Staff Notation

Staff Notation


Staff notation codifies the diatonic scale as the basis of Western music. Compact and beautiful, musical notation is a clever system with some shortcomings, especially in discussing tonality outside the common practice.

Reading Standard Musical Staff Notation

Musical notation starts with a five line staff:

Note that by drawing five lines, we also get four spaces (in addition to the spaces above and below all of the lines).

To the five lines we add a clef:

This is a treble clef, a fancy letter G. The little curl points at the note G, just above middle C.

This is a bass clef, a fancy letter F. The little dots straddle the F below middle C.

Note Names

For reference, here are the note names for the lines and spaces of the clefs, with some mnemonics to help remember them.

  • Treble clef lines. E, G, B, D, F = Every Good Boy Does Fine.
  • Treble clef spaces. = F, A, C, E = FACE.
  • Bass clef lines. G, B, D, F, A = Grizzly Bears Don’t Fly Airplanes.
  • Bass clef spaces. A, C, E, G = All Cows Eat Grass.

Grand Staff or Great Stave

In the context of the piano or keyboard, the two clefs are often combined into a large diagram to show that one instrument may play many octaves of notes. (Typically the right hand takes the treble clef and the left hand takes the bass clef.)

The F’s and B’s of the Grand Staff. Many octaves of F notes and B notes, with two ways to play middle C. (Real music will only notate that the player should play middle C with one thumb or the other, never both. This example justs demonstrates both ways of notating middle C.)

The example also demonstrates that one or more ledger lines—short lines above or below the five lines of the staff—increases the range of pitches that can be notated. (The ledger line for middle C is not a special case.)


Since rhythm is outside the scope of Harmonious, just the basic time values of the note shapes will be mentioned without going into detail about counting while reading music, etc. The actual duration that a note is played depends on the meter of the passage in the piece and the current tempo, which may change with the use of rubato, as interpreted by the performer.

Different note durations. 1 whole note = 2 half notes = 4 quarter notes = 8 eighth notes = 16 sixteenth notes.

Rests are the way to notate the silence between notes where nothing is played. Other time value notations include dotted versions of each note or rest duration, equal to 50% longer. (So for example a dotted half note lasts for three quarters of the length of a whole note.) Tuplets allow a way to group notes into rhythmic patterns that fall in-between beats or sub-beats, the most common being triplets.

Black Keys: Accidentals and Key Signatures

So far we have only seen how to read the notes for white keys on the piano: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. But we know from Clocks & Pitch Classes that there are twelve different pitch classes, not seven.

Sharps (#) and flats () allow us to notate any pitch, for example here are all the black keys:

However, the top note is a white key (in twelve-tone equal temperament) since C is enharmonically equivalent to B. This is slightly confusing and may not be obvious at a glance.

Large numbers of sharps and flats would be necessary to notate many pieces of music, if not for key signatures, the subject of the next section. In that case, only accidentals—notes that are non-diatonic to the current key—are notated with a sharp or flat, including notes of the melodic minor or harmonic minor scales. (Accidentals last for the duration of the measure, and a natural sign () is used to restore the underlying note of the key before the end of the measure if both notes are needed.)

Different Names for the Same Thing

We saw that some flats or sharps on the staff turn a white note into a different white note. There are also symbols for double flat (♭♭) and double sharp (), which move notes up or down by a whole-tone. (Usually these notes occur when accidentals pile up on sharps or flats from the key signature.)

So now our updated list of pitch classes shows even more names for the same twelve pitch classes, demonstrating that traditional music theory offers ambiguous names for the same thing. (In 12-TET tuning, there are only twelve pitches per octave, whereas historically F and G were not the same thing—not the exact same pitch, and different in theory and performance. It should be noted that allowing for richer notational possibilities may allow the composer to indicate their theoretic intention, something the numerical system of pitch class names lacks.)

  1. C (or B or D♭♭)
  2. C or D
  3. D (or C or E♭♭)
  4. D or E
  5. E (or D or F)
  6. F (or E or G♭♭)
  7. F or G
  8. G (or F or A♭♭)
  9. G or A
  10. A (or G or B♭♭)
  11. (or t for ten). A or B
  12. (or e for eleven). B (or A or C)

Accidentals Are Not Accidental

The term accidental is slightly misleading. In playing a Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven piece, we would never expect those seminal composers to have chosen a note accidentally! “Accidental” makes it seem mysterious that a clever composer can just pull a chromatic tone out of the twelve-tone scale and use it in mostly diatonic music and have it still sound good! But it should not be a mystery: twelve-tone music is the reality and diatonic music is layered on top of it, not the other way around, as the notation might suggest. Hopefully some of the musical set theory explanations offered earlier can help us understand why accidentals sound right in the right context.

This all just reemphasizes the fact that staff notation is designed around the twelve transpositions of the diatonic scale, (see next section) and shows its limitations for music that uses notes outside of the current key. (We leave it as an exercise for the reader to attempt to notate a double diminished (octatonic) chord stacked vertically.)

Criticizing a centuries-old notational system may be easy, but proposing a different system that maintains all of its benefits may be more difficult. Again, staff notation is beautiful, clear, compact, and strikes a balance between readability for players and theoretical flexibility for composers. A new system would need to make it just as easy to read intervals and chords at a glance in all keys, for many types of instruments, which would not be a trivial undertaking. (And for the printing technology of the time, you would be limited to black (or red or brown) symbols on white paper, and shapes that can be written quickly by hand, shapes that can also be cut out of metal or wood to be printed in bulk without computers or lasers.)