The Clef Symbols

The lines and spaces created by the staff show how far apart each note is from another note. In other words, the staff provides the relative position: By looking at any two notes on the staff you can count the lines and spaces between them and determine how far apart they are. However, suppose you wanted to specify exactly which two notes to play on the keyboard rather than just playing any two notes that are a certain distance apart. How can you determine the absolute position of the notes rather than just the relative position? The answer is to specify one line as a reference pitch. If you declare that the bottom line of the staff is always the note E, then you can easily figure out exactly what the other notes are on the staff. This is what clefs do—they assign a specific line of the staff to a specific note so you can figure out where all the other notes fall.

Treble Clef

The treble clef is a symbol used to indicate the higher pitches on the piano. For this reason, notes on the treble clef staff are usually (but not always) played with the right hand. Also known as the G clef, the symbol for the treble clef looks similar to a script letter G. If you use your imagination a little, you will see that the treble clef is really a fancy G with the focal point revolving around the second line of the staff. The treble clef assigns the second line of the staff to the note G just above middle C on the piano. Now that you know the second line of the staff is the note G as indicated by the treble clef, it is simply a matter of filling in the remaining lines and spaces with the other letter names for each pitch.

FIGURE 5-5: The treble clef

The Bass Clef

The bass clef is a symbol used to indicate the lower pitches on the piano. Notes on the bass clef staff are usually (but not always) played with the left hand. Also known as the F clef, the symbol for the bass clef looks similar to a script letter F. The two dots indicate the line assigned to the note F below middle C on the piano. Now that you know the fourth line of the staff is the note F as indicated by the bass clef, it is simply a matter of filling in the remaining lines and spaces with the other letter names for each pitch.

FIGURE 5-6: The bass clef

The Grand Staff

Since the piano is capable of playing a wide range of pitches simultaneously, piano notation normally uses two staves, one treble and one bass, to represent all the notes that might be sounding at any given point in time. This special combination of staves used exclusively for keyboard music is called the Grand Staff. Usually the left hand plays the lower stave and the right hand the upper stave. A bracket attaches both staves together. The Grand Staff represents a continuous range of pitches, and the midpoint between the two staves is the note middle C on the piano.

It is imperative that you memorize the note names and where on the different staves they appear. Create mnemonic phrases like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines E G B D F on the treble clef to help you remember. The spaces on the treble clef staff are very easy to remember—they spell FACE.

FIGURE 5-7: The Grand Staff

Notes that are too high or too low for the five lines of each staff are written with ledger lines above or below the staff. Figure 5-8 shows the most commonly used ledger lines. The notes of the Grand Staff in Figure 5-7 and the ledger line notes in Figure 5-8 will cover 95 percent of all the music you are likely to encounter. Don't try to memorize them all at once! You can figure out any note by counting lines and spaces from a note that you already know, and you can always refer back to this page as a reference.

FIGURE 5-8: Ledger lines

  1. Home
  2. Piano
  3. The Language of Music
  4. The Clef Symbols
Visit other About.com sites: