lessons on how to read and write sheet music


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Musical Alphabet, Clefs, the Musical Staff, and the Keyboard

For this article, we will focus our discussion on how we notate pitch (how high or low notes sound) in sheet music.

We use letters to help us assign names to particular musical pitches. Unlike the actual English alphabet, the musical alphabet has only seven letters that repeat over and over in sequence.
The letters are: A-B-C-D-E-F-G

Rather than writing the letter names out for each note in sheet music, we know their names by where they are placed on something called the musical staff.

In this discussion, we will be using what is known as the “Grand Staff," which allows the full spectrum of musical pitches to be seen. This is the staff used for things such as piano parts and four-part choral writing.

The Grand Staff is actually two separate staves joined by a brace on the left hand side. The upper staff is used for the treble clef (upper voices), and the lower staff is used for the bass clef (lower voices). The top and bottom staves have five lines (and four spaces between lines) each.

The top staff is designated as the “treble” by the use of the treble (or G) clef symbol. The curl on the symbols right side circles the second line from the bottom of the top staff- designating it as the “G" line. Therefore, a note placed on this line would be named “G”.

Treble Clef symbol (left)/ Bass Clef symbol (right)
The bottom staff is designated as the “bass” by the use of the bass (or “F”) clef symbol. The top curl of the bass clef symbol designates the second line from the top of the bottom staff as the “F” line. Therefore, a note placed on this line would be named “F”.

In the case of piano music, the treble clef staff  is generally used for the right hand, and the bass clef staff is used for the left.  In choral writting (such as in hymnals) the treble staff is used for women (sopranos and altos), while the bass staff is used for men (tenor and bass).

When determining the names of the lines and spaces of the Grand Staff, we must simply use the sequence of the musical alphabet and apply to the lines and spaces of the musical staff.

For instance, because we know that the second from bottom line in the treble clef is designated as the “G” line. The space just above it would the “A” line (because the “G” is the final letter in the musical alphabet and after it, the alphabet simply repeats over and over again).

With this in mind, the line just above the “A” space in the treble clef is named the “B” line. The space just of the “B” line is called “C” space and so on. Notes placed on these lines or within these spaces are given the corresponding names.

The diagram below illustrates the naming of the lines and places of the Grand Staff.
Notice that a line (known as a ledger line) between the two staves is labeled “C”. It serves as a bridge between the two staves, and the note placed on this line is famously known as “middle C ”.
 We will use the piano keyboard as a reference point to identify the actual pitches that go along with the note names assigned by the notes positions on the Grand Staff.

Just as with the Grand Staff, the musical alphabet runs A through G and then repeats over and over again in sequence from left to right using the white keys of a piano key board. This concept is illustrated below:
The piano keyboard has 88 keys. The illustration above shows the location of “Middle C” and can therefore be used to identify what lines and spaces represent particular pitches played on the piano. (or sung by a voice or sounded on another instrument).

Notice that because the musical alphabet repeats itself over and over, it is helpful to assign numbers to each complete set of letters, allowing us, for instance, to distinguish a lower “A’ from a higher “A”. With this use of numbers to accompany the letter names we know exactly where A3 will be located on the keyboard and on the Grand Staff, and we therefore know the exact pitch it will sound.
Since we are pointing out the fact that several notes on the keyboard and musical staff share the same name (though not designated the same number), it is a good time to introduce the term “octave”. We will fully define what an octave is at a later time.

For now we will describe it as the distance between one note to the next one of the same name- either up or down on the keyboard or staff. You will notice that if you play an “A” on the keyboard, it will sound “friendly” when played simultaneously with another “A’ an octave higher or lower, and it will, in fact, be "friendly" with any number of “A’s”(the same is true for any other notes that share a name) played together on the keyboard. Playing notes of the same name together will always produce this distinctive and friendly sound. This is the little musical miracle known as the octave. We will elaborate on it latter.

It is my intention to explain the “big picture” of notating pitch before offering the traditional approaches to learning and memorizing the names of the Grand Staff’s lines and spaces.

Many of us were taught as children in music class to use simple sentences to identify the names of the lines and spaces. This is, indeed, a helpful way for beginners to remember the names.

A sentence used to help identify the lines of the Treble Clef Staff (the top staff) is:“Every Good Bird Does Fly.” The first letter of each word of the sentence names the five lines from bottom to top.
To help identify the names of the spaces in the Treble Clef the word “FACE” can be used, as the letter names of the four spaces spell out the word when read from bottom to (See illustration below).
A helpful sentence for labeling the lines of the Bass Clef Staff (the bottom staff) is:“Good Boys Do Fine Always.” The first letters of each word of the sentence offer the names of the five lines of the Bass Clef Staff from bottom to top.

The spaces of the Bass Clef staff can be named by using the following sentence:“All Cows Eat Grass”. The first letters of each word of the sentence give the names of the four spaces of the Bass Clef Staff from bottom to top as seen in the illustration below.
This lesson on notation of pitch has included a tremendous amount of information. Most likely, all of it cannot be mentally digested in one session. It would be most helpful to come back to the information in this article several times, spending time correlating the Musical Grand Staff with the piano keyboard.
Learning the names of the lines and spaces of the Grand Staff is the most essential part of beginning to read and write sheet music. To be proficient at either, the names of the lines and spaces must be memorized.

Identifying the names of notes placed on the within them must become second nature. If you are serious about learning to read and write music, you must commit yourself to learning to name notes placed on lines and spaces of the Grand Staff. I offer “Note Naming Drills” in the form of work sheets and “Note Naming Flashcards” on this site that can aid you in this procedure.

To move ahead in the process of learning to read and write sheet music, it is best to first master the task of naming notes on the Grand Staff. So Dive into to information in this article! Contact me with any questions you might have. Best of Luck!

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