When writing music in sheet music form, I know that when writing harmonic intervals of a second, one of the two notes is on the opposite side of the notehead. My trouble is determining which note to put on the opposite side of the stem. What are the conventions as to which noteheads go on which side of the stem? Do lines and spaces make the difference? Is it vertical position on the staff? And how does this apply to the same situation when the two notes are in different voices?

  • Hey, my first HNQ! :)
    – user45266
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 17:24

1 Answer 1


I've always understood that the lower pitch of the harmonic second occurs on the left side:

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This is also true when additional pitches are added in. On beat four, the E is now on the right because the first second encountered is D–E (and no longer E–F).

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When you're writing separate voices, however, you write the higher pitch first, with the lower voice offset a bit to the right:

enter image description here

Some comments are wondering if these are just the LilyPond standards, since that's why I used to create these examples. They are, but keep in mind too that LilyPond is exceedingly well-researched, creating their notational algorithms by following notational tradition as well as notational manuals. For anyone interested, consult page 29 of LilyPond's Essay on Automated Music Engraving to see nine pages of bibliography they consulted in creating the software.

  • I just noticed that the separate voices case sort of automatically aligns the two stems to create the illusion of one longer stem running through the entire staff. That'll make that easy to remember. This is exactly what I was looking for, thanks. (Also, I can't believe I never thought to actually fire up my notation software to experiment...)
    – user45266
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 23:20
  • 1
    I'm sure this depends entirely on the software used to format the music. Or in the days before such programs (or computers in general) existed, I imagine it was kind of the wild west out there - just put those notes wherever they fit. Conventions would vary from one publisher to the next, or even from one composer to the next. I've definitely seen examples of the same piece of music published by 2 different publishers with variations in how they represent things like that. Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 17:28
  • Isn't this just a typesetting problem?
    – Bort
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 17:33
  • 1
    For two notes on a common stem, I was once told to think of a male cat walking away from you: the left one hangs lower.
    – Jim L.
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 21:52

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