Harmonic Interval Stem Direction – 4 Mistakes

Half Note Harmonic Second

Harmonic Interval Stem Direction - 4 Common Mistakes

What is the rule for the Harmonic Interval Stem Direction?

Writing a Harmonic Second using Quarter Notes or Half Notes seems like a pretty simple thing, right?

I thought so until I started teaching the harmonic interval stem direction of a second.

Then I realized that I struggled with understanding why my students were writing incorrect notes. How did that happen?

Share your Harmonic Interval Stem Direction Experience at the bottom of the blog.

A Quarter Note is written with a black face and a stem. A Half Note is written with a white face and a stem. The stem direction goes up on the right and down on the left. Easy, right?

Alas, there are so many music decorations out there with incorrect stem placement, it drives me crazy! The reason is that the designers take a note and flip it instead of rotating it.

stem direction of a quarter note
Do you recognize any of those incorrect notes?

I’ve seen them on coffee cups, earrings, socks, etc.  Students often copy what they see around them, so when your student sees these incorrect notes and stem placements on their t-shirt, they don’t think twice about writing them in their theory.

In printed music, a Half Note is written with a fancy shaded effect around the circle. Students are not expected to be that fancy when writing a half note! They do not need to copy what they see - a simple circle with a stem is all that is required.

musical half note vs written

UMT Tip – a stem is approximately one octave in length.

Harmonic Interval Stem Direction

When writing the Harmonic Interval Stem Direction of a 2nd using Quarter Notes or Half Notes, what are some of the funny mistakes you have seen your students do?

Top 4 mistakes in writing the Harmonic Interval Stem Direction of a 2nd

1. One stem is used, but on the left (or right) side of the harmonic 2nd noteheads.

2. Two stems are used, one for each notehead.

harmonic interval stem direction
UMT Tip – A Harmonic Interval Stem Direction of a 2nd written using Quarter Notes or Half Notes will use 1 stem.
The stem is placed in between the two noteheads.

3. The stem points in the incorrect direction.

4. One stem is used for the stem down note and one stem is used for the stem up note.

stem direction half note harmonic 2nd

The Harmonic Interval Stem Direction will follow the Stem Rule of the note that is the furthest away from the middle line.

The Stem Rule. When the notehead is:

  • ABOVE the middle line, stem DOWN on the left
  • ON the middle line, stem DOWN on the left or UP on the right
  • BELOW the middle line, stem UP on the right.

When writing a Harmonic Second, write the noteheads first (lower note on the left) then add the stem pointing in the proper direction for the note that is the furthest away from the middle line.

UMT Tip - Do you want to teach your students a fun Stem Rule Memory Jogger using pizza and donuts?  Check out Prep 1 Rudiments Theory Workbook on Page 40.

Next time you want to buy that necklace with the quarter note pendants, or that t-shirt with all the notes on it – double check the stems!

If the designer is using incorrect stem placements, then don’t buy it.

Sure it looks cool to the untrained eye, but we musicians must stand together to fight the use of flipped notes. Let’s unite in the fight for proper placement of stems! LOL

Or, well, we could just teach our students – who are the future designers of the world – to write Harmonic Interval Stem Direction using Quarter Notes and Half Notes correctly, and to follow proper placement of stems using the Stem Rule.

Starting them in Prep 1 Rudiments with their beginner method books, assigning one page of Rudiments Theory each week, starts them on the road to success. Theory becomes part of their practice routine from day #1.

By using the Prep 1 Rudiments Theory Workbook alongside their method books, your students learn all the theory tips and Memory Joggers that will create a firm pedagogic and theoretic foundation. And they will learn how to place their stems properly!

P.S. Join the conversation. Have you ever received a gift that had incorrectly written notes on it? Share your story below.


Ultimate Music Theory Certification Course Online Teacher Training includes: 50 Video Sessions, All Materials, Online Support,
Exam Marking & Certificate!

Click HERE to discover what you will learn in the Ultimate Music Theory Certification Course.  Your professional development Online Teacher Training starts here.

Keep on Learning... With a Smile and a Song!

Shelagh McKibbon-U'Ren


2 thoughts on “Harmonic Interval Stem Direction – 4 Mistakes”

  • B Johnson says:

    I could not agree with you more. There’s nothing worse than incorrect stems on clothing or even music accessories like pencil sharpeners and erasers etc. It’s time the designers of such articles got it right.

    • Shelagh McKibbon-U'Ren says:

      I’ll never forget the time I picked my niece up the cutest pair of musical socks ever (at an MTNA Conference). When I gave them to my sister (also a Piano Teacher), she looked at me and said “Shelagh, I can’t let Layla wear these!”. I asked her why. She went on to point out to me all the incorrect stem directions and flags. Definitely a “DOH” moment for me. From now on, I examine every notation on an item before buying it. Shelagh

Join The Conversation!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *