top of page

"Demystifying Stem Direction in Music Notation: Heads and Tails Explained"

When you start to write music for yourself - that is, writing with pen and manuscript paper - you may initially be a little confused as to which direction your stems go according to the note that you're on.


So, to clear up the mystery, here is a quick reference guide to help you learn more about stem direction in music notation.



1. The Rule of Halfway



The easiest way to think about this is to remember that your middle line on the stave (let's assume we're in treble clef and refer to it as the B line) is the point at which the direction changes.


Using this as an example, we could actually put the tail both up or down for a note on the B line, using the golden rules:


  • a stem down is on the left side of the note

  • a stem up is on the right side of the note



diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation

The above example shows two correct ways of notating B on a treble clef. Because it is in the middle, the tail can go up or down.


When you work up from the B line, the tails begin to face down by default. When you work down from it, they start to face up.



diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation
Tails face down as you work up from the B line...


diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation
...and up as you work down from the B line


Whilst there is no right or wrong as to which direction you face the tail for the notes on the B line, it is worth keeping in mind where you are coming from and going to. If the majority of your notes fall below this line in a bar, it would be more consistent to keep the notes facing down and vice versa:


diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation

In the example above, note how the B at the end of the first bar and the B at the end of the second bar have stems facing different directions.


This is to keep consistent with the overall stem direction prominent within the bar. To face them the other way wouldn't be a crime, but it would just be a tad messier!



2. Keep It Together Per Voice



Sometimes we play music in more than one voice. For this, we can actually throw the rulebook out of the window a little and keep all of our stems per voice facing the same direction, regardless of where it falls on the stave.



diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation


To keep the notation as clean as possible, the above example faces stems up for all notes on the higher voice and stems down for all notes on the lower voice. Whilst it is possible to notate the lower voices with stems up and higher voices with stems down, it is less desirable as it creates a slightly less legible piece:



diagram showing direction of stems on music notes in music notation
This is a lot messier than the piece above, so try to face lower voice stems up and higher voices stems down!



In Conclusion - Stem Direction in Music Notation



To conclude, we must just remember the golden rules:


  • If notating a single voice melody / part, stems face up when below the middle line of the stave and down when above the middle line of the stave.

  • The note that is middle line of the stave (B in the above examples) can face either direction, but it is best to be consistent with where the majority of other tails face in a bar.

  • If playing in multiple voices, the voices should be individualised by different stem directions, regardless where they fall on the stave. By default, the higher parts should stem up and lower parts should stem down.

  • Notes with the stem up should have the stem on the right of the note head. Notes with the stem down should have the stem on the left of the note head.




 

Jack Mitchell Smith is a piano teacher based in Macclesfield, Cheshire. Click here to find out more.


Weekly blogs are posted that may help you with your musical or piano journey. Click here to sign up to the mailing list so you never miss a post!


 

Comments


bottom of page