How is it that stems became a part of standard music notation?

I was genuinely unable to find an answer to this anywhere on the internet - I couldn't even find an instance of anyone asking the question.

  • Both the breve and the semi-breve do not have stems.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 11:53
  • 1
    How else would one signify notes shorter than crotchets - with tails on the stems?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 12:47
  • 2
    "the definitive origin and reasoning behind note stems": stems have been used for different purposes at different times. Are you interested in any appearance of stems or in the first example where they are clearly used to encode rhythmic information?
    – phoog
    Commented May 24, 2022 at 8:12

2 Answers 2


According to Apel's book on chant, the earliest Gregorian Chant notation had lots of marks (so the TRVE ORIGIN is probably lost in historical obscurity); there were two single note marks, one sort of like a dash or a dot (called a punctum) and one like a tail-walking tadpole (called a virga.) The punctum represented a low tone or a tone reached by descending; the virga represented a high tone or a tone reached by ascending. This was before the staff (of 1 to 7 or more lines) was introduced. Other single-note signs developed from these.


Current meaning

With the style of note heads and other signs, note stem (along its flag which is attached to the stem) is a way to show the length of a note in Western style of writing music (see here):

  • no stem means is a whole note (usually 4 beats)
  • stem without flag means half-note (usually 2 beats) if the note is hollow, quarter-note if the note is filled black (usually 1 beat)
  • stem with single flag means eighth note (usually half a beat)
  • stem with double flags means sixteenth note (usually quarter a beat)
  • stem with triple flags means thirty-second note (usually eighth a beat)
  • etc

Early appearance of stems

Earliest stems may have appeared with earliest neumes in Gregorian singing (~9th-11th centuries), but their roles are not related to note length.enter image description here

Early use of stems for note duration

In the 12th-13th century, it may be Pérotin and his students who first used the stems as temporal signs (along with the note shape), with the introduction of proportional duration, which divided the time unit (maxime) into longa, brevis et semi-brevis .

enter image description here

When did current style of stems appear?

The current style of stems may have been fixed later with standardization of music notation constrained by the use of print characters (however, alternative notations are still in use, e.g.shape notes). I'm missing documentation to tell more about this.

  • The use of note stems to convey rhythmic information predates printing by several centuries.
    – phoog
    Commented May 24, 2022 at 9:05
  • 1
    Thanks @phoog, I modified the last paragraph to make it clearer, and I added a paragraph about Pérotin for a maybe-first use of stem for note duration
    – Noil
    Commented May 24, 2022 at 9:51

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