Ledger Lines

Ledger lines (sometimes spelled ‘leger’) are those little lines with notes on them that appear above or below a musical staff:




Let’s take a closer look at what they are, why we need them, and how they’re used in reading and writing notes.

“Staff Extenders”

In the last lesson, we learned that clef symbols tell us which notes are associated with which lines and spaces on a staff. The question is, how many different notes can we fit on a five-line staff?

Let’s see. We can put a note on any one of the 5 lines, plus any of the four spaces in between the lines, so that’s 9, plus the two spaces immediately above the top line and below the bottom line. So all together, that’s 11 possible note positions.

But what if we want to write notes that are higher than the space above the top line, or lower than the space below the bottom line?

This is what ledger lines are for. The purpose of these lines is to extend the staff in both directions, up and down.



Ledger Lines and the “Infinite Staff”

We discussed previously that there are really an infinite number of invisible staff lines that go up and down, and a staff just focuses on a specific set of five of these lines.

These added, extra lines above and below a staff really do exist, just they’re invisible, so that we can focus our attention on just 5 lines (which is much more manageable). But just because they’re invisible doesn’t mean they’re not there!

What ledger lines do is make a tiny portion of these invisible lines visible. Of course, we could make the whole extra line visible if we wanted, but there’s no point, since we only need to make it visible for the width of the note we’re writing:

Here’s an example with plenty of “staff extenders”:

How Many Is Too Many?

The design of the staff and written music in general is meant to allow us to immediately identify what we are seeing (with some practice, of course). If ledger lines are going to be useful, we need to be able to tell what notes we’re looking at right away, without having to think about it or count.

So we would do this by memorizing, for example, which note goes on the 1st ledger line above the staff for a particular clef, which note goes on the space above the first ledger line, which note goes on the 2nd line, etc.

But this will only work as long as we can still identify the exact number of ledger lines that we are seeing. Once there are so many that we need to count them in order to know how many there are, they are basically useless for the purpose of reading music quickly and efficiently. So even though it would be possible to use ledger lines to extend as far up or down as we want, in reality we need to limit how many lines we use. As we’ll see later, there are much better ways to deal with notes that are very high above or far below the staff than using 17 ledger lines!

For example, how about trying to read this?

Three or four ledger lines is about the maximum for most sheet music that is going to be used for performance. The more ledger lines used, the harder it is for the musicians to read. It’s true that good musicians are really skilled at reading ledger lines, but it’s still not a good idea to use too many of them. It makes their job that much more difficult.

Memorizing Ledger Lines

To be able to read music, we need to start with a specific clef, and learn it really well. This means learning to identify the notes that correspond with each line or space on the staff. In addition, we also need to memorize some ledger lines. Most music uses at least a few ledger lines, so we should know at least a few in order to be prepared to read any basic music.

Otherwise, it would be kind of like learning to read English without knowing the letters q, w, z, and x. Sure, we would understand some words, even many words, but every time we get to the word ‘quixotically’, then uh-oh, we’re in trouble. Plus, it’s going to be hard to win at Scrabble.

If we’re going to get good at reading, we want to be able to read all the words, and it’s the same thing with music.

So how many ledger lines should you aim to learn, with each clef?

It’s a really good idea to work on learning up to around six lines above and below the staff. This will prepare you for most any situation. At the very minimum, though, you should definitely learn at least three in each direction (upward and downward).

This is also one of those things where it’s just sort of easier to learn it from the start. Otherwise, you’ll have to stop in the middle of reading music, slowly counting up the ledger lines, and then figure out which note it is. That’s the hard way. The easy way is to practice memorizing the ledger lines beforehand. Then you’ll be able to just look at the music and know the note immediately.

Practice Quiz

Ledger Lines Quiz

Test your knowledge of this lesson with the following quiz:

Image Attribution:
L1000876_v1 by Sigfrid Lundberg ©2012 CC BY 2.0
practice makes perfect. by Jukie Bot ©2013 CC by 2.0