implement.

To underline what Rob has said: I apologize, but here in Canada we still use US ISO standards for paper. But you’re still invited!

I too am irked by letter vs A4 issues. It would be nice to choose a default size (make sure it applies to printing too) although I don’t think it is the end of the world the way it is now. (Side note: perhaps we should be allowed to choose a default document size but the print module should attempt to select whatever paper size is the same as the layout size you are printing, that way you only have to change it if you want to print something atypically.) I’ve actually gone to the unconventional length (at least here in the US) of tracking down A4 paper, an A4 4 ring binder and matching hole punch. I use it very sparingly as A4 paper is so damned expensive here, but I keep it on hand for when I need it. It’s amazing how different a score layout can look letter vs A4… sometimes those few extra millimeters in height make all the difference between a score looking squished or pleasing the eye.

I would like to have the option of a global setting for US paper because I have to be sure and change the A4 every document.

Martha Bishop

Good points. Perhaps you have reinforced my point by making it more generalized. There is one aspect ratio for the USA family of paper sizes, and there is another aspect ratio for the rest-of-the-world A4 family of paper sizes.

I certainly care about US imperial inch 9 x 12 paper; it’s the USA standard for parts for symphony orchestras. I have done scores in this format too.

I would like Dorico to recognize that as a USA user, I always want the USA family of paper sizes as my preference and I don’t want to have to constantly check layouts to see if Dorico has somehow got me working with A4.

As to other posters who point out that as a USA user, I’m in a small minority, so what? Am I not entitled to express my needs and ask for help? While we are on the subject, I would be interested in knowing what percentage of Dorico registered users are in the USA or are using US Letter paper. My guess is that it’s not as small a minority as you think it is.

That’s odd. My paper size comes up as US Letter automatically (the right size for me).

Printing comes up as US Letter automatically (because that’s what my printer is set for), but Layout Options (under the Setup menu) has A4 unless I change it.

My Layout Options also come up as US Letter (8.5x11") on both XML imports and scores created fresh in Dorico.

Aha. On the Layout Options window, there’s a “Save as Default” button at the bottom. Once I’ve set Score and Parts to “Letter” and clicked that, all future documents seem to be good.

OMG. That’s so simple. Why didn’t someone say this before? Thank you Rinaldo! I’ve had this issue with Dorico since day 1 and now it’s fixed!

I am happy that the problem is solved so in some sense my response is unnecessary. However, 1.414 is the aspect ratio of all papers in most of the world precisely because this ratio results in each smaller size of paper being the dimensions of the next larger size folded in half. That is NOT the case with US sizes (also used in Canada, where I live). Paper that is 11x17 does indeed result in US letter size paper, that is, 8.5" x 11", but the two sizes of paper have quite different aspect ratios so the formatting will be quite different if the page orientation is the same in both cases. I am happy enough to use US letter as my standard size but think those of you in Europe and elsewhere are lucky indeed that the formatting of your various page sizes remains at a fixed aspect ratio and only the relative size is different so that formatting considerations are much less of a concern when printing on paper of different sizes.

We do plan to add an option to allow you to choose the default page size for new documents in due course, but you can indeed use the ‘Save as Defaults’ button in the Layout Options dialog to solve this problem for yourself already.

In fact the USA has a large number of families of paper sizes (defined by the USA’s parochial ANSI standards organization, not the international ISO).

Actually, it’s the smallest ANSI size in the “architecture drawings” family (and used for other technical drawings as well) - but that family does not have a constant ratio for different sizes! The 9x12 has ratio 1.333, the next size up is 12 x 18 with ratio 1.5. There are 6 sizes in all up to 36x48, identified by letters - but this being the USA, they are not A through F, but from smallest to biggest A, B, C, D, E1, and E!

FWIW I deal with this all the time. I’m a Brit but about half the scores I produce are for people in the USA. If somebody asked me for a priority list of 20 new features I wanted in Dorico, this wouldn’t be on it, though.

Incidentally, weren’t the default page layouts in Sibelius designed so they worked on both A4 and US Letter paper? Of course that meant the margins were a bit bigger than they needed to be. But considering how long Finale took even to implement Unicode for international text (“whaddaya mean Antonín Dvořák is supposed to have some weird accent things in his name???”) I suppose they are to USA-centric to bother about such things.

Why don’t you just move back to Europe where you originally came from? Problem solved. :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: