Sunday, October 1st, 2023

Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff – Part 1


Grand Staff - Main

Grand Staff – Music’s Secret Stairway – Part 1

Stairways take on many different forms and the one stairway I enjoy the most is music’s secret stairway known as the Grand Staff.  I had to take a flight to Evansville Indiana from O’ Hare International Airport in Chicago Illinois. The first step of my journey was to take a bus to the airport which was about 70 miles away. Arriving at the airport and getting my luggage together, I came to a stairway that led me to the obelisk where I picked up my boarding pass. Now there is nothing unique or special about the stairway other than the fact that I had an epiphany of sorts, of using something common in everyday life and something everyone knows about as a unique metaphor for explaining music’s secret stairway, the Grand Staff.

The Basic Concepts of a Musical Staff

While standing at the bottom of the stairway at the airport I noticed there was a standardized unit of distance between each step that was consistent from the bottom step to the top step. The stairway was one continuous group of steps going from the lower level of the airport where I was standing to the higher floor above me. I didn’t measure that distance but what was clear was that all of the steps for this stairway were equally spaced. The rise of each step was exactly the same for each one all the way to the top. Even though I was in travel mode,  seeing this stairway reminded me of the grand staff in music.

The Lines of the Staff – In modern music notation, the grand staff or great staff as it is sometimes called is comprised of 11 lines and 10 spaces. Not intending to demean your intelligence, the rudimentary or basic form for these lines and spaces would look like this –












I totally agree that this is not all that interesting and the graphic doesn’t really mean very much unless and until we begin to give it meaning.

When looking at the lines in this two dimensional way we see that each line is spaced equally, high to low or visa versa. Between each line is a space and each space is equal in height. The eleven lines and ten spaces provide a  special place for a composer to place notes on them. However, the eleven lines and ten spaces do not make us think specifically of music or a stairway or anything else other than lines and spaces. In music notation there are many symbols a composer can use to identify these lines and spaces as representing music. Without providing a musical meaning they are simply lines and spaces on a sheet of paper.

Caveat – Many people will be reading this document. Some will have a very good if not perfect understanding of what this paper entails. For those of you who do, great! Please be patient as this article unfolds as there are many others who will not have the the slightest idea about the grand staff or where we are headed in our step by step approach for describing the grand staff. It is necessary for us to present the simpler step-by-step approach to enable them to gain the insights you may already know. Your patience and your understanding of this point is greatly appreciated. For others, the grand staff and its secrets will reveal themselves as we continue. Hopefully they will become crystal clear to you once you complete your reading of this article.

The Grand Staff and Clef Symbols

The Three Primary Clef Music Symbols – If we want to give meaning to the lines and spaces, specifically that of music, we need to associate something such as a recognizable musical symbol to them. Using a well defined set of musical symbols creates the association between the lines and spaces  and their musical meaning. The result of this association is that when you see a grand staff you will know the graphic as something used specifically in music.

A long time ago, as music notation developed in history, certain symbols were created and chosen to represent different aspects of music. Collectively,  as developed over time, there are a lot of symbols used in music notation. Woven throughout my writings are different symbols and their proper meaning. Each defines something specific where these symbols direct the performer to play their instrument at certain speeds, intensities, durations, in a certain manner or character, etc. You may want to review the article titled Basic Characteristics of Sound as a reference to these concepts of sound. Think of music as a language where each symbol has a specific meaning and intent and each has a proper usage in a musical sentence.

Clefs – One such collection of musical symbols are the clef symbols. These are  one of the most important symbols used to provide meaning to the lines and spaces used to create a musical staff. They were developed to help us understand and to provide meaning to the eleven lines and ten spaces in such a way that anyone who sees them and are trained on their meaning knows what each represents. Prior to the development of the system of music notation, there was no universally acceptable way to communicate what the composer wanted to convey to the conductor or performers of the music.

Historically, after the development of the five line staff and the use of clefs, the notation of music became much more standardized. Further developments of the staff and the addition of other symbols created over time have provided the complete language of music in a graphical form as it is understood today.

Music notation is the primary graphical form for conveying the composer’s intentions.

