Music Teacher's Helper Blog

5 Music Theory Tips: Part 1

5 Music Theory Tips DiagramPrelude – For this month’s blog, I thought I might share five notation tips that you probably won’t find in the average theory textbook but nonetheless are important rules in music writing. Just before we get started, it’s important for you to remember that in music notation, the standard measurement of distance is worked out in stave (staff) spaces. In the music publishing industry, stave (staff) heights can range anywhere from 9.2 millimetres for educational music to 3.7 millimetres for a full orchestral score. Generally, for normal instrumental parts, a size of between 6.5 and 7 millimetres is commonly used. (All 5 tips are illustrated in the diagram which you can click to enlarge).

  1. How long should a stem be? – Normally, the length of a note’s stem in music notation should be three and a half spaces. An easier way to work out stem length though, is that wherever the pitch position of the note-head on the stave (staff), the stem needs to go up or down an octave. When the note-head is positioned with two ledger (leger) lines or more, the stem always extends to the middle line of the stave (staff).
  2. Where should a clef be positioned? – The clef must always be indented to the right by one stave (staff) space. It’s vertical position must also be precise to render the intended pitches of the notes that follow.
  3. Which side of the note-head does the stem go on? – Here’s a killer tip to help students remember that stems normally go upwards on the right hand-side and downwards on the left. All they need to remember is “upright piano!” Stems go “up-on-the-right” and down on the left!
  4. Where should the tempo direction be positioned? – Instructions regarding speed are always given above the music system. The compulsory, initial tempo direction, should always be positioned in alignment with the left hand side of the time signature.
  5. What is the order of signatures and clef? – New music writers often get confused about the order of items at the beginning of each new stave (staff) but it’s easy when they remember that they are in alphabetical order! CKT = Clef-Key signature-Time signature! Don’t forget to remind them that it is only at the very beginning they should use a time signature (unless the time signature changes). On all subsequent lines of music there should only be a clef followed by a key signature.

Have you got any good music theory tips to share? Feel free to leave a comment.

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!


  1. Me Jea

    Thank you for this post. I like to learn teaching tricks such as “upright piano”. In would love to find a clever trick to help students remember at what point on the staff the stem is up or down. Any ideas? Thank you 🙂

  2. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks for your comment. Notes on the middle line of the stave can go either up or down. Notes further from the middle line should go in the direction of back into the stave but I’m sure you know all this already. I haven’t got any clever ways of remembering all this but I’ll think about it and hopefully other teachers might share their ideas too. Thanks again

  3. Nathan Sw.

    I am currently a music education major three years in, and I like this post. I may try to use these techniques when I am actually teaching. How often do you usually meet these problems?

  4. Reuben Vincent

    Many thanks Nathan. I’m not quite sure which problems you are referring but it’s good to help a student to have a thorough knowledge of proper notation practice. Even the little details add up!

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