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Lesson 5 : Staff Notation Basics

The Staff Notes

The staff is the basis of written music. It is what the notes are presented on. It consists of 5 lines with four spaces between them. A simple, unadorned staff is shown below.


This is the treble staff. The treble clef (the large fancy symbol to the far left) shows the musician that the staff is treble. Since it curls around the G line, it is also called a G clef. The treble staff begins with the first line as E. Each successive space and line is the next letter in the musical alphabet. The staff ends with the last line as an F. Many mnemonic devices exist to help a person remember which line and space is which. One of the most common phrases to remember the names of the lines is: Every Good Boy Does Fine. (Also popular is Elvis'Guitar Broke Down Friday). 

To remember the spaces, just remember that they spell FACE starting from the bottom.

This is the bass (pronounced 'base' ) staff. The bass clef, also known as the F clef because it locates the line known as F, is on the far left. The bass clef uses the same musical alphabet as treble, but the letters start in different places. Instead of an E, the bottom line is a G, and the letters proceed logically from there. Again, simple mnemonics can be used to remember the names of the notes. The lines on the bass cleft, from bottom to top are: G, B, D, F, A (GoodBoys Don't FightAnyone), and the spaces are A,C,E,G (All Cows Eat Grass).

This is a C clef. The C clef can move on the staff, and the center of the symbol is always over middle C. Depending on where it is, it is given different names. The note beside each clef is middle C. These clefs are used very infrequently.

The Grand Staff
When the bass and treble clef are combined and connected by a brace (left) and lines, they become the grand staff. This greatly increases the range of pitches that can be noted, and is often used in piano music, due to the piano's wide range.

The vertical lines on the staff mark the measures. Measures are used to divide and organize music. The time signature determines how many beats can be in a measure. The thick double bars mark the beginning and ends of a piece of music. Measures are sometimes marked with numbers to make navigating a piece easier. The first measure would be measure one, the second measure two and so on.

Different pitches are named by letters. The musical alphabet is, in ascending order by pitch, A, B, C, D, E, F and G. After G, the cycle repeats going back to A. Each line and space on the staff represents a different pitch. The lower on the staff, the lower the pitch of the note. Notes are represented by little ovals on the staff. Depending on the clef (discussed below), the position of each note on the staff corresponds to a letter name.

Notes Written on the Staff

Notes are centered on the lines or in the spaces between the lines. Stems on notes above the middle line trail down from the left of the note. Stems on notes below the middle line stick up on the right of the note. Stems on notes on the line usually go down except when adjacent notes have flags that go up. Note stems are usually one octave (eight successive lines and spaces) long. When two melodies occupy the same staff, the stems for the notes in one melody are written up and the stems for notes in the other are written down.

Ledger Lines

Ledger lines extend above and below the staff, allowing for higher or lower notes to be shown than would otherwise fit on the staff. These lines follow the same musical alphabet pattern as the staff does. Think of them as just extra lines and spaces on the end of the staff.
The stems of notes on ledger lines extend either up or down towards the middle line.

Note Durations
All notes have length. However, the number of beats they get depends on the time signature, so only relative note durations will be discussed here.
This graphic shows a hierarchy of note values.

At the top is a whole note (1). A half note is half the duration of a whole note, so a whole note is as long as two half notes (2). Likewise, a half note is as long as two quarter notes (3). A quarter note is as long as two eighth notes (4), and an eighth note is as long as two sixteenth notes (5).

Sixteenth notes (right) and eighth notes (left) may also look like this. Single sixteenth and eighth notes have flags, many sixteenth and eighth notes combine flags into connecting bars.
Sixteenth notes and eighth notes may also combine together. the combination looks like this picture below-

Dotted Notes

A dot beside a note increases its duration by half its original value. For example, half notes, in 4/4 time, are worth 2 beats. When a dot is placed next to the half note, the duration is increased by one (one being half of the original duration of two) and the resulting duration is three beats. The curved line in the picture above is a tie. Ties connect notes that are the same pitch together to create a sustained note.

Rests are simply places where the musician does not play. Rests have equivalent values to corresponding notes of duration. Thus, there is a whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, etc., just like normal notes. Rests are always located in the same vertical position.

The top number determines how many beats there are per measure. The bottom number tells what kind of note gets the beat. In this example, 4/4 time, there are 4 beats per measure, and the quarter note (bottom 4) gets the beat. In 3/4 time, the quarter note would still get the beat, but there would only be 3 beats in a measure. In 6/8 time, the eigth note gets the beat, and there are 6 beats to a measure.
The pulse (or meter) is the driving beat in music that we march, feel, dance, clap and conduct to. First find the beat that seems the strongest, then try tapping along to it. Eventually you should be able to tap along with the music, and you will have found the pulse. Listen to the bass line and the rhythm section, as often they play with the pulse.