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Clefs, notes, and the stave

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Fundamental to the theory of music, of course, are the notes themselves and the way they are written down. This guide looks at notes and notation, introduces clefs, and covers everything you need to know about the stave.

What is the stave?

The stave is simply the five lines across a page on which notes are written. There are five lines and four spaces between those lines, and a note can be written on a line or in a space. Later on, we'll look at notes that can be written above and below the stave.

The most important thing to know about a stave is which note is written on which line or space. This depends on the clef used; a clef is the symbol you'll find on the left-hand hand end of each stave.

Some staves and clefsSome staves and clefs

There are two very commonly encountered clefs, and we'll look at those in a moment, but first let's look at the names of the notes themselves.

Names of notes

In English-speaking countries, we name the notes according to letter names, alphabetically from A to G (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), repeating from A again when we reach G (so: E, F, G, A, B, C ...). These notes are written on the stave with one note to each line or space.

However, rather than thinking of A as the "beginning", we usually start from C, for reasons that will become clear when you start to look at keys and scales. Therefore, think of: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C as the basic sequence of notes.

Alternative names

There are several other systems for naming the notes. You might not encounter these in your music theory studies, but you are quite likely to see them in music.

The English system (A to G) is similar to the German system, except that the German system adds the letter H, which is the same note as the English B natural; B flat is simply called B in the German system. This system is commonly used in northern Europe.

An alternative system is commonly used in southern European countries (specifically those with a "Romance" language, such as Spain, France, and Italy). This uses the syllables do (or ut), re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti (or si), which correspond to the notes C through B.

The treble clef

Perhaps the most commonly-encountered clef is the treble clef. This swirly clef is actually a stylised letter "G", and the centre of this clef indicates the note G, as shown in the example below, along with the other notes on the stave from C to C.

The treble clef, indicating GThe treble clef, indicating G

Notice how the lowest C is below the stave, on an short, extra line. This extra line is called a ledger line and allows us to write down notes that would otherwise not fit on the stave. We'll look more at ledger lines in another study guide.

This C below the treble stave is an important note and has a special name: middle C, and is a useful reference point for locating pitches on instruments and for comparing the same note on different staves.

The bass clef

The other commonly-encountered clef is the bass clef. It isn't quite as ornate as the treble clef, but it's also a stylised letter; in this case the letter "F". Just as with the treble clef, it marks the location of the note F on the stave, as shown in the example below.

The bass clef, indicating FThe bass clef, indicating F

Notice here how the highest C is just above the stave, on a ledger line similar to the one used for the low C on the treble clef. This note is the same note as the low C in the treble clef, i.e. middle C.

We can now see (thanks to this "middle C") how the staves join up, with notes running up from the bass clef to the treble clef. Now let's look at the stave in a little more detail.

The stave

The stave (also called the staff) has five lines and four spaces between the lines. On the page, if the piece of music takes up more than the width of the page, the stave wraps onto a new line.

Some instruments require more than one stave, for example the piano, which has two staves (normally, one for each hand), and the organ, which has three staves (the extra one is for the pedals, played with the feet). Music for several instruments is shown with one instrument to a stave in a score.

When there is more than one stave in use at once, all of the staves wrap onto each new line. Each line therefore contains more than one stave, and we call each of these sets of staves a system.

For example, music for a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello - a total of four instruments) would be written on a score made up of four staves to a system.

The grand staff

A set of two staves, one with a treble clef and one with a bass clef (just as you would expect for a piano) is given a special name, the grand stave (or grand staff), and is written with a curly bracket (also called a "brace") coupling the two staves together.

The next example shows a grand staff with all the notes labelled on each line and space.

The grand staffThe grand staff

Can you spot middle C, lying just in the middle of the treble and bass staves?


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