The Staff in Music Notation

music staff
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The music staff is the foundation for music notation, consisting of a set of five horizontal lines and the four spaces that are between the lines. The term "staff" is more common in American English and "stave" is used in British English, but the plural in both instances is "staves." Other terms for the staff are the Italian pentagramma, the French portée and the German Notensystem or Notenlinien

The staff can be thought of as a musical graph on which music notes, rests, and musical symbols are placed to indicate to the reader the specific pitch of a note. Notes are written on and between staff lines, but when they fall off of the staff, they’re placed on ledger lines that lay below and above the staff. 

When counting lines and spaces on a staff, the bottom line of the staff is always referred to as the first line, with the top line being the fifth. 

The Purpose of the Staff in Music Notation

Each line or space on the staff represents a specific pitch, which correlates to the clef that is on the staff. The exception to the pitched rule is in the case of percussion staves. On a percussion staff, each line or space indicates a specified percussive instrument rather than a pitched note. 

The different clefs -- placed at the beginning of the staff to indicate its pitch -- result in the lines and spaces having different meanings for pitch. The most commonly known and recognized staff is the staff used in piano music. Piano music uses two staves, known collectively as the grand staff (U.S.), or great stave (U.K.). 

The Grand Staff

The grand staff is the two-part piano staff used to accommodate the piano’s wide range of notes. The top treble staff and the bottom bass staff, are joined together by a bracket to show that the two staves function as one unit.

Similarly, the barlines that are written on the staves go directly from the top of the treble staff down to the bottom of the base staff and do not break in the space between the two staves. With the vertical line drawn down on both staves, it creates a "system," indicating again that the staves are to be played as one musical unit. 

The grand staff joins two staves with two separate clefs. The resulting staff can show a wide range of pitches available to play on the piano. 

  • Treble Staff
    The top staff of the grand staff is the treble staff, which is marked with the treble clef (also called a G-clef). Its notes are generally middle C and higher and are typically played with the right hand. Middle C on the treble staff is notated on the first ledger line below the staff. 
  • Bass Staff
    The bottom staff of the grand staff is the bass staff, marked with the bass clef (or an F-clef). Its notes are around middle  C and below, and are played with the left hand. The middle C on the bass clef is notated on the first ledger line above the bass staff. 

Clefs on Other Staves

Other clefs may also be used on the staff which affects the pitch of a note on a particular line or space. Since the staff has five lines, the middle line provides a simple example for understanding this concept. For all staves, the lower a note is placed on the staff the lower its pitch; the higher a note is placed the higher its pitch. 

  • Treble Staff: On a staff where the G-clef is placed on the second line of the staff, the middle line of the staff is a "B" above middle C. This is the most common clef and staff in use today.
  • Alto Staff: On a staff where the C-clef is placed on the middle line of the staff, the middle line of the staff is middle C. This staff is most frequently used in viola music. 
  • Bass Staff: On a staff where the F-clef is placed on the fourth line of the clef, the middle line is a "D" below middle C. This is the only F-clef in use today, so it is interchangeably used as the "bass" clef. 
  • Tenor Staff When the C-clef is placed on the fourth line of the staff, the fourth line is a middle C. This clef is commonly used for playing notes in the upper ranges of certain instruments such as the bassoon or trombone. 

The treble and bass staves are the most well-recognized staves in use today, but many musicians learn how to read other clefs as well. For composers especially, fluency in all clefs is essential to writing scores that span the instruments in the orchestra.