Before you get into the intricacies of reading sheet music and learning music theory, let’s cover perhaps the most important aspect of it all – learning the notes themselves.
However, we must first learn about something called the staff, as well as a set of symbols called musical clefs (or just, ‘ the clef’).
An Introduction To The Staff
The staff (also commonly called the stave) is a set of five lines and four spaces, where notes are placed to indicate their pitch (or what note is actually played.)
The words staff and stave are interchangeable, and you can use either that you like. Typically, the word staff is used in American English, and stave is used in British English.
The positioning of notes on the staff – on the lines or within the spaces, help to indicate which note should be played. As notes move up higher on the staff, they get higher in pitch. As they move lower on the staff, they get lower in pitch. Here is a picture of notes on one kind of staff.
Looking at the picture above, you may notice two things:
- There are only 9 notes that can be placed on the staff – 5 on the lines, and 4 in the spaces. Yet, there are certainly more than 9 notes in music!
- Some note names are repeated on two separate positions on the staff.
These are important questions, with simple answers.
Notes are not limited to the staff. Notes may also be positioned above or below the staff, as indicated through the picture below:
As you can see here, we have a lot of notes that go both below as well as above the staff, and they can continue on much farther than this. Don’t worry why the notes look different, as we’ll cover that in a future lesson.
The Case For Different Clefs
If you think about different types of musical instruments, you might imagine the range of sounds they make.
Some instruments are better suited for playing different pitches. A bass, tuba and trombone for example tend to play notes with a lower pitch than instruments like a trumpet, violin or flute for example.
In order to…
- Fit more sheet music on a page
- Help sheet music become more readable and keep notes closer to the staff,
all pieces of sheet music will have a symbol called a clef. The clef indicates what notes the lines and spaces on the staff correspond to. A clef almost always appears on the left side of the staff, and usually (but not always) remains constant throughout the arrangement.
In fact, most instruments play all of their music within one clef – so you only have to learn one set of note names to play the instrument.
That’s a lot of clefs! Fortunately, for most instruments, there are only two clefs that are commonly used – the treble clef and the bass clef. If you’ve looked at sheet music before, you might recognize them! As just mentioned many instruments only ever utilize one clef, but let’s cover some of these in a bit more detail so you can familiarize yourself with them.
The Treble Clef
The treble clef, also commonly called the ‘G clef’ is the most commonly used clef in music today. In order to keep things simple, we’ll be focusing only on the treble clef at first until we are deeper into the course.
You may be wondering, why is it called the G clef? Other than kind of looking like a fancy letter G, the clef curls around what is a G note in treble clef.
Remember, the notes are not the same across clefs. While this note, appearing on the 2nd line from the bottom is a G in treble clef, it is not a G in bass clef, for example.
You may have noticed that the ‘French violin’ clef looks similar to the treble clef, only it is positioned lower. You will not find the French violin cleft anywhere in modern music. It was used for 1600’s and 1700’s for French flute and violin music. Therefore, you don’t need to remember the positioning on the staff right now. If you see this shape, you can almost certainly assume the song is using the treble clef.
Instruments that primarily use the treble clef include:
- Cor Anglais
- Harp (higher notes)
- Piano (higher notes, usually the right hand of the player.)
Here are the notes when the treble clef is used. We will learn more about notes and how to memorize them in the next lesson.
The Bass Clef
Next up, we have the bass clef, which is the 2nd most common clef in modern music.
The bass clef is also called the F clef, because it wraps around the 4th line up from the bottom, which is the note ‘F’ while playing with the bass clef. The ‘F’ note in the bass clef is also between the two dots, which is an even easier way to remember it.
As the name would imply, the pitches that you’ll find on a bass clef staff are significantly lower, which means that the bass clef is most commonly used with lower-pitched instruments.
Just like the treble clef mentioned earlier, you may noticed that there are other clefs that look like the bass clef, but are positioned differently on the staff – the baritone clef, and the subbass clef. These two clefs are no longer used in music, and can be safely ignored except for rare circumstances. Therefore, if you see a clef in this shape, you can reasonably assume that it is a bass clef, and play accordingly.
Instruments that primarily use the bass clef include:
- Bass Guitar
- Double Bass
- Harp (lower notes)
- Piano (lower notes, usually the left hand of the player.)
Here are the notes when the bass clef is used.
The Alto Clef
The alto clef isn’t one that’s very commonly used. In fact, the only two instruments that really use it are the viola and the alto trombone. It is also sometimes used by the mandola.
It is called a ‘C’ clef, because the middle of the clef – the part that looks like a little arrow pointing left, is positioned on this clef’s C note.
Knowing this, you can find the notes around it by counting up or down.
The spaces from bottom to top make up the notes G, B, D and F.
The lines from bottom to top make up the notes F, A, C, E, and G.
The Tenor Clef
Even less common than the alto clef is the tenor clef. It is occasionally used for the upper range of instruments such as the cello, double bass, bassoon, and trombone. However, the rest of the notes will utilize the bass clef. Keep in mind that these instruments do not necessarily frequently change between two clefs. For example, I played trombone through college and only came across the tenor clef once. However, some sheet music for this instrument may switch between bass and tenor clef throughout the arrangement, or be written entirely in tenor clef.
Similar to the alto clef, the tenor clef points to where ‘C’ would be. In this case, it is one line above the alto clef.
Therefore, the spaces from bottom to top make up the notes E, G, B and D.
The lines from bottom to top make up the notes D, F, A, C, and E.
The Neutral Clef
Moving onto a special clef, here we have the neutral clef, also commonly called the percussion clef. This clef can be indicated by either of the two symbols above.
This clef is used for instruments that do not have any specific pitch, with drum kits being one example. While there may be common patterns for certain instruments, there is not always a clear indication which note placements corresponds to what sound. Therefore, you may need to rely on a key in order to play the proper sounds.
Note however that pitched percussion instruments, such as the xylophone or timpani do not use the neutral clef. Typically, they would use either the treble or bass clef.
Finally, we have tablature. This isn’t really a clef, but goes where a clef would be to indicate that the following music is tablature.
With tabs, notes aren’t placed on the staff. Because tabs are used for guitars and other instruments with frets, instead of the lines and spaces corresponding to notes, the lines instead correspond to the instrument’s strings. Then, instead of notes, the number of the fret to be played is placed instead. Here is an example:
Often times, guitar tablature will also have the song notated with the treble clef above it, which can make it easier to play and aid in making the musician aware of other cues regarding the arrangement.
Although there are a large number of clefs that have been used throughout history, the majority of instruments typically only use either the treble clef or the bass clef, with the treble clef being the most common out of the two.
While an experienced musician will likely learn to play across several clefs, there is no need to focus on more than one of them while just starting out.
In the next lesson, we will begin talking about notes and pitches, as well as share some useful advice on how to memorize note names for the treble clef.
We hope to see you there!
– The Musical Sanctuary Team