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Beams (Part 2)

Posted by Robert Thomas on 23rd February 2010

Beams can also be used to indicate note groupings contrary to the prevailing meter. In general, no more than a half note’s worth (or a dotted half note in compound time) should be beamed together unless they are all part of one beat — often, when large numbers of notes are placed under one beam, secondary beams are broken to make for easier reading. The number of beams used is always equal to the number of flags the note would have (eighth notes use one beam, sixteenth notes use two beams, etc.).

Notes that are beamed together usually have the same direction.1 If all the notes of a beamed figure are on the same side of the middle line, then the stem direction is the same as it would be for a single note. If notes of a beamed group are on both sides of the middle line, then deciding the stem direction is more complicated. When only two notes are present, the one farthest from the middle line dictates the stem direction. If there are only two notes and they are equidistant from the middle line, the context determines the stem direction (preferably down). Stem lengths in a beamed group are determined by the note(s) closest to the primary beam: the stem of this note will be an octave (excepting extreme circumstances), and the stems of the other notes in the group will be lengthened accordingly.

When there are more than two notes beamed together, the majority of the notes on one side or the other of the middle line determines the stem direction. However, if there are one or two isolated notes that are significantly farther on one side of the middle line, those notes can determine the stem direction for the rest of the group. Beamed notes on a single staff should all be written on the same side of the beam.


17th Post Stem Direction Image

Stem Direction of Beamed Notes

Beams should reach at least the middle line of the staff, regardless of the distance of the notes from the middle line. When the stems are pointing up, a secondary beam can never be placed lower than the second line of the staff; if the stems are pointing down, a secondary beam can never be placed higher than the fourth line of the staff (the beam straddles the staff line in both cases). They should slant in the direction of the outer two notes of the beamed figure (except when using a horizontal beam).

Stem lengths for notes under a beam may have to be altered — however, if possible, no stem should be shorter than normal length. “Wedges,” narrow triangles where small areas of white space appear between the beam and the staff lines, should be avoided.


1 The main exception to this is cross-staff beaming.

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