The Stem Rule – How To Know What Direction The Stems Should Go

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The stem rule tells us which direction the stem of a music note must be written on the music staff

You may have noticed that sometimes you see stems going up for some notes and going down for others.

This is not just random. There are two compositional rules musicians follow when writing notes on the staff.

stem rule

Rule #1

If the notehead of a music note is on the third line of the staff or above, the stems must go down on the left.   (If you’re not sure what the third line is, read more here about the lines and spaces.)

Write the stem attached to the left side of the note and point it down below the notehead.

Rule #2

If the notehead is below the third line, the stem goes up on the right.  In other words, attach the stem to the right side of the note and have it travel upward above the notehead.


Q. Does it matter what the clef sign is?

A. Nope.  The same rule applies to all clef signs.  This includes treble clef, bass clef and the C-clef’s.

Q. Does the direction of the stem effect the note value?

A. No. It doesn’t matter what direction the stem is going.  You will still treat the note the same.

Q. Is this rule universal?

A. Yes.  This same procedure of writing music is followed all over the world.

That’s it!  Those are your two basic rules for why you sometimes see the stem of a note pointing up, and other times down. 

Just remember that notes on the third line and above have stems down on the left and anything below that is up on the right.

Really, the stem rule is pretty easy to memorize.  In fact, why don’t you try doing that right now?

Draw yourself a quick five line staff on a scrap piece of paper and try your hand it.  Practicing this a few times is a great way to remember it.

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37 Replies to “The Stem Rule – How To Know What Direction The Stems Should Go”


Okay so I’m in choir at my school. I’m a senior and was never taught stem direction or anything. I believe the jet is a C. It’s below the staff and it has a line through it… Which way would the stem go?

For any notes that hang below the music staff (like middle C), the stems go up on the right. For notes that are on the 3rd line of the staff or above, the stems go down on the left.


Teresa, i believe the third from the bottom paragraph is incorrect, Please check this as it contradicts what you have said at the top of the page about stems on noteheads.

Thank you for catching that mistake Fran! I just did a quick edit.


I’m unsure about the direction of stems when it comes to grouped notes. I’m looking at a book now with the notes in treble clef. I’m looking at a group of three quavers: F (in the bottom space of the treble clef) up to A and then up to B. These notes are all pointing up – yet B’s on their own point down. A bar later, I have A, D, C, A and this group of notes are all pointing down….I’m trying to see a rule or a pattern but I can’t. I’d be grateful for an explanation. It’s even more complex when the music has two or more voices.

Hi Tony- For every music writing rule, there are exceptions. When notes are beamed together (like eighth notes or quavers), the direction of the stems depends on where the majority of the notes are placed on the staff. If there are 3 out 4 notes with noteheads placed below the 3rd line, then all of the stems will point up on the right. Any notes with stems not beamed to other notes (like a quarter note or crotchet) will follow the rules listed above.

Anthony O’Donnell

I am writing some music and in my music I have sixteenth and thirty-second notes in my music. How do these rules apply and how do I write them since there is the double and triple beam that connects sixteenth and thirty-second notes? If you or any body knows or could point me in the right direction that would be great. Thanks.

The same rules apply to any note value. If the majority of the notes within the sixteenth or thirty-second beamed grouping are on the third line of the staff or higher, then ALL of the stems within that grouping go down on the left. If the majority of the notes fall below the third line, then ALL of the stems within that same group of beamed notes go up on the right.


Thank-you for the info. It was very useful :))


Please does the length of the stem matters either up or down,if yes how do we know or draw the length of the stem. Thanks.

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