Size Up the Staff: How to Read Treble and Bass Clef
Long ago, the early music scholars came up with a system of lines and spaces called a staff or stave to represent notes or pitches. Each staff is a grouping of five lines and four spaces. The clef — either treble or bass — tells you what names to give those lines and spaces.
Simplistically, you can think of the upper staff, called the treble clef, as the right hand part.
From the bottom up, the lines are E, G, B, D, and F.
Students traditionally use easy-to-remember phrases (called mnemonic devices) to memorize these notes, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine or Elephants Get Big Dirty Feet. Some consider the first option sexist in today’s politically correct society, and perhaps others feel the second is disparaging to elephants, who are nice creatures. So feel free to make up your own!
The lines skip a note each time; those notes — F, A, C, and E from bottom to top — are located in the spaces in between. FACE is an easy enough mnemonic to remember them, but you can make up a phrase if that helps you. So the treble staff represents the E above middle C to the F an octave above middle C.
If you need to go above or below the staff, you just add one or more small extra lines to each individual note to represent how much farther up or down it is. So going down from the low E on the staff, you have the D in space below, and then a note head with a short line through it to represent the next line note, middle C.
In the beginning of your reading studies, you should identify notes by counting the names up (or down) from the last line of the staff. Over time, you’ll come to instantly recognize the notes within two lines above and below the staff, and then you’ll only have to count up (or down) from those.
The lower staff of full piano music is called the bass clef. It uses the same concepts as the treble clef in the, but the names of the lines and spaces are different. Common mnemonics to memorize include Good Boys Do Fine Always and Great Big Dogs Fight Animals. Or you can make up your own.
The spaces are A, C, E, and G from bottom to top. All Cows Eat Grass is an easy enough mnemonic to remember them, but as always, you can make up another phrase if you’d prefer.
The notes above and below the bass clef staff are represented by the same method as the treble staff.