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Lesson 2: The Musical Staff
By Debbie Ridpath Ohi - 06/04/2007 - 10:49 AM EDT

In my first column, I discussed some of the basic rhythm symbols: the whole note, half note, and quarter note. In this second column, I'm going to cover the musical staff.

There are different types of music staffs (or "staves"), but we're going to focus on the most commonly used type of staff that you'll see as a songwriter, and that has five lines:

A simple vocal line can usually be transcribed using just one staff. Piano music requires two staffs. A jazz band arrangement will require more. For now, let's just concentrate on one. :-)

What's a staff for?

A musical staff is used to notate pitch.

Ok, but what's "pitch"?

Pitch is used to refer to the "lowness" or "highness" of a sound, particularly when you're talking about musical sound. The sound that a flute makes is generally higher in pitch than the sound a tuba makes.

And how can a musical staff show pitch?

The higher a note is placed on a staff, the higher the pitch. In the following example, the first note is lower in pitch than the second note. (And of course, from the knowledge you gleaned in our first lesson, you probably immediately recognize the notes in the following example as whole notes. :-):

So how do I know what these -sound- like?

And that, of course, is the real trick. It would be handy to be able to hum a tune and then transcribe it using standard musical notation (what you're learning now). That way, you'll never forget it...and will thus avoid the common songwriter's agony of coming with a great musical hook or melody, but then forgetting it. Better yet, other musicians will be able to look at your musical notation and be able to play your song.

To be able to identify the exact pitches, you'll need an extra piece of information, one that identifies the type of musical staff you're using.

The treble clef

The symbol to the left is called the treble clef. By placing it on a staff, you're identifying that staff with treble cleff. This is one of most commonly used staffs in music, and is used for most instruments as well as for music that the right hand plays on the piano. If you were taking piano lessons, this would be the staff you would be learning first.

The treble clef is also called the G Clef because the curly bit in the middle wraps around the staff line also known the G line (the second line from the bottom). If you play or sing a note on the G line, it will sound as concert G.

Next lesson: Notes on the treble cleff staff.


Some readers are already starting to send me questions. Unfortunately I don't have time to answer these by private e-mail, but will answer one or two at a time at the end of each column.


    Dear Debbie,

    I am a new songwriter. I have been a lyricist, and hear those melodies in my head. And so I have been attempting to compose the music. I have taken a music theory course, to properly compose music. Yet it ends up getting so complicated, and incomprehensible!!

    Rhythm, starts off simply, as you have taught. Then it gets into, dotted notes, one quarter note equals 2 eighth notes, eighth notes into l6th notes, etc. And then I'm confused!! And so I write my music in the basic notations of quarter, half, whole. I've looked at music compostitions of way back, and these musicians did not seem to always use complex notatation. I have studied ear training, where you say what note was played, and I was always wrong. It would sound, like maybe a whole note to me, and it would be, a dotted half, and an eight rest!

    I've come to the conclusion, that music composition, will never be one of my talents. If I study it more, will I get better at it? Or, is okay to use the basic notation, as I have been doing? Any additional advice, for a musical dummy??? Thanks, for your help.

If the musical transcriptions are just for yourself, use whatever notation works for you. Using simpler notation (e.g. just straight quarter notes, half notes, etc.) to mark down the basic pitches is fine, as long as you remember any variations in your head, or by recording it on tape. I do something similar while songwriting...I like to get the simple notation down to help me remember the basic melody, and don't worry about the exact rhythm. Later on, I finetune the rhythm notation if necessary (adding those dotted eighths and so on).

If the purpose of your musical notation is so someone else can reproduce your music, however, you need to be more exact. In that case, don't try to pressure yourself to learn everything at can definitely be confusing, especially when you're working with syncopated and rhythms that go behind the basic "Mary Had A Little Lamb" example.

And yes, the more you study it, the better you'll get at it. The fastest way to learn is to get a private music theory tutor. Other options include buying a music theory book and going through all the exercises. Or, of course, following my course. :-)

Hope this helps!

-- Debbie

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