Music Lessons

Sound pitch and notation, how the staff works

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Leggi in Italiano

How does music notation work? What are the five lines of which it is composed? In this lesson we will look at how the staff works and in particular how it is used to write down one of the main qualities of sound: pitch.

The forefathers of the staff

In early notation experiments, the signs (called neumes) were placed above the text and gave a vague indication of the development of the melody. Below is an example of neumatic notation, in which the signs are placed in an open range, without lines.

the forefathers of the staff: neumatic notation
Neumes were written in the open space, without lines

This type of musical notation was very basic, providing the performer with only a vague reminder and not allowing the pitch of sounds or their duration to be fixed precisely. The evolution of this system, however, gave rise to a more precise and effective one, called tetragram, in which music was written on a matrix composed of four lines.

an example of tetragram
In the tetragram music is written on a matrix composed of four lines

The modern 5-line staff

Around 1400, the tetragram was replaced by the modern pentagram, which uses five lines on which the musical notes are placed. The higher the note is placed, the higher the sound. This system has remained in use to this day and has also been adopted by different musical cultures.

For example, both China and Japan have a great musical tradition and notation systems that are perhaps even older, but probably less effective and versatile than the staff.

We will now take a look at how the staff works, in particular with regard to the notation of the pitch.

How does the staff work?

On a grid of five lines, figures called musical notes are placed. The notes can be placed exactly between two lines, so that the note touches both lines without crossing them. We speak in this case of space notes. Alternatively, notes can be placed exactly above a line, so that they are “cut in half” by the line itself. In this case we speak of line notes.

The meaning of the notes, i.e. what sound they correspond to, is determined by the symbol at the beginning of the staff, which is called the clef. The most commonly used clef is the violin clef or G clef, which indicates that the note on the second line of the staff (from the bottom) is a G note. If we look closely at the clef, we see that the curl is centred on the second line..

From a graphical point of view, the treble clef is derived from a letter G, which in ancient medieval notation denoted the note G. This explains the meaning of the clef: note G (G) on the second line.

Once the G note is assigned to the second line, the names of the other notes are derived accordingly.

How to memorize the position of notes on the staff

In order to memorise the position of the notes on the staff, it can be useful to learn the notes in the spaces and the notes on the lines separately. There are four notes in the spaces, their names from bottom to top are F, A, C, E, as we can see in this diagram.

Notes in the spaces on the staff are Fa La Do Mi
The notes in the spaces, from bottom to top, are: F A C E

As well as memorising the ascending order of notes, it is also good to memorise the descending order, E C A F. We need to remember:

Notes in the spaces

  • Ascending ↑ F A C E
  • Descending ↓ E C A F

There are five notes on the lines, one more than the notes in the spaces. In fact, on each of the five lines of the staff can be placed a note, while the spaces delimited by the same five lines are only four.

Since by effect of the G clef the second line (from the bottom) carries the note G, the position of the other notes is as follows:

The notes on the line, from bottom to top, are E G B D F
The notes on the line, from bottom to top, are E G B D F

Again, it is good to memorise the five notes in the ascending direction E G B D F, but also the same notes from top to bottom Fa D B G E.

Notes on the lines

  • Ascending ↑ E G B D F
  • Descending ↓ F D B G E

The complete staff: notes in the spaces + notes on the lines

Learning the notes in the spaces and the notes on the lines separately is just a mnemonic device, actually the notes on the staff are placed in a row, alternating one on the line and one in the spaces.

We now see them together on the staff, noting that the position of the notes resembles that of a scale, where each note rests on a step.

all notes in the spaces and on the lines
Notes on the line and notes in the spaces form a scale

Ledger lines notes

To these nine notes are added some notes above and below the staff. It is as if the staff ideally continued beyond the five lines, in fact the notes above and below the stave get small horizontal lines called ledger lines, which can be placed in the middle of the note, immediately above or immediately below. Let’s look at the notes with ledger lines, below the staff and above the staff:

ledger lines notes

The solution of using ledger lines is very clever, as the alternative would be to use a matrix with a larger number of lines. For example, to write the notes in the example above, you would need four more lines, two above and two below. The result would be a grid of nine lines, and there is no doubt that interpreting the notes within it would be much more complicated.

