Music Theory: Staff, Clefs, and Notes - dummies

Music Theory: Staff, Clefs, and Notes

By Michael Pilhofer

Notes and rests in music are written on what musicians call a musical staff (or staves, if you’re talking about two). A staff is made of five parallel horizontal lines, containing four spaces between them, as shown.

Primary staves
The two primary staves: the treble clef staff (left) and the bass clef staff (right).

Notes and rests are written on the lines and spaces of the staff. The particular musical notes that are meant by each line and space depend on which clef is written at the beginning of the staff. You may run across any of the following clefs (though the first two are the most common):

  • Treble clef
  • Bass clef
  • C clefs, including alto and tenor

Think of each clef as a graph of pitches, or tones, shown as notes plotted over time on five lines and four spaces. Each pitch or tone is named after one of the first seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C … and it keeps on going that way indefinitely, repeating the note names as the pitches repeat in octaves. The pitches ascend as you go from A to G, with every eighth note — where you return to your starting letter — signifying the beginning of a new octave.

The following sections give you more details on the clefs individually and together (called a grand staff). We also take a look at the C clef and when you might cross paths with it.

The treble clef

The treble clef is for higher-pitched notes. It contains the notes above middle C on the piano, which means all the notes you play with your right hand on the piano. On the guitar, the treble clef is usually the only clef you ever read. Most woodwind instruments, high brass instruments, and violins stick solely to the treble clef. Any instrument that makes upper-register, or high, sounds has its music written in the treble clef.

The treble clef is also sometimes called the G clef. Note that the shape of the treble clef itself resembles a stylized G. The loop on the treble clef also circles the second line on the staff, which is the note G, as shown.

G clef
The treble clef always tells you that G is on the second staff line.

The notes are located in the treble clef on lines and spaces, in order of ascending pitch, as shown.

treble clef notes
The notes of the treble clef.

The bass clef

On the piano, the bass clef contains lower-pitched notes, the ones below middle C, including all the notes you play with your left hand on the piano. Music is generally written in the bass clef for lower wind instruments like the bassoon, the lower brass instruments like the tuba, and the lower stringed instruments like the bass guitar.

Another name for the bass clef is the F clef. The curly top of the clef partly encircles where the F note is on the staff, and it has two dots that surround the F note, as shown. (It also looks a bit like a cursive letter F, if you use your imagination.)

F clef
The two dots of the bass clef surround the F note on the staff.

The notes on the bass clef are arranged in ascending order, as shown.

bass clef notes
The notes of the bass clef.

The grand staff and middle C

Put the treble and bass clefs together and you get the grand staff, as shown.

Grand staff
The grand staff contains both the treble and bass clefs, connected by ledger lines and middle C.

Middle C is located one line below the treble clef and one line above the bass clef. But it’s not in either clef. Instead it’s written on a ledger line. Ledger lines are lines written above the bass clef and below the treble clef that are necessary to connect the two clefs. Put it all together, and the notes flow smoothly from one clef to the other with no interruptions.

C clefs: Alto and tenor

Occasionally, you may come across an animal known as the C clef. The C clef is a moveable clef that you can place on any line of the staff. The line that runs through the center of the C clef, no matter which line that is, is considered middle C, as you can see.

middle C
Notice how moving the position of middle C changes the position of the letter names on the staff.

C clefs are preferred in classical notation for instrumental ranges that hover right above or right below middle C. Instead of having to constantly switch between reading treble and bass clefs, a musician has just one musical staff to read.

C clefs were more commonly used before sheet music was standardized and able to easily accommodate a wide range of tones. Today, the only C clefs commonly used are the following:

  • The alto clef: Puts middle C on the third staff line; most commonly used for writing viola music.
  • The tenor clef: Puts middle C on the next-to-the-top line of the staff; most commonly used for writing cello, trombone, and bassoon music.