A Basic Guide to the Musical Staff

The staff makes music easy to read once you know a few little tricks
The staff makes music easy to read once you know a few little tricks | Source

If you've ever examined a piece of music and thought it looked like a completely different language, then you were right. That's exactly what it is... and like any language, there are signposts you need to learn in order to be able to interpret it.

Music notation shows us where the notes are on the staff, and the staff shows us where the notes are in relation to each other. The clefs do their bit, too, giving us hints about the location of pitches. But how does it all come together to form the universal language that we call music?

Before we find out, let's take a quick historical journey back in time to discover where the staff comes from and how it developed.

Origins of the Musical Staff

Music was always a part of life, but its usage depended on who you were and your position in society.

In ancient times many people were uneducated and weren't able to read or write. Their musical experiences came from folk songs and from the music they heard at religious ceremonies. Only the wealthy and certain groups of people had access to libraries and musical reference materials.

Most of the first written music was created for sacred reasons, either for use in mass or to celebrate a feast day. This music was written down to be sung, with no instrumental accompaniment. The most obvious example of this is Gregorian chant, where priests and monks praised God by raising their voices, normally with text from prayers, psalms and the like, set to simple melodies.

It's thought that the very first written music was recorded on a single line, although here's an example of what's believed to be the first source of written music in Europe.

The Seikilos epitaph, the first European music score
The Seikilos epitaph, the first European music score | Source

It doesn't look like music, although it would make a lot more sense if you understood the Greek language. It's the equivalent of writing down the words of a tune - say Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star - with the notes to be sung or played above it, as in the example below:


The Lines and Spaces on the Staff

Eventually someone had the bright idea to put the notes on lines, making it easier to see the movement up and down and the relation of notes to each other. Four lines was the norm to begin with - as in the Gregorian chant example below - before the five-line system we're familiar with was adopted.

The Alleluia Laudate pueri of the Gradual Triplex, the revised Roman Rite for mass.
The Alleluia Laudate pueri of the Gradual Triplex, the revised Roman Rite for mass. | Source

In this example you can see not only the four lines, but also what looks like a stylized letter "C" at the very beginning. That "C" indicates where the tonic note is, or Doh, so that singers will be able to relate notes to each other. In other words, it's a basic clef.

Once you know where one note is, the others follow in logical sequence moving either up or down. In this case, if the stylized clef symbol shows where the note G is, for instance, then we can see that the first group of notes must be Ds and Es.

The grand staff
The grand staff | Source

Making the Staff Make Sense

As time marches on, music becomes available to the masses and is no longer reserved for a select few. The printing press makes it possible to publish music on a large scale. More people learn how to read and write, and more instruments are introduced. Music moves away from its association with the church and becomes a source of expression that ordinary people can participate in and even enjoy in the comfort of their own homes.

The influx of new instruments creates its own problems. Harpsichords and organs, for instance, need more than a few lines to include all the notes they're capable of producing. And that's when the grand staff (see picture) comes into play.

The grand staff is most commonly associated these days with piano music. As you probably know, the piano has the largest range of notes of all the instruments, and it takes a staff of this size with two clefs to make sure all of those notes are covered. But why does it look like this?

First of all, let's talk a little bit about middle C and the two clefs themselves.

Middle C Splits the Staff

Despite what some people think, middle C is not in the middle of the piano keyboard. It's near the middle, but it's not in the exact center. Middle C doesn't get its name from where it is on the piano - it gets its name from where it is on the grand staff.

You'll notice that the grand staff has two sets of 5 lines separated by a lot of space. Imagine that this space was taken away and an extra line was added. That line represents where middle C belongs. Here's a picture to show you exactly what I mean.

Middle C lies exactly in the middle of the two clefs, treble and bass
Middle C lies exactly in the middle of the two clefs, treble and bass | Source

It's possible that this was the first design for the grand staff, placing an extra line in to indicate where middle C lies. But as you can see, it makes for very hard reading. So, instead, the line was taken away and ledger lines were added. These are the notes that sit above or below the staff lines and are indicated with smaller lines running through them. These "smaller" lines are really extensions of the existing 5 lines you find on any staff system, and it's a ledger line that makes middle C so easily recognizable.

Ledger lines display notes outside the range of the staff
Ledger lines display notes outside the range of the staff | Source

Clefs Identify Notes on the Staff

Remember the stylized "C" clef above? My guess is that it stood for the note C. The reason for that is simple: if you examine the two most popular clefs in use today - the treble clef and the bass clef - they're both stylized versions of note names.

Take the treble clef, for instance. The way the bottom of the clef curls around one of the lines on the staff tells us a number of things:

  • The line is a particular note
  • The note is G above middle C

If you study the shape of the treble clef closely you'll see that it resembles a fancy letter "G" - which is why it's also called the G clef. This clef pinpoints the note G above middle C.

The bass clef has two dots that surround one of the lines. Also called the F clef, it shows us the location of the note F below middle C - between the two dots - and resembles a highly stylized letter F.

How the clefs help identify specific notes
How the clefs help identify specific notes | Source

The Staff Makes Reading Music Easy

Now things are starting to add up. Once you know the locations of middle C, of G above middle C and of F below middle C, it becomes easy enough to work out what the rest of the notes must be. With instruments such as the piano capable of playing such wide note ranges, a grand staff divided up in this way makes perfect sense. You can see why the system of lines makes reading music as easy as possible, and you can also see what role the clefs play in keeping musicians and composers on track.

For more information about reading music, why not visit my Sharps and Flats hub? See you there!

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