In this way the musical line is made up of a not too large number of lines, and with a bit of practice it is not difficult to learn to read music.

Thanks to the use of ledger lines, the staff remains more simple to read, since ledger lines notes are used only when there is a real need to write notes above or below the staff.

The bass clef and the double staff

In order to be able to write more sounds, in addition to the treble clef there is another one called the bass clef. The bass clef is used to write sounds in a lower register than the treble clef, which is why it is located below it. Both staffs meet on middle C, highlighted in the image.

double staff, treble clef and bass clef
the double staff

The bass clef is also called the F key because it indicates that the F note should be placed on the fourth line from the bottom. If we look closely at the bass clef, we see that the two dots are positioned just above and just below the fourth line.

The bass clef is derived from a letter F, which in ancient medieval notation denoted the note F. Thus, the meaning of the bass clef is revealed: note F on the fourth line.

Both keys converge on the note C. The first note with a ledger line below the treble clef, and the first note with a ledger line above the bass clef. Both point to the same note, C, which is called middle C because it is exactly in the middle between the two clefs. The same C note is found approximately in the middle of the piano keyboard..

8va e 8vb marks, one octave above/below

Finally, to complete the possibilities of writing on a staff, there are so-called “octave signs” which have the effect of raising or lowering the sounds they encompass by an octave. Remember, in the previous lesson, the metaphor of the palace where the notes are repeated equally on each floor? The octave sign is like a lift that moves the notes up or down to the next floor.

The “one octave above” sign is written 8va (ottava alta, in Italian) and moves notes one octave higher. Let’s see an example.

The 8va sign moves notes one octave higher
The 8va sign moves notes one octave higher

The notes written on the left-hand side of the picture, under the 8va sign, are equivalent to those written on the right-hand side of the picture, because the 8va sign indicates that all the notes he embraces are to be played at the higher octave.

The “one octave below” sign is written as 8vb (ottava bassa, in Italian) and moves the notes to the lower octave. Again, all notes encompassed by the 8vb sign should be played one octave below what is actually written.

The 8vb sign moves notes one octave below
The 8vb sign moves notes one octave below

The notes written on the left side of the staff are therefore equivalent to those written on the right.

The duration of sound, the staff and musical values

staff and duration of sound

The musical language and its notation system, the staff, do not need to measure the exact duration of the sounds but only their relative duration. We are not interested in how long individual sounds last, but in their duration in relation to each other. The different kind of musical notes serve precisely this purpose.

Just as with intensity, the staff is not intended to record the actual duration of a sound, but its relative duration. We are interested in how long a sound lasts in relation to the sounds that precede and follow it, and this relative duration in turn depends on the speed at which the piece is played.

Musical values

To indicate the duration of sounds, a series of symbols, the musical notes, are used, each of which has twice the value of the other. The first symbol (an empty oval without a stem) is called a semibreve and is worth twice as much as the minim symbol (empty oval with a stem), which in turn is worth twice as much as the quarter note (full oval with a stem).

semibreve, minim, quarter note
The semibreve (first staff) is worth twice the minim (second staff), which in turn is worth twice the quarter note (third staff).

The quarter note in turn lasts twice as long as the eighth note, and so on. From a graphic point of view, the other musical notes are similar to the quarter: they are formed by a full oval with a stem, to which an increasing number of flags are added. The eighth has one flag, the sixteenth has two flags, and so on.

eighth, sixteenth, 32th and 64th musical values
On the first staff an eighth note, then sixteenth note, 32th and 64th notes.

In the past, other figures with a higher value (breve, longa) or lower value (fusa and semifusa) were also used, figures that have fallen into disuse over time. Let us now look at the complete scheme, from the semibreve to the 64th.

musical values from semibreve to 64th
all musical values from the semibreve to the 64th

The note system is therefore binary: each value is worth twice the next. These figures are assigned conventional values, indicated by a fraction.

Each musical value also corresponds to a rest symbol, which is used to indicate a silence of equal duration. There is therefore a semibreve rest, a minim rest and so on. Here are the different rest symbols.

