MUS 111-212 Sheet

Notation Basics:
Stems & Ties, Beams, Accidentals

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Stems & Ties

  1. STEM LENGTH:  one octave.

  2. STEM LENGTH WITH LEGER LINES:  When a note extends beyond one leger line, the stem must touch the middle staff line.

  3. STEM DIRECTION:  For notes on the middle staff line and above, the stem is down.

  4. STEM DIRECTION:  For notes below the middle staff line, the stem is up.


  • When two notes are an equal distance from the middle line, the preferred direction is down.

  • If the note above is farther from the middle line than the note below, the stem goes down.

  • If the note below is farther from the middle line, the stem goes up.

  1. STEM DIRECTION:  When the outer notes (extreme top and bottom notes) are an equal distance from the middle line and the majority of notes are above the middle line, the stem goes down.

  2. STEM DIRECTION:  When the outer notes are an equal distance from the middle line and the majority of notes are below the middle line, the stem goes up.

  3. CHORDS WITH THE INTERVAL OF A 2nd:  The stem is always placed between the two notes of an interval of a 2nd, with the upper note always to the right--the lower note always to the left.

  4. NOTES SHARING A STAFF:  Notes have opposite stem direction when sharing a staff if the parts represent different melodic lines.  Stems in the "wrong direction" will have shorter stems than normal.

  5. TIES:  Tie noteheads, not stems, away from the stems.


Beams greatly simplify the reading of music, substituting for individual flags in groupings of notes smaller than a quarter note.  Because of the ease in reading beams, the use of flags in vocal music--in relation to the lyric--has become obsolete.

  1. CONNECTION TO THE STEM:  Beams are connected to the side of the stem.  They must be flush to the stem, both vertically and horizontally.

  2. PRIMARY AND SECONDARY BEAMS:  The beam that is farthest from the noteheads and connects a group of notes is called a primary beam.  This beam remains unbroken throughout the grouping.  Any beam other than the primary beam is a secondary beam.  The secondary beam may be broken to divide the grouping into smaller units for easier reading.

  3. FRACTIONAL BEAMS:  A fractional beam is also a secondary beam, and is associated with only one note.  The length of a fractional beam is the same as the width of a notehead, and is always placed inside the grouping, usually following or preceding a beamed, dotted note.

Beaming and Meter

The basic purpose of a beam is to connect two or more notes within the same beat.  Meter must be considered when grouping notes with a beam.  In any simple meter, each beat is divisible by two; a beam may connect the two notes.

  1. 2/4:  Either beaming is permissible.

  2. 3/4:  Either beaming is permissible.

  3. 4/4:  Either beaming is permissible; however, do not connect the notes of beat two with the notes of beat three.

  4. 6/8, 9/8, 12/8:  When each pulse of the measure is divided into three parts, the meter is called compound.  A beam indicates each triple grouping.


  • (a) If both notes are the same distance from the middle line, the preference is for stems down.

  • (b, c) Stem direction is determined by the note farthest from the middle line.

  1. MULTIPLE BEAMED NOTES:  If the majority of the notes are on or above the middle line, the stems go down.  If the majority of the notes are below the middle line, the stems are up.


  1. For intervals of a 2nd through a 6th, place the upper accidental closest to the note, and the lower accidental to the left.

  2. When intervals are greater than a 6th, accidentals align vertically.

  3. For the interval of a 6th, if the two accidentals don't collide they may be aligned vertically.

  4. When outer notes are a 6th or less, the upper accidental is closest to the note, the lower accidental is placed left, and the middle accidental is placed farthest left.

  5. When outer notes are greater than a 6th, upper and lower accidentals are aligned closest to the notes--the middle accidental is placed to the left.

  6. Accidentals for the 2nd should usually be "shaped like the 2nd" (if the outer notes are greater than a 6th).

  7. Accidentals are always placed before the entire note structure.  (Do not place an accidental between notes that are played together, even if they are stemmed in opposite directions.)

  8. This example is incorrect, since the natural is placed between notes.

Alignment for Chords of More Than 3 Notes

When dealing with accidentals for complex chords, rules are treated more as guidelines or suggestions.  Keep the arrangement of the accidentals as compact as possible.

Make the arrangement of accidentals as easy to read as possible for the situation.

Align the highest and lowest accidentals whenever possible.

The center accidentals are usually arranged diagonally from highest to lowest.

Align accidentals for octaves whenever possible.

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