The staff

Reading music is not difficult.  The first thing to know is that there are five parallel lines that make a staff:

blank staff


As it sits now, those five lines mean nothing.  You can’t say that the middle line is B or D or C.  We define these lines by placing a symbol – a clef[1] – at the beginning:

Treble clef with staff.png

That symbol at the far left is called a treble clef[2].  This clef defines the lines, going up from the bottom line, as E G B D F.  The spaces between the lines, going up from the bottom space, are F A C E.

Some of the musicians that use this clef when performing written music are those who play violin, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, French horn, Glockenspiel, and soprano and alto voices.

If the clef is a bass clef[3], it would look like this:

bass clef with staff

The lines, going up from the bottom line, are G B D F A.  Going up, the spaces are A C E G.

Some of the musicians that use this clef when performing written music are those who play cello, double bass, bassoon, trombone, euphonium, and tuba.

There is another clef that is sometimes used: the C clef[4].  This clef defines where middle C is (remember the piano?).

C clefs with staff.png

In the first C clef example, the lines, going up, are F A C E G and the spaces are G B D F.

Instruments that use this clef include viola, cello, bassoon, trombone, and tenor and bass voices.  You probably have seen that cello, bass, and trombone players read two clefs; it is determined by whether the musician is playing in his or her lower or upper range.

“But what about the piano?” you may ask.  Along with the piano, other keyboard instruments, harp, and marimba are among other instruments that use two clefs, not because they have two hands, although that seems logical, but because these instruments have a wide range.  These instruments often use a grand staff:

C grand staff.png

You may ask, “what if I want to play a note that is outside the staff?”  Good question. The solution is called a ledger line.  A ledger line would be used for each pitch; if several pitches are involved, as in a melody, each pitch would have the ledger lines they need.

grand staff with ledger lines.png

“But,” you may interrupt, “what if I wanted a pitch that needs one or more ledger lines below the treble clef of above the bass clef while still using the grand staff?”  Another good question.  The pic below shows a bunch of pitches in relation to the treble clef and the bass clef, and get this: these are the same pitches!  The G in the top staff is the same pitch as the G on the bottom staff, etc.  Isn’t that cool!?

ledger lines with unison pitches.png

For instruments that use the grand staff, it is common to see ledger lines between the staves (plural of “staff”).  Because, on the piano and other grand staff using instruments, the higher pitches are situated to the right of the musician, the top staff of the grand staff is often designated for use by the right hand and the left hand uses the bottom staff.  Don’t worry for now about all of the black ink in this example.  I’ll explain that stuff later.

grand staff Beethoven piano sonata example.png
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op. 49, No. 2


You will rarely see an instance where the right hand is playing notes below the treble clef and the left hand is playing notes above the bass clef.  It’s easy to see why:  the hands would collide, and the fingers would perhaps get tangled up (who wants that?).  It’s not impossible, though.  In the following example, some planning ahead is required before playing it:

RH & LH crossing fingers.png
Béla Bartók, Allegro Barbaro

It’s also possible to have both staves using the same clef and to change clef in the middle.  Again, some planning needs to happen before playing this:

grand staff - both hands same clef and change clef.png
Béla Bartók, Allegro Barbaro

Key Signature

I have another post dedicated to key.  In short, the key signature are the sharps or flats, or lack of them, that designate which key the composition is in.

key signature
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op. 49, No. 2

The sharp signs to the right of the clefs show the key signature.  Following the key signature is the time signature.  The key signature in this example tells me that the piece is in G major.  Briefly, to tell what key you’re in,

  • In sharpland and in major keys, look at the sharp sign furthest to the right and go up ½ step. In this case, there is only 1 sharp, on F (making it F#).  Go up ½ step and you’ll land on G.
  • In flatland and in major keys, look at the flat sign furthest to the right and go left by one flat. In example below, there are 6 flats and the second last flat is on G (making it G flat).
flatland key signature
Frédéric Chopin, Contredanse in Gb Major, B. 17

Time Signature

I will have a later post that will dive deeper into durations:   time signature, beats per measure, note values, rhythms, form . . .  In short, the time signature designates how many beats are in a measure.  See note values.

[1] See  Briefly, “clef” means that the symbol is the key to unlocking the puzzle of how to interpret those five lines.

[2] It’s also called the G clef because the inner swirl converges around G.

[3] also known as an F clef because the two dots are on either side of F.

[4] Depending on which line the two semicircles surround, it could also be called, left to right in the pic:  alto, tenor, mezzo-soprano, soprano clef, baritone clef.

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