Further, for purposes of describing the grand staff we will be reviewing three specific symbols commonly used in music notation that help us to understand the grand staff. Keep in mind that there are other clefs than the three we will be reviewing in this article.

The three symbols or clefs described herein are the G clef or treble clef,  the F clef or bass clef and the C clef or tenor clef. Each one is allocated to a specific group of lines and spaces on the grand staff and each has a unique symbol.

The G clef or Treble clef Symbol

Grand Staff - Treble clef symbolG clef or Treble clef

The clef is named by the intersection of the staff line and the thin somewhat vertical line (leaning to the left) of the “curly” clef marking. In this case the note name of the line is G, hence the name, G clef.

The G clef or treble clef is used for the higher pitched instruments. In our stairway metaphor, we would think of this segment of the total stairway as the top five steps. The five top lines are only a portion of the total stairway but they are not the total stairway. The 6 other lines and five spaces are lower spatially than the top five lines and they are reserved for lower pitched instruments. So for now let’s just think about the top five lines and four spaces.

G Clef – The Instruments – The musical instruments that use the G clef staff  are the instruments in the woodwind family; the piccolo, piccolo flute, flute,  alto flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet and the bass clarinet. In the brass family the horns and trumpets use it and for the string section the violin and sometimes the viola uses the same treble clef staff when the performer is playing in the higher register of the instrument for an extended period of time. The same holds true for the violoncello when playing in its highest register. Other special instances for using the G clef staff are for some cymbals and chimes. Also, in the metals family, instruments such as the glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone all use the G clef staff. The top five lines of the grand staff  are used when notating the right hand  part for all keyboards including the piano.  The harp is also notated using this staff. For voice; the Soprano,  mezzo-soprano and the Alto voice voices are notated on the G clef group of lines and spaces.

G Clef – Note Names – If we take a minute to look at just the five lines and four spaces of the G clef staff it looks like the following.

Grand Staff - 5 linesGrand Staff - 4 spaces

The top graphic shows the note names assigned to the spaces on the G clef staff F, A, C and E. The middle graphic shows the note names assigned to the lines. They are labeled as E, G, B, D and F. The bottom graphic shows the natural note names assigned to both the lines and spaces of the G clef staff. The bottom or far left C note in our graphic above is often referred to as the  “middle C” note.

Natural notes are notes that do not have a sharp or a flat designation. Sharps and Flats are known as accidentals. They raise or lower a notes value by a half step and will be discussed in an upcoming article.

We also see a short single line which is passing through the quarter notes above and below the five line staff with an additional space in between. This short line is known as a  ledger line. This specific line was at one time a full length line but was later shortened to produce the grand staff we commonly see in modern music notation. In our metaphor of the stairway we can see how even with this modern modification we still have a continuous stairway even though the line itself is shorter than the other staff lines.

Because musical instruments have the capability of producing sounds beyond the range of the five line staff, ledger lines are used to extend the staff above and below the five line staff to accommodate this capability.

Middle C

Grand Staff - Middle CMiddle C

Middle C is a very important note when learning about the grand staff. In essence it is the dividing line between the upper five and the lower five lines of the great staff. It is the middle line of the eleven lines referred to in the line graphic above. Middle C is significant in several ways. It lies directly between the G clef staff and the F clef or bass clef staff. Let’s take a closer look at the F clef staff. We will come back to middle C in just a moment.

F Clef or Bass Clef

Grand Staff - Bass clef SymbolThe F clef or Bass Clef

The two dots to the right of the curved mark, one above and one below the forth line counting from the lowest line upwards. The name of the staff is designated by the note assigned to the line or space these two dots straddle, in this case the F note when using the F clef staff. This is one of two ways the performer knows which staff to use for playing their instrument. The second way is by labeling each five line staff with the instrument name assigned to it. The instruments name and/or its abbreviation is placed to the far left of the staff for absolute clarity of which instrument the line of music is intended for.

The F clef  or bass clef is the most commonly used bass clef staff and it is used for the lower pitched instruments. In our stairway metaphor, we would think of this segment of the total stairway as the bottom five steps. Again, they are only a portion of the total stairway but they are not the total stairway. The other 6  lines and five spaces  are higher spatially and as a reminder, they are reserved for the higher pitched instruments as described in the G clef comments above.

