Hannemann’s Music Corner: The Staff

Los Alamos

Music exists in Time and Space. If we are going to talk and write, verbally, about music, which is non-verbal, we need a common point of reference.

The Space in which music is written is called The Staff:

Above is the Grand Staff. which is comprised of the G treble clef staff on top and the F bass clef staff below.

A note is a specific tone at a specific pitch. The tones are designated with the letters A – G which repeat at regular intervals of pitch, called octaves. We need a way to designate which octave, and hence which note, we are talking about. There are 5 “c” notes shown so if I say “play a c note” you could reasonably say “which one?” There are two ways to designate which octave, and which note, is wanted. The traditional method is C – B, c – b, c’ – b’, c” – b”, c’” – c”’. In the 1950s a new “scientific” notation was introduced using alpha-numerics: C2 – B2, c3 – b3, c4 – d4, c5 – b5, c6 – b6. I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist in this respect.

A note takes on the name of the space or line where the notehead resides. If the notehead is bisected by a line it is “on the line” and takes the letter designation for that line. If it is between lines it is “on the space” and takes the letter designation for the space.

The note between the staves is Middle C – this has nothing to do with the piano, it has to do with the history of the development of the staff.

There are some mnemonics, which help in learning the staff letters. For the treble clef the lines are Every Good Boy Does Fine and the spaces are F A C E (the space is your face):

For the bass clef the spaces are All Cars Eat Gas.

Which staff – grand staff, treble clef, or bass clef, an instrument uses will depend on the range of the instrument and its historical development, but ideally the range of the instrument, from low note to high note, will be fairly balanced on its staff.

Keyboard instruments, keyboard style percussion instruments (like the marimba), and the orchestral harp use this grand staff. These instruments are chord instruments and the player will likely be playing notes on both staves simultaneously.

The cello and French horn will play in treble clef and bass clef (due to the instrument range) but since they are principally single line instruments (meaning they don’t play chords though the cello can and occasionally will play two or more notes at the same time) they usually only see a single five line stave with the clef sign changing between treble and bass as appropriate to the range of the music.

Most wind, brass and string instruments will see their music on only the treble or the bass clef staff depending on instrument range. Early forms of these instruments usually had a limited range and assigning them one staff or the other was fairly easy. But as instruments evolved, this eventually created a problem: instruments began to attain a range that exceeded the range of their staff. By example, the written range of the clarinet has become from e3 to c7. Either we use a staff for this instrument comprised of 13 lines or we sort of pretend we have 13 lines.

In order to solve this leger, lines were developed. A leger line is a very short line, which takes the place of a non-existant staff line. The written range of the clarinet then is:

The short lines are the leger lines – three below the staff and five above. Notice I said the “written range” for the clarinet. The clarinet is a “transposing instrument”, which means what you see and what you hear are two different things. In the case of the clarinet it isn’t a big difference – the written range is a major 2nd (a whole tone – and we will deal with that elsewhere) above the sounding range. That means if you wrote the clarinet in its sounding range the low note would be d3 not e3.

The leger lines above the staff represent lines that don’t really exist. Not so the leger lines below the treble staff. In our graphic of the grand staff we showed the middle c, c4, as dividing the space between the treble and bass clefs. That means the leger lines below the middle c on the treble clef are actual lines on the bass clef.

If we were to grand staff the clarinet we would have (looking at just the lowest 8 notes):

We don’t do this because 1) the lower notes don’t use the entirety of the bass clef staff and more importantly 2) the fore-runners of the keyed clarinet didn’t have anything like the range we have been showing. It was easier to stay with the original treble clef assignment and simply add leger lines. More balanced, easier to read.

The guitar is its own problem. The guitar of the baroque era and earlier had a fairly limited range: from a3 to about b5. This balances well on a single stave – two leger lines down, one up. But the written range of the modern guitar – which was developed in the 1850’s – is the same as the written range of the modern clarinet.

But ……..

First, the guitar is a chord instrument playing chords that can have a range of six notes across twooctaves; yet we stash all those notes on one stave whereas with a keyboard we would put the music on grand staff to be easier to read.

Second, the written range of the guitar is an octave higher than its sounding range. If we were to write its sounding range on the treble clef the low e3 written would be the e2 sounded – seven

The solution may well be to grand staff the guitar. Its written and sound range would then be the same and it would look like this:

This would make more sense – certainly it would be easier to read the music. Indeed, there has been some small movement to try to make this the norm. But musicians are a conservative bunch (more than they are willing to admit) and slow to accept these sorts of changes. Additionally, we still have people who would prefer TAB, which is simply a fingering diagram (and not a very good one) to actual notation of any kind – getting them to go from TAB to grand staff would be like getting a flat-earther to accept the space age.

Thus are some of the mysteries of the staff explained. There are more, mostly of an archaic nature. For further reading you might try Gerald Read’s book “Music Notation”. And for a good general history of music “History of Western Music” by Grout and Palisca is still a standard text (I prefer the 4th edition – I think they may be up to 7th or 8th by now).


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