The Musical Staff

Get ready for an in-depth look at the musical staff! This section of the site is designed to jump-start your quest to learn to read music, and the staff is where it all happens.

The staff, (or ‘stave’,as they call it in Britain), is a set of lines and spaces that runs horizontally across a page of music. All written music is located on and around the staff. If we’re going to start learning to read music, it makes sense to start right here!

How The Staff Works

A normal staff has 5 horizontal parallel lines, spaced evenly, that run across the page.  In between these 5 lines are 4 spaces. These spaces aren’t just useless, empty areas; they’re just as much an important part of the staff as the lines. So this is the basic working area we have when writing music. A note can be placed on either a line or a space on the staff.

A musical staff

Each line or space on the staff corresponds with a particular musical note. For instance, a particular line or space could represent the note C4, or A5, or E2, etc. (See Organizing Note Names for a refresher on how to name notes by their octave.)

Notes shown on lines and spaces of the staff

Up and Down

The vertical “dimension” of the staff (in other words, how high or low a note is placed) represents pitch:

The higher the line or space is on the staff, the higher the note it represents. The lower the line or space, the lower the note it represents. No tricks here.

The vertical dimension of the staff

Even more convenient, the lines and spaces go in order of the musical notes they represent.  For example, let’s say a particular line represents the note C5 – the space directly above it would then represent the next note up, D5. The next line up from there would be E5. The space above that, F5. And so on. (And it works the same way going downward, each successive line or space represents the next-lowest letter name.)

The concept itself is really not too difficult. The hard part is memorizing which note corresponds to which line or space. But have no fear! Together, we’re going to take it step by step, until we reach our goal. All you have to do is stick with it, and you will learn how to read music.

The great thing about the musical staff is that with practice, we can (eventually) get to the point where we instantly recognize which notes we’re looking at. Great sight readers, like top-notch studio musicians, can see some sheet music for the very first time, and play it as if they’ve been playing it their whole lives (just like reading one’s native language).

Accidentals and the Staff

In an earlier lesson in the section on the piano keyboard, we learned about accidentals. So how do we indicate accidentals in written music notation?

There are two basic ways to write a note with an accidental, such as C#, Ab, Dx, or Ebb. The simplest way is to place the appropriate accidental symbol in front of the desired note on the staff, like this:

Accidentals symbols on the staff

The other way is by using a symbol called a key signature. We’ll learn much more about these in a later section, but the basic idea is that we place a symbol at the very beginning of the staff that indicates that certain lines or spaces always have an accidental (unless specifically indicated otherwise). In other words, any notes that are placed on those lines/spaces automatically get an accidental.

Here is an example of a key signature symbol at the beginning of a staff (shown in the shaded box):

It’s About Time

So far, we’ve learned that the higher you go on the musical staff, the higher the note, and the lower you go, the lower the note. What about moving horizontally, from side to side?

Music notation goes from left to right, like many written languages including English. The main thing to understand is that this horizontal “dimension” of the staff represents time. The further we move to the right, the later in time we are, the further to the left, the earlier in time.

Time shown on horizontal axis of the musical staff

When we write down a song in music notation, we start from the left side of the staff. Each new note then appears to the right of the previous one, until we reach the end of a line.  Then we move down one line, and start from the left side of this new line, and work our way across to the right, and we continue this process until we have finished notating the song on as many staves as necessary (the plural of the word ‘staff’ in music is ‘staves’):

Song example on a staff

Music is a type of art that takes place over time. In that respect, it’s different than a visual painting, which we can sort of see all at once. It’s an experience that happens over time. It’s really very much like a story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, just it’s a musical story. This is why the musical staff was set up to represent time going from left to right.

Unpitched Percussion and The Staff

There are other kinds of staves besides the typical 5-line staff, such as 1-line, 2-line or 3-line staves. These are used for untuned percussion instruments such as drums, that don’t play different musical pitches.

In this section of the website, we’re going to be focusing mostly on the 5-line staff that is used 99.9% of the time.

Sometimes, untuned percussion instruments will use a regular 5-line staff (instead of a special percussion staff). In this case, the lines and spaces don’t represent pitches, since untuned percussion instruments don’t have different pitches.

Instead, each line or space refers to a particular type of percussion instrument, beating spot, or technique. In other words, each line or space corresponds to a particular sound that that percussion instrument(s) is capable of playing. We will explore more about unpitched percussion in a later lesson.

Staves and Systems

A single staff typically contains the music for just one musical part. The following is an example of a few lines on a single staff:

In some situations it’s possible to fit two parts onto a single staff to save some space, using special writing techniques to notate the parts in the clearest possible way. This is known as double-stemmed writing:

Double-stemmed writing (music for two parts)

If there are any more than 2 musical parts, however, it becomes really difficult to stuff them all onto a single staff. Even if it could be done, it’s usually very challenging to read. And even with two parts, it can be a bad idea to stick them both on the same staff if the parts are overly complicated.

So what’s the solution? In order to write music in which several instruments are supposed to play at the same time, we simply give each one its very own staff.

In this case, the various staves are lined up vertically, one above the other, and they are all joined by a bar line on the left side, to show they are one unit. This unit is called a system. Here’s an example of a system in a pop music setting:

It’s sometimes possible to fit several systems onto a single page of music. The number of systems that can fit on a page depends on a few factors, including how many staves are in the system (how many instruments the music is written for), the size of the staves, and the physical size of the page.

Big orchestral scores with 10-20 staves in a system can often fit only one system per page. In order to follow the music, we would need to jump from the end of one system to the beginning of the next page (which is where the next system starts).

Check out this example of a huge orchestral system.

Music notated with a single staff can also be thought of as a system, just with only one staff in it. This sort of system is commonly found on a lead sheet, music for a solo instrument, or an orchestral part (each instrument in the orchestra gets its own music to read from).

Practice Quiz

Musical Staff Quiz

Test your knowledge of the lesson with this quiz on the musical staff:

Image Attribution:
Composer’s score for Don Giovanni by Liza ©2010 CC BY 2.0
practice makes perfect by Jukie Bot ©2013 CC BY 2.0