Le pause - figura di pausa dalla semibreve alla semibiscroma
Rest symbols in music notation

We therefore see that both musical notes and rest symbols are indicated by a fraction. However, the main unit of measurement for writing music is not the semibreve, which is worth 4/4 and therefore an integer, but the quarter note.

Music has its own rules and requirements: the figure of 1/4 is the main unit of measurement. So, if in mathematics 4/4 = 1, this is not entirely true in music, where the unit of measurement is 1/4. The reason for this lies in time, i.e. how notes are grouped within a piece of music.

Time in music: the musical measure, or bar

The time signature of a music piece is written as a fraction: the top number indicates the number of beats, the bottom number indicates which note gets the beat. For example, in a 4/4 time there are 4 beats and the quarter note gets the beat. In 6/8 we have six beats, the eighth note gets the beat. More on this topic in the lesson on simple and compound times.

When a piece of music has a time of 2/4, it means that throughout the piece the musical figures, notes and rests, will be divided into groups of 2/4. These groups of notes are called measures or bars. Once the tempo of a piece of music has been established, i.e. the size of the musical measures, they can contain any combination of values, as long as each measure contains a value of notes (or rests) equal to what has been established.

The time signature is written at the beginning of the staff, immediately after the clef. Here are some examples of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 measures.

Time of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4
Time of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4

In the examples above, the measures contain different combinations of sounds and rests, but the total of each measure is equal to the time signature at the beginning of the staff.

The different values of sounds and pauses are combined with sound extension signs, which allow notes and rests of different values to be written. Let’s take a look at how sound extension marks work.

Sound extension marks

We have seen that the musical note writing system is binary: each note is worth twice as much as the previous one. This binary system is completed by three sound extension signs: the dot, the tie and the pause (or fermata, in Italian).

The dot extends the note by half of its value. For example, a semibreve is worth 4/4 on its own, while a dotted semibreve takes on a value of 6/4 (example 1). A minim on its own has a value of 2/4, while a dotted minim takes on a value of 3/4 (example 2).

Sound extension marks, examples
Dot (1 and 2), tie (3), pause (4)

The second sound extension mark is the tie. The tie can connect an indefinite number of sounds of the same pitch (C with C, D with D, etc.) and sum their value. In this way, a sound can assume any duration. In example 3, we tied a semibreve (4/4) to a quarter note (1/4), the resulting value is 5/4. The two notes tied together produce a single sound, which lasts as long as the sum of the two sounds.

The third sound prolongation sign is called a pause and prolongs the sound indefinitely. This sign demonstrates once again that there is no objective and precise measurement in music: the pause prescribes to prolong the sound beyond its value, but the actual duration of this sound is left to the performer, who must interpret this sign according to the musical context and his own taste.

In example 4 we see a pause mark on the note C, which will last “a little longer” than its actual value.

Final remarks, how the staff works

A brief summary of the content of the lesson, to remind us how the notation system based on the staff works. In order to write the pitch of a sound, the staff therefore uses:

  1. A grid made up of five overlapping lines, called a staff.
  2. Symbols placed inside, above or below the stave, called musical notes.
  3. Musical clefs, placed at the beginning of the stave, which allow two staves to be combined to create a double stave.
  4. Octave marks (8va and 8vb) that “move” the musical notes one octave above or one octave below the written notes.

With regard to the duration of sounds, we have seen that:

  • The notation system is not intended to record the actual duration of sounds but their relative duration.
  • The sounds are grouped into bars or musical measures, the size of which is indicated at the beginning of the musical piece by a time signature.
  • The value of individual musical notes varies between 4/4 (semibreve) and 1/64.
  • Individual sounds or rests may be accompanied by signs that increase their value, called sound extension marks: dot, tie and pause.

Learn to read music!

If you wish to explore these topics and learn how to read music, you may be interested in the jazz solfeggio course on this site. Learn to read music will be easy and fun!

Is there anything important about the staff and music writing that I have forgotten to consider? As always, I look forward to your questions or comments on the lesson. Thank you!

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