Notes on the staff

The time has finally come to show some notes on a musical staff.

The scheme is rather straightforward. The notes on the staff follow the white keys on the piano keyboard. Each successive white key goes up half of a staff line. A note can be on a staff line or in the space between staff lines. The range of notes is not limited by the height of the staff; notes can go right off the top or bottom of the staff. In these cases, you draw in little pieces of the staff lines (ledger lines) that would have been there if only the staff were taller. A picture should make this perfectly clear:

The notes on the staff

The notes on the staff

But how do you know what notes they actually are? You could guess that higher notes on the staff represent higher pitches, but unless I told you a letter name of one of the notes, you’d still be lost. Once you knew one note’s name, however, you could figure out the rest easily enough by just going through the letters from A to G until you reached your note. For example, if I told you that the note straddling the bottom line of the staff was E, and asked you what note straddles the top line of the staff, you could count up the lines and spaces: E, F (space between the bottom two lines), G (second line from the bottom), A, B, C, D, E, F. So the note straddling the top line of the staff would be F.

By the way, generally the lines are counted from bottom to top, so if someone says “there was a note on the first line of the staff” they mean that the note was on the bottom line. I can imagine jazz musicians using this terminology all the time: “So, dig this, man, I went to this jam session, and they gave me the chart, and there was, like, this note on the first line of the staff.”

So is the bottom line’s note really E? It depends. This is where clefs come into play. Essentially, a clef is a goofy-looking symbol at the left of the staff, and some key feature of the clef’s symbol tells you what one of the notes is. Here is a picture of some clefs:


Musical clefs and their names

On the left we have the treble clef, also referred to as a G-clef. (There are other G-clefs, but the treble clef is by far the most commonly used nowadays.) The spiral part of the symbol appears to wrap around the second line from the bottom, and, as you are about to guess, that note is G. Usually this is the G above middle C, or G4. So if you saw a note straddling the bottom line of the staff and to its left you saw a treble clef, you could interpret that note as E4.

Next let’s skip over to the far right of the picture above. This clef is a bass clef, also known as an F-clef. (There are also other F-clefs but only the bass clef is commonly used.) The two dots in the symbol surround the third line from the bottom, and the note on that third line is F. This is usually the F below middle C, or F3.

The other clefs shown in the middle are C-clefs (the alto and tenor clefs shown are the most commonly used of the C-clefs), and the central notch of the symbol indicates the line for the note C (generally middle C, or C4).

Now you know enough to verify that the note names listed in the diagram below are correct. For each set of notes, the nearest clef to its left is used:

Some notes and their names

Some notes and their names

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