Note Stems and Note Stem Direction: PianoTV Q&A

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Today’s video is a pretty straight-forward and simple one, but it’s something I see done wrong all the time – and that is note stem direction.

As musicians, we read a lot of music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to notate it. This video doesn’t get into songwriting in the general sense – we’ll go there another day. Instead, let’s talk about how to literally write notes on the music staff.

Note Stem Direction

First of all, when stems are going up, it’s on the right side. And when stems are going down, they’re on the left side like so:

But how do you determine when you need to draw an up-stem or a down-stem?

If there’s just a single melody line, it’s actually super-easy. When you’re below the middle line, the stems go up. It’s just basic logic – there’s much more room for an up-stem here. And then once you get past the middle, and you’re in the upper part of the staff, the stem goes down – again, it’s logical. There’s room for the stem in that direction.

What about when the note is on the middle line? The stem can go up or down. It’s your call!

Linking 8th notes and 16th notes

But note stem direction isn’t always as simple as that. Sometimes, you have 8th notes linked together. Or 16th notes!

In this case, you follow the law of averages. Are most of the stems below the middle line, or above the middle line?

note-stem-direction-1

If most of the notes are below the middle line, then the stems would collectively go up – simple as that. And vice versa if the notes are above the middle line. Even if you have some stragglers who would normally have a stem going in a different direction from the rest of their group, they all get lumped in together.

Sometimes you’ll have an equal amount of notes that are higher or lower than the middle line – in that case, again, it’s your call! The stems can go up or down at your discretion.

Wide Leaps

In the case of wide leaps from one note to the next, you just have to figure out which one is furthest from the middle line, and then all of the stems will go in that direction.

note-stem-direction-2

So in this example, even though there are more C’s, and these C’s would normally have a down-stem, the presence of this F (3 steps lower than the middle line) brings the whole party to up-stems.

When there’s lots of large leaps, again, it comes down to majority rules.

note-stem-direction-3

We’re not going to talk about how to group 8th notes, or 16th notes together in this video – that’ll be a whole other topic for another day. Today the focus will simply be which direction the stems go in.

More than just a single melody line

But wait, there’s more.

All these rules are well and good when you just have one part in the staff, like a single melody line. But what happens when there are two separate parts trying to fit onto one staff?

Let’s go back to that Bach example from before, and take a look at the left hand. Look at these upper notes – they’re completely breaking the rules!

note-stem-direction-4

That’s because there are actually two separate parts here (both played by the left hand). You’ve got this high part, and this low part.

Take a look at the low part. Notice how every single stem is going down – which I suppose doesn’t break any of the rules we had talked about earlier.

But now take a look at the top part – all the stems are going up, even though by all accounts they should be going down. They go up to tell us that this is, in fact, a separate part.

So the gist of it is this: follow normal rules if there’s only one tune in your line of music – maybe it’s some chords, or maybe it’s a melody. But if there’s more than 1 line of notes on a single staff, the stems need to go in opposite directions. This is actually super common, especially once you start getting into more advanced music.

Note Stem Length

Now that we’ve got all the stem direction issues sorted out, let’s take a moment to discuss stem length. There will be no bad jokes to follow, I promise. Let’s keep it clean!

Seriously though, lots of students get this wrong. I see giant notes and I see little teeny-tiny notes.

The general rule of thumb is this: The stem of the note is the distance of an octave.

So if you have a note on middle C, the stem would extend all the way to treble C.

There are exceptions to this rule, because of course there are. Once you get an octave away from the middle line (in the treble clef, the middle line is B, so that would be a B higher and lower than that), the stem is extended to reach that middle line – otherwise the music staff starts looking weird and unbalanced.

Also, when a staff has more than one voice, the stems will be shorter (otherwise, since the stems have to go in weird directions, they’d be flying off the staff).

Conclusion

Like many topics we discuss here on PianoTV, notation is another one of those really big ones. But for the most part, note stem direction is super logical and doesn’t take a lot of practice to get right.

Good luck in your songwriting endeavors!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.