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Stems

Posted by Robert Thomas on 11th March 2010

All notes except whole notes and double whole notes have stems. Stems must be vertical and should touch the note head at the corner. When a staff contains a single melody line only, stems are drawn down if notes are on or above the middle line of the staff and drawn up if notes are below the middle line.1,2 Down stems are drawn on the left side of the note head; up stems are drawn on the right. Stems of single notes within a staff should be about one octave in length. When stemmed notes are on ledger lines, the stems should extend to the middle of the staff.3


21sth Post Stem Lengths Image

Stem Lengths

When writing the interval of a second, the stem should be placed between the note heads. The higher pitch is always placed to the right, regardless of stem direction (this results in one of the note heads being “displaced”).4 When the interval of a second is presented on ledger lines, the ledger line must be widened to accommodate both notes and retain a bit of line on each side of each note. If there are other notes in the chord, they are placed as normal according to stem direction. When an odd number of notes forms a cluster, the majority of notes are arranged on the ‘correct’ side of the stem (e.g., in a three note cluster the displaced is the middle note, while the other two notes are in their normal positions). When the interval of a second is written with opposite stems, as with multiple voices sharing the same staff, the stems are aligned vertically — in the case of a second, this means that the higher note is placed on the left.


21st Post Seconds Image

The direction of stems on unbeamed chords is determined by the note head farthest from the center of the staff. The stem should be about two and a half spaces in length as measured from the note head nearest to the end of the stem. In chords whose outer note heads are equidistant from the center line, the stem either goes down (for two-note chords) or is determined by the inner notes of the chord (for chords containing more than two notes) — if there are more notes or wider intervals below the middle line, the stem is up; if there are more notes or wider intervals above the middle line, the stem is down.

Only notes of the same durational value can share a common stem. The stems of grace notes are turned upwards without exception.

In music using two or more staves, note heads (rather than stems) should be vertically aligned. In aligning chords containing displaced notes with stems going in opposite directions, or on separate staves, the properly placed note heads are aligned.


1 The old engraver’s rule was that the stem of a note on the middle line of a staff varied according to the surrounding notes. Up-stems may still be used with notes on the middle line of a staff if the surrounding notes are up-stemmed.

2 Both up- and down-stems are drawn with a downstroke.

3 Large intervals involving ledger lines may call for stem lengths that go beyond the center line.

4 The placement of augmentation dots is also affected when this occurs. If the bottom note is on a line, the dot for the lower note is placed on the space below rather than the space above.

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