Note: If you aren’t already familiar with the different clefs in music, please read this post about clefs, and how they affect a musical score.
So far in this course, we have already talked about the staff, and the notes that make up the treble clef.
And although we’ll still be focusing on the treble clef until we get much further into the course, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the staff and how to begin reading musical arrangements.
An Introduction To The Grand Staff
We know already that most instruments only ever use one clef at a time – usually either the treble clef, or the bass clef.
Some instruments however, such as the piano, harp, organ, celeste and marimba span such a large range of notes, they often use two clefs at once – usually the treble and the bass clef.
When it comes to piano, this usually results in the bass clef being played with the left hand, and the treble clef usually being played with the right hand.
Let’s look at a piece of piano sheet music.
You can see here that the two separate parts – the left hand and the right hand, are written on separate lines, but are still close together.
When two lines are connected together with a brace that looks like this, it is called a grand staff. This indicates that both parts should be played together on one instrument, rather than by separate instruments.
Reading a grand staff can be challenging, because it requires you to be able to read music in both clefs at the same time, which can take a lot of practice.
However, just because a grand staff most commonly has both treble and bass clefs, this isn’t always the case. You may find arrangements where both parts are written in treble clef. For example, if the left hand of the piano is playing much higher than usual, and both hands are playing high notes. Likewise, you may find grand staffs utilizing two bass clefs for particularly low pieces. In music, we often refer to the different pitch areas of the instrument as registers, such as the ‘higher register’ or the ‘lower register’. If I use the word register as I progress through the course, just remember that I’m talking about a higher pitch range or pitch area. This spans across instruments too – for example, a violin is in a higher register than a cello.
Anyway it goes a step further too – you may find organ music that uses three lines, two for the hands and one for the organ’s pedals.
If you aren’t playing an instrument that utilizes the grand staff (piano, harp, organ, etc.) you aren’t likely to come across them very often when playing solo arrangements.
However, I found it to be an important thing to recognize, particularly if you are reading arrangements that have parts for multiple instruments, so you can better judge which parts to play, and how to play them.
On piano for example, the treble clef often contains the melody and the bass clef often contains the rhythm. You could play each on their own, but the piece would sound a lot better if you played both of them together as intended!
The Importance Of Middle C
There is a special note in music called ‘Middle C’, and it’s special because it connects the bass and treble clefs together.
It can kind of be visualized like this:
Middle C rests one ledger line below the treble clef, and one ledger line above the bass clef.
So, it is considered to be a connecting point between the two clefs.
Now you may be wondering, why is this important?
Well first of all, it makes it easy to find the note you’re looking for even if you’ve yet to memorize the notes on both clefs. It’s slow and tedious, but you could count up or down from middle C to find the note you’re looking for on both treble and bass clef, even if you hadn’t memorized a single other note in either clef.
Secondly, it demonstrates a key point about the relationship of both clefs. It is easy to think of the bass and treble clef as two different sort of notation systems, but this isn’t the case. They are connected together, and we simply use two separate clefs in order to make our music easier to read.
Further Connections Between Both Staffs
Of course, middle C is not the only note that you’ll find on both a treble clef staff, and a bass clef staff. Technically, any note can appear on either staff. Let’s take a look at what I mean.
On both staffs, the notes are exactly the same! If you tried to play both of these notes together at the same time, you would be playing two copies of the exact same note.
This continues up and down the scale. Let’s look at an example when the notes are going down.
As you can see, it can very quickly become difficult to read once you move beyond a few ledger lines, which is why having separate clefs can be so useful!
Conclusion And Summary
Although it will still be some time before we work more in bass clef, understanding the importance of middle C demonstrates the relationship between the two clefs.
They shouldn’t be thought of as entirely separate systems, but rather connected between each other.
Let’s review some key terms:
Grand Staff: Two staffs connected together by a curling brace, indicating that both parts should be played at the same time, by the same musician. Most commonly, the treble clef is on top, and the bass clef is on the bottom. However, the grand staff may consist of two treble clefs, or two bass clefs instead.
Register: A pitch area or pitch range of an instrument. For example, the ‘upper’ or ‘higher’ register of a piano consists of the piano’s higher notes in pitch.
Ledger Line: Short lines added for notes above or below the staff, to make them easier to read.
Middle C: The main note we use as a reference point, to connect the staffs of both bass and treble clef.
I hope that you’ve found this lesson useful. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them through the comment form below!