Clefs and Staves

So we learned recently that the staff lines are a five rung ladder, and that the spaces and lines can both hold notes. (This is actually called a staff. The plural or staff is staves).

Let's see; five lines, four spaces, that's nine notes! Oh, and the space above and below would make 11 notes.

Making 88 Notes with 11 Spots

But anyone who has seen a piano keyboard knows there are a lot more notes than 11! In fact, a full-size piano keyboard has 88 keys! So how do we work that out?

Well, we could add little extensions below and above the staff as necessary-- kind of like adding short rungs to the staff-ladder so notes can climb higher or lower, above or below the staff's five line limitation. These little extensions are named 'ledger lines.'

But no one wants to could more than two or three ledger lines above the just gets too hard after a while. So instead of endless ledger lines

That's when clefs come into play. A clef tells you what your frame of reference is-- it tells you a starting place note, so you can figure out all the other ones in reference to it.


Originally, instead of a special clef symbol, the reference line of the staff was simply labeled with the name of the note it was intended to bear: G, F, or C. These were the 'clefs' used for Gregorian chant. Over time the shapes of these letters became stylized, leading to their current versions. If you look at a treble Clef (G), a bass clef (F) or an alto/tenor clef (C) you can almost make out how the letters became stylized symbols over time.

The treble clef was once shaped like a G, with a dot on the second line from the bottom (the G line). The bass clef is shaped like an F, with a dot on the F line (the branches of the F are dots in the G and E spaces). The Alto and Tenor are both C clefs, with two backward C's on either side of the C line.

It takes a while to get used to reading different clefs. Just when you get used to a note at the bottom of the staff with a single ledger line through it being 'C' in the treble clef, now you have to learn that it's 'E' in the bass clef.

Focus on learning one clef, for example, the treble, first. Keep pushing yourself to memorize the notes of the other clefs after that and they will all eventually come.