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Beginning Theory 2: The Keys to Notation

Music can be described as sounds and silences in time:

How we identify when and what to play is what notation is all about

Beginning Theory

Last time we looked at how we can use pitch names alone to write down melodies and chords that we play and hear.

This time we will be looking at how we can use musical notation to our advantage.

This should be easier as we are now mapping our existing knowledge into a musical framework known as the staff and clef combination.

The Keys to Notation: Pitch, The Staff and The Clefs

If you have used Reason and its combinators, you are already familiar with the concept of using some preset arrangements to start working from.

The same is true of the staff and clef combination.

There are only five things needed to master this part of “Beginning Theory”:

  1. The Staff
  2. The Treble Clef
  3. The Bass Clef
  4. The Percussion or Neutral Clef
  5. The Tie

The Staff

In Western Music theory, we notate music using a five-lined staff that is used to place notes on.

There are some simple rules that apply to how we use the staff.

  1. Higher pitched notes are further up the staff, being above the lower notes.
  2. We use a Clef to identify the range of notes we are dealing with
  3. We need to sharpen or flatten notes as they occur and neutralise these changes after.
  4. When we use the Neutral Clef, we need to identify how we map instruments onto the staff.

Often times, we extend the staff using lines called Leger lines (this comes from the French Legiere, meaning light or temporary). The plural of staff is staves, so sometimes we may refer to it as a stave, particularly when we are talking about one instrument in a group of instruments.

Clefs: What are they?

The word clef is French for key. Just as with key signatures that lock sharps or flats in place ensuring that music written stays within the same key, a clef locks where the actual notes on the staff are found.

The Treble Clef

The symbol shown is the G Clef: it shows us the place on the staff where the note G above middle C (G3/68), is found and subsequently every other note. Where the end curl of the Clef touches a line is the location of the G above middle C.

So why do we call it the Treble Clef?

In earlier times the G Clef could end up anywhere on the staff, i.e. it is a movable symbol. This made it easy for composers to notate their music within a range that made use of as much of the staff as possible without using leger lines. Paper and ink were both expensive items in days gone by.

Around the start of the 19th century, we started to standardise the clefs used in notating music. Today there are four common clefs in use.

The Treble Clef occupies the position on the staff so that the end curl rests on the 2nd line from the bottom of the staff.

The natural notes in the Treble Clef staff are:

Notes in the treble clef using leger lines:

The Bass Clef

The symbol shown is the F Clef: it shows us the place on the staff where the note F below middle C (F2/53), is found and subsequently every other note. The line which the two dots sit either side of is the location of the F below middle C.

So why do we call it the Bass Clef?

As with the G Clef, the F Clef could end up anywhere on the staff, i.e. it is a movable symbol also.

The Bass Clef occupies the position on the staff so that the dots sit either side of the 2nd line from the top of the staff (4th line from the bottom).

The natural notes in the Bass Clef staff are:

The Neutral/Percussion Clef

The symbol shown is the Neutral Clef: it allows us to place any instruments playing indeterminate pitch on the staff. It generally sits on the staff so that it is between the 2nd and 4th lines of the staff.

This is a 20th century innovation with the rise of percussion as a force in its own right.

Prior to this, the Bass Clef was used to write percussion parts, mostly because percussionists already read the bass clef to play timpani. Some composers still use this convention.

It is common for a composer/arranger to provide a map or key to the instruments in use on each Percussion Clef staff.

What use is all of this?

No use and lots of use. It depends on how you want to think about your music.

I am going to use the same melody as the last tutorial. The information about rhythm is secondary and of no real concern right now, See TSSR for further information.


Last time, my melody was notated according to a process that named each note in it and then divided each beat up so that I could see my melody in its rhythmic structure as well.

Converting this to notation is actually quite easy because all the hard work has already been done.

Any empty parts of the beat are silences or rests.

The notation for this is plain and simple:

I know all of those squiggles look scary, but that is the price we pay for notating our rhythm exactly - anywhere there is silence there must be a rest.

We can do this for any melodic idea we can think of. We may need to change the way we divide the beat for other time signatures, but the procedure is still the same.

More than one melodic idea

Say I now have a second melodic idea, my bass line. I can add it below my melody simply by adding another row:

Firstly here is the bass line notated so that it sits in the treble clef staff:

Now here it is notated in the bass clef staff:

Lastly here it is using a modified bass clef to place in the staff whilst still showing the pitch of the notes:

The 8 below the Bass Clef tells us to play the notes one octave lower than written.

Again, our melody is notated using rests.

Here are the two lines together so that we can see how they look:

Layering chords and chord movement

Chords that are layered, by sustaining different notes for different amounts of time present some challenges. Removing these challenges, however, is easy. We use one of the features of notation, the tie.

A tie does what it says: it ties two notes together rhythmically. The first note in a series of tied note is where the note is started. Every subsequent note continues the sound of that note until there are no further notes in the series. You can see examples of the tie in the main melody above.

Adding this to our previous knowledge lets us notate how chord notes change or stay the same from bar to bar:

Single Staff version

Treble and Bass Clef version

Notice how the two staff version makes it easier to see what is going on.

Sharp, Flat and Natural: Accidentally

The term accidental means a note that has been altered from its normal pitch.

As we learnt last time, there are 7 natural notes and 12 notes overall. We can refer to the extra 5 notes using sharps (#) or flats (b). In a melodic sequence with a simple note names only approach there is no need to neutralise the effects of an accidental because if it is not present, it is not applied.

When we move into the staff and clefs, we acquire some additional rules about note naming:

  • Notes are named according to their key signature
  • Notes are named according to the direction they are moving to or from
  • A note that is altered by using an accidental stays changed until the end of the bar unless it is neutralised by using a natural sign, a sharp sign or a flat sign.
  • There are situations where we need to consider double sharps (## or x) and double flats (bb)

[see KSC: All Things Major et alia for examples]

This piece shows the use of the sharp in the treble clef melody and the flat in the bass clef line:

This piece is a 12 bar blues that shows the use of the flat and the natural sign in the same bar. Notice that the repeated notes in bar 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, and 11 stay flat unless a natural sign is used to cancel the flat sign, as in bar 10.

Final notes

We have now completed step two on our journey to understanding and applying notation.

Next Time:

Song Structures