The Musical Staff


The musical staff lines are the lines, where on and between it all happens...

They are the foundation for music notation, and the canvas for painting music! Learn more about the staff and how the notes are written on different types of staff Lines.

Different forms of musical notation have existed all over the world for many thousands of years. But in the music notation of the western hemisphere, it took until around 700 AD, to actually invent The Line…

Benevetan music manuscriptBenevetan music manuscript with only 1 red line...

A note written on this line could then represent an exact pitch (or tone). A note above it would be another fixed pitch, and below it another.

This was a huge breakthrough, because before then, the early music notation – called Neumes - was not showing the exact tone (or pitch) to sing, but rather just indicated approximately the outline of the melody, like this:

NeumesThis very early music notation have no staff lines.

The one line soon developed into two.

Guido of Arezzo (Italy) a Benedictine monk, innovative music pedagogue and music theorist of the Medieval era, usually gets credited for the lines becoming four around 1030 AD.

Gregorian music notationHere you can see early music notation using 4 staff lines.

The Musical Staff or Stave

During the 16th and 17th century five lines became more and more common, as we still use them today. The five lines used for writing notes today are called a musical staff or stave:

musical staff


The staff lines show us how high or low a tone, called music pitch, is. Since you can place a note on each line and space of the staff, you have instantly 11 different pitches available on a staff:

Ledger Lines

But what if you want to play notes higher or lower than that?

Simple! Just add ledger lines, or help lines. These are small lines “helping” the notes to climb higher or lower outside the staff, like ladders:

Ledger lines

The Grand Staff, Braces and Brackets

Most instruments use only one staff line, but the Piano and the Harp need two staves mainly because their tonal range is so wide.

The lower staff is usually used for the lower pitched notes and the upper staff for the higher pitched notes.

And since both the bass (low notes) and the treble (high notes) are used all the time and played with both hands- it is simply impractical with only one staff.

Grand Staff

So, pianists and harpists get two staves combined; one for the low notes- the bass staff, and one for the high notes- the treble staff.

The musical clefs indicate if the notes are high (treble) or low (bass). Combined, they create a Grand Staff:

Grand staff

The staves are connected with a curved Brace in the beginning of the staff.

A brace shows that notes on the two staves (those that are aligned vertically) are played at the same time.

Ensemble Stave

In an ensemble, orchestra or choir score you will see many staves combined with a Bracket. As you can see it is different from the brace above:

Ensemble stave

The bracket tells us that on these musical staff lines there are different instruments played at the same time.

Need more help with basic theory? I recommend: Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for All Musicians a beginner music theory course, which is both easy and handy to use. It includes CD's as well.

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