Smashing Teaching Note Stem Rules with Note Stem Smash!

Do you struggle when it comes to the teaching of the note stem rules? These rules can seem pretty unappealing to music students…and maybe even irrelevant. Two ingredients that make my mind whirr and think: “There must be a game in this somewhere!”

The way I teach note stems in Thinking Theory is by following three rules.

  1. Note stems below the middle line go up on the right. Note stems on the middle line and above go down on the left.
  2. Note stems finish at the same note an octave higher or lower.
  3. Note stems more two ledger lines or more out finish at the middle line.

Did your eyes glaze over? Mine did a little and I’m the one writing it. Imagine what our students would think of these dry rules!

Note Stem Game

Which leads me to my latest music theory game. In Note Stem Smash! students have to train their eyes to see when these rules are being broken. In this way they’ll learn how they can self-correct as they’re drawing notes, and eventually the rules will become second nature.

How to Play

  • Divide the deck between the two players and place the stacks side-by-side with a space in the middle.
  • Players take turns to draw a card from the top of their pile, and turn it over into the centre pile.
  • If a player notices an incorrect note stem s/he should say “SMASH!” and place her/his hand on top of the centre pile. These cards then get added to the bottom of her/his own pile.
  • The winner is the one with all the cards, or the most cards when time is up.


  • Print out card fronts (pages 3–6).
  • Print the decorative back on page 7 on the reverse side if desired.
  • Cut the cards along the dotted lines.
  • Laminate the cards if desired.

This is another game that can be made to fit a specific time frame. I’m aware that teachers are often conscious of using up lesson time, so this way you can control where the game fits in your lesson plan.

If you’re looking for more music theory games, you should definitely take a look at my off-the-bench catalogue. There’s a ton of games there, organised by what concept they drill.

Download Note Stem Smash!

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Landmark Notes Flipped Learning Video

In this video, I explain the note stems in a way that students can understand. I run through the three note stem rules and demonstrate how they’re used.

Feel free to send this video to parents for their kids to watch, use it in group lessons or as part of lab time. It’s designed to be clear and concise so that students can watch it – and then get on with some writing work for reinforcement.

This video correlates directly to Thinking Theory Book Two page 2. View the full Thinking Theory series here and see what makes these workbooks so special.

More Flipped Thinking Theory

If you liked this music theory video, you might also like these others:

Do you explain the note stems differently?

Have you come up with a genius way to make this topic interesting? We’d love to hear it in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers community on Facebook.

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