A clef is a symbol that sits at the beginning of every staff of music. A staff contains five lines and four spaces. How do you know where the note A or the note C is? The missing element is the clef, which defines what notes go where and functions a lot like a map. Placing a treble clef at the start of the staff defines the lines and spaces with note names. FIGURE 1.2 shows the notes of a treble staff.
FIGURE 1.2 Treble Clef Staff
The treble clef circles around the note G. This is why it's commonly called the G clef. As for the notes, there is an important pattern. Look at the lowest line, which is designated E. Follow the musical alphabet to find where the next note is. The F is in the space just above the E. The staff ascends in this fashion—line, then space, then line—as it cycles through the musical alphabet (A–B–C–D–E–F–G).
Even though you may understand the notes on both clefs, the only way to become proficient is to read other clefs as often as you can. Set aside a few minutes each day to look at other clefs so you can easily identify their notes. Since clefs define notes, think of being able to read in many clefs as a kind of musical literacy.
The bass clef is a different clef than the treble and identifies not only different note names but also notes in different ranges. The bass clef is used for instruments that have a lower pitch, like a bass guitar. Even though the bass clef sits on the same five-line staff, it defines very different notes.
Many musicians can read treble clef because it is the most common clef. It is more difficult, however, for many musicians to read bass clef. In order to make progress in understanding theory, you will need to be adept at reading all clefs. FIGURE 1.3 shows the notes of a bass clef staff.
FIGURE 1.3 Bass Clef Staff
Grand Staff and Middle C
Grouping the bass clef and the treble clef together creates the grand staff. The grand staff is used in piano writing. To make a grand staff, connect a treble and a bass staff, or clef, with a brace, as shown in FIGURE 1.4.
FIGURE 1.4 A Brace
The grand staff reveals a very important note: middle C. FIGURE 1.5 shows a middle C.
FIGURE 1.5 Middle C
When you look at FIGURE 1.5, can you tell whether the note belongs to the bass clef or the treble clef? Actually, it belongs equally to both. If you trace down from the treble clef, one ledger line below the staff is a C. If you look at the bass clef notes, one ledger line above the staff is also a C. They are, in fact, the same pitch on the piano. This note is called middle C because it's right in the middle of everything. Middle C will come up throughout this book, so keep track of it!
Movable C Clefs
The last type of clef is the C clef. Typically, this clef is associated with the viola because it's the most common instrument that reads in C clef; however, other instruments read it as well. When the C clef is used with the viola, it is called the alto clef. Thankfully, this clef is very easy to read; the symbol for the C clef has two semicircles that curve into the middle of the staff and basically point toward the middle line, which is a C—and it's not just any C, it's middle C. FIGURE 1.6 shows the notes for alto clef.
FIGURE 1.6 Alto Clef
Since this is a movable clef, you can place the clef anywhere you want; whatever lines the two semicircles point to become middle C. Some very old choral music uses a different movable C clef for each part (tenor clef, alto clef, and soprano clef). Just as long as you know that the clef always points toward middle C, you will be able to decipher the notes in this clef.
When notes use ledger lines that are extremely high or extremely low, they can be difficult to read; it's much easier to read notes that sit in the staff you are reading. Using different clefs allows you to move the location of middle C so that the majority of your notes are in and around the staff.
Notes can be altered with the use of accidentals. If you've heard of B-flat (B♭) or C-sharp (C#), then you've heard of an accidental. Accidentals are used to raise and lower the pitch of a tone. There are two types of accidentals: single and double.
A single accidental is the common ♭ and # symbol.
A ♭ lowers the pitch by one half step.
A # raises a pitch by one half step.
A ♮ cancels an accidental (either in a measure or from the given key signature).
In addition to the simple sharp and flat symbols, you will also see double accidentals.
A ♭♭ lowers the pitch by two half steps.
A x raises a pitch by two half steps.
A ♮ cancels the double accidental in the same way it cancels the single accidentals.