Music Note Stem Length

Stem Length Which Is Correct

Music Note Stem Length - Too Short or Too Long or Just Right?

When writing notes with stems, the usual stem length is approximately one octave.

No, your Teacher or Examiner is not going to take out a ruler to measure to the exact millimeter (or to the exact 10th of an inch).  However, it is usually pretty obvious when a stem length is too short or too long or just right, right?

In my blog "Music Note Stems - Pizza and Donuts", we looked at a really fun Memory Jogger to help Students remember which side of the notehead to add their stem.

In my blog "Eighth Note Flags - Fly Left or Fly Right", we discovered the correct way to add flags to stems and noteheads.

In my blog "Harmonic Interval Stem Direction", we looked at 4 common mistakes Students and Teachers make when adding stems to Harmonic Intervals.

And now, in this blog, we are going to look at the "Exception to the Rule" when adding a stem to a note.

Music Note Stem Length:  The "Eyeball" Quiz!

Let’s “eyeball” the stem lengths in Pop Quiz #1 (use your “eyes” to look and measure).  Can you identify whether the stem length for each note is too short, too long or just right?

Stem Length - The Eyeball Quiz

So, how confident are you of your answers?  These do look pretty obvious, don’t they?

Just in case you aren’t sure, the music note stem length answers are:

a)  too short     b) too long     c)  just right     d)  too short     e)  too long     f)  just right

Music Note Stem Length – Ledger Line Notes

While researching the Theory Requirements for the RCM 2016 Theory Syllabus, Glory St. Germain and I spent hundreds of hours clarifying the new required theory concepts.

In Level 5 Theory, students are required to write and identify notes up to and including four ledger lines above and below the Treble Staff and the Bass Staff.

While writing the UMT LEVEL 5 Supplemental Workbook (which is used after Students complete their UMT LEVEL 4 Supplemental Workbook and the Basic Rudiments Workbook to cover all the requirements of the 2016 Royal Conservatory of Music Theory Syllabus for the Level 5 Theory Examination), I began to question whether or not the stem length is affected by the pitch of a note.

Let’s take a look at music note stem lengths for notes on ledger lines.  Can you identify whether the stem length for each note in “Stem Length Pop Quiz #2” is too short, too long or just right?

Stem Lenght Pop Quiz Ledger Line Notes

By taking into consideration only the “Stem Length Rule” (stems are approximately one octave in length), it LOOKS like these stems are all “just right”, doesn’t it?

However, each and every one of the music note stems in Stem Length Pop Quiz #2 is too short.  (And I mean significantly too short.)

When is a Music Note Stem Length longer than an Octave?

On Page 10 in the UMT LEVEL 5 Supplemental Workbook, we discover the Stem Length Rule for notes on Ledger Lines:

When a note is written on a ledger line, the stem length must be extended so that the stem reaches (touches or slightly passes) the center line (line #3) of the staff.

Who knew?  I didn’t!  But it certainly does make sense!  When a note is on a ledger line, it just can’t be floating off in space above or below the staff!  It must be grounded (attached) to the staff.  To do this, it must touch line 3 of the staff!

Here are the CORRECT Music Note Stem Lengths for Pop Quiz #2:

Stem Length Pop Quiz Ledger Lines Answers
Music Theory LEVEL 5

On Page 10 of the LEVEL 5 Supplemental Workbook, you will also learn how to add a flag (or flags) to notes on ledger lines.  Check it out!

I am very fussy when it comes to drawing straight stems, bar lines, ledger lines, etc. as I feel that it is important that we aim for accuracy in all writing work.  Putting our “pencil to paper” is such a vital part of learning music theory.

I absolutely love my UMT Rulers (yes, I have several).  The sturdy see-through plastic allows me to actually see what I am doing when I draw my straight lines and they clip into my UMT Workbooks and Answer books!  They also make a great Recital Gift for your students.

So now, like me, you know what the Exception is to the "Approximately One Octave in Length" Music Note Stem Rule!  Isn't it exciting to learn something new?

Teach the UMT Supplemental Series Course

Teach the UMT Supplemental Series Course - 10 Video Sessions on how to simplify complex concepts from the 2016 RCM Theory Syllabus in the UMT Supplemental Series.

To help you even more we've created FREE RESOURCES for you to use as learning tools and building blocks in your musical adventure.

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

Shelagh McKibbon-U'Ren


One thought on “Music Note Stem Length”

  • Janet Toews says:

    As well, I had no idea about the stems of notes on ledger lines needing to touch line 3 of the staff! Who knew? Well you found out. Awesome!

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