F Clef – Instruments – For the lower sounding instruments within the woodwind family the contrabass clarinet, bassoon and contra bassoon uses the F clef staff. In the brass family; the trombones, the baritone euphonium, horns and the tuba use it as do instruments in the string section, the cello, double bass, upright bass and contra bass. Other instruments in the pitched percussion section such as the piccolo timpani and the timpani will be notated using this staff as well. For voice, the tenor and bass singers are included too. Special instances exists when the grand staff is used that allow for the simultaneous use of both the treble clef and the bass clef, specifically this includes notating for the left hand for all keyboard instruments including the piano, the celesta, harmonium, harpsichord and the organ. Also, it is used for the lower part of the harp. For voice – both the Bass and Baritone voices are notated on the F clef staff.

F Clef – Note Names – Let us now take a look at the note names used on the five lower lines and four spaces of the F clef or bass clef staff.

Grand Staff - note names - Bass ClefThe notes assigned to the spaces on the five line F clef staff above are A, C, E and G. The note names assigned to the lines are G, B, D, F and A. For this figure we included the notes E and C below and above the staff to show how the five line staff can be extended in both directions. As in the description for the G clef staff, the short line passing through the notes above and below the five line staff are similarly called ledger lines.

F Clef – Middle C – In our discussion about middle C, the F clef staff also has a middle C note designation as shown below.

F clef – Middle C

Grand Staff - Bass Clef - Middle C

F clef – Middle C

The middle C note lies on a ledger line exactly one space and one line above the five line staff. Also, the middle C note lies on the middle ledger line in between the upper five lines of the G clef staff and the lower five lines of the F clef staff. In essence this provides for us a way to think of the grand staff as one continuous system that makes it possible to notate music for various instruments without the use of a large amount of ledger lines.

Grand Staff - Middle C noteAs you can see there is a commonality between the G clef staff and the F clef staff which is the middle C note. They are one in the same note and it is designated by the exact same note name.  The middle C note is the bridge between the different staves. This is one of the greatest secrets of the grand staff.

We learned that there are certain instruments which use either the G clef or the F clef staff. What the grand staff does is to tie the two groups of instruments together when notating for instruments that use both the G clef and the F clef staff such as the keyboards and the harp. It is also useful when notating for a duet where two different instruments are playing together and where each individual instrument is using a different staff, the G clef staff or the F clef staff as shown in the piano staff below.

The Grand Staff and the Piano

Grand Staff - Piano Staff

Both the treble and the bass clefs are used on this piano staff.  On the left are two new symbols; the instrument name, in this case the Piano and a brace tying them together. Also take note that the measure lines run through both staves. This is music’s secret stairway, the grand staff.

Braces are used primarily for the keyboard instruments including the piano, celesta, harpsichord and the organ.

The Grand Staff and the String Duet

Grand Staff - String Duet Staff

The grand staff is also used when notating music for multiple instruments where each instrument uses a different staff as in the case of a string duet. In the graphic above, the violin and the cello are the instruments the music is written for. When comparing the piano staff with the string staff  there is a different brace used. This one is called a bracket.

Brackets are used when you wish to tie together instruments from the same family, whether from the string family or from other families of instruments such as the woodwind instruments or the brass instruments.

Conclusion of part 1 of Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff– Do you recall our stairway metaphor? We had a total of eleven steps. There were five steps above and five below the middle step. The middle step tied together the upper and lower sets of steps.

This middle step cannot be removed from our stairway otherwise it would not function properly. The same is true for the grand staff. By putting the two clefs together, the G clef and the F clef, and tying them together with a common note, middle C, we discover the secret stairway used in music, the grand staff. It is a single and completely functional stairway that provides for us one continuous progression of natural notes.

In Part 2 of Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff, we will be discussing the third clef, the octave, the string trio and the string quartet. You will find part two of this article by following this link – Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff Part 2. Thank you for taking the time to review part one of Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff.

I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of Music Notation – Manual of Modern Practice by Gardner Read. This manual is a comprehensive study of the modern music notation practices with some historical and developmental information included. It is well worth your time to read, study and continue to use it as a resource in your compositional efforts.

Grand Staff – Music’s Secret Stairway – Part 1

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