Beginner warning :-)

In the following image, the outlined chords are not grouped like a majority of the other chords with four notes. There are four chords later on in the last several measures that are not grouped/notated as the outlined mark chords.

The outlined notes are written the other side of the stem. Why so? Is it this way, they are easier to read perhaps?

chords notated on the other side of the stem


3 Answers 3


Very straightforward. There's no room for them in the normal place! When the writer wants notes that are on adjacent line/space positions, one will have to go on the opposite side of the stem, otherwise it'd be a big black blob. I don't think there's a rule as to which go wrong side, but tidiness, thus ease of reading is probably more important, but octaves would make sense on the 'proper' side.

  • Do you know if there's a "rule" for when to flip, if the notes aren't right on top of eachother? In the OP's example, the notes are right after another. But could you say, flip one of the notes in a group like this? That first group, it's pretty clear the notes are D-F-A-D, but could you flip that first F in that "triplet-group" to make it more clear? Or is that usually frowned upon/not done, and you'd really only flip them when the notes are next to eachother? (Does that question make sense?)
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 17:13
  • 1
    @BruceWayne I can't think of any instance where I'd see those flipped. It would be confusing to me because I'd expect that only to be done when the notes are one step apart. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 17:30
  • 2
    "Flipping" is allowed only for intervals of a second, not for larger ones. See my complete answer. Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 22:20
  • Occasionally one will even run into "split stems", when a chord contains two notes that go on the same line/space. See this question (and links therein) for some split stem examples. Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 15:24

Tim already provided the answer, but here's a quick mock up of what it'd look like if they weren't reversed:

enter image description here

It's hard to tell - are those notes in the second position D-E-F? It'd be hard to tell if you're playing along and get to that group.

Now, if you instead reverse the E, it becomes more clear what the notes are:

enter image description here

Apply that same logic to the (way) more intricate piece you posted, and you can see why it helps to reverse some notes when there are groups.


The book "Music Notation" by Gardner Read, second edition, page 71, has a dozen examples of how to do this correctly and incorrectly. The core of his instruction is: "The interval of a second... should be written with the stem between the note-heads. The higher pitch is always placed to the right. ...Likewise, chords containing tones a second apart should be written with the stem centered between the component note-heads of this interval. The "adjacent" tone (which creates the interval of the second) is placed to the right of the chord when the stem is upward [top 2 red rectangles in OP's question], and to the left when downward [bottom red rectangle]."

  • 1
    If there are an odd number of notes stacked, should the greater number of notes be placed on the "normal" side? How should the horizontal placement of accidentals vary with note head placement?
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 5:23
  • Odd or even doesn't matter, just start at the "tip" of the chord, work your way back to the stem, and put noteheads on the "abnormal" side as needed. Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 17:46
  • The layout of accidentals should approximate that of the noteheads. A full answer would have to cover cases like one on page 74, a chord of E natural, F natural, and F sharp, which looks like warheads peeling off from a MIRV on reentry. Or maybe a Feynman diagram. Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 17:50

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