Music Theory and Composition : Music Theory and Composition

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff – Part 2

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Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff – Part 2

In part two of Music’s Secret Stairway we will be discussing the third clef (the C clef or alto clef) the string trio and the string quartet. This is a more advanced study of the use of the grand staff as well as moving beyond our previous understanding of Music’s Secret Stairway, the grand staff.

Music’s Secret Stairway – The Octave

The Octave – Before we can thoroughly understand the concepts of Music’s Secret Stairway, it is vitally important to learn about the octave. The octave is a magical part of Music’s Secret Stairway in many ways.

Music's Secret Stairway - One OctaveThe Octave

If you were to count the number of natural notes in between and including a low C note of the F staff and the next C note you will find that there are exactly eight notes in total. In music eight natural notes represents one octave. In this case the eight notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and then the octave C above our original C note.

If we were to continue climbing to the next highest C note on the F clef staff we would have another octave or eight natural notes creating an additional octave higher in pitch than the first octave and ending on the middle C note.  As you can see we have the ability to extend the five line and four space staff by using ledger lines. Extending the staff further still, we continue our upwards climb to include a third octave where we are well above the five line four space staff. The graphic below demonstrates all the octave as discussed. Please take a moment to study the three octave concept as it plays an important role in Music’s Secret Stairway.

Music’s Secret Stairway – Three Octaves

Music's Secret Stairway - 3 Octaves

By understanding that you can extend the five line four space staff of music’s secret stairway by the use of ledger lines you can actually increase the number of potential octaves when notating for a given instrument on a single line of music. What is important to remember is the instrument assigned to the staff which designate where on the instrument the performer plays. So it is vitally important to name the staff using the instruments name. This is useful in so far as learning the upper and lower range of each instrument you write for as a composer.

In future posts we will be discussing the range limitations of several instruments. For now, simply know that not every instrument can play the highest pitch or the lowest pitch made possible by using ledger lines to write music, hence, it is very important for you to learn the note range capability of each instrument as an arranger or as a composer of music is a limitation you must live with as a writer of music. The relevance of this knowledge becomes an absolute necessity if you want your music played by live performers and real instruments.

The written music must be playable on the specific musical instrument assigned to each staff. Learning the range of each instrument is therefore very important when you wish to have your music performed using “real” performers. 

Also, by understanding that the use of ledger lines enables a composer and an arranger to extend each staff to enable them to write within the full range of a given instrument on a single line of music. It provides the broader focus of including the multiple octaves many instrument are capable of producing.

Multiple Clefs and Music’s Secret Stairway

In Music’s Secret Stairway – the Grand Staff Part 1, we were discussing the two of the three main clefs used in music, the treble clef and the bass clef. Now let us take a look at the third clef, the Alto clef.

C clef or Alto Clef

Music's Secret Stairway - Alto ClefC clef or Alto Clef

When using the C clef or the Alto clef, keep in mind that the clef name is determined by the note name of the line or space that is being straddled by the right portion of the alto clef symbol, in this case the C note. This is the same middle C note found when discussing the G clef and the F clef. Again, this is part of the secrets embedded into music’s secret stairway, the Grand Staff.

Music's Secret Stairway - C Clef

The Instruments – When notating music for instruments such as the viola, viola da gamba and the alto trombone, it is commonplace to use another clef besides the G clef or the F clef. These instruments are typically notated on the C clef staff. There are other possibilities but for now let’s leave it at that.

C clef – Note Names

Music's Secret Stairway - Middle C - Note Names - Alto Clef

The C clef adds the middle ground between the G clef and the F clef. It includes the middle line where our middle C is located, two lines above and two lines below, in essence, the middle of the five line staff as shown above. As in the presentation for the G clef and the F clef staves, the C clef is only part of the grand Staff.

The placement of this clef symbol is important as it means something different depending upon where it is placed on the five line and four space staff. For this paper we will be only looking at the C clef as it pertains to the instruments listed above. As previously stated, the middle portion of the symbol is placed on the middle C note we have been discussing. (The middle C note is on the third line of the five line staff as shown.)

Clef Comparisons for Middle C

Music's Secret Stairway - Three ClefsTo the left is a comparison chart for the three clefs we have been talking about. From the top down, we see the treble clef, the alto clef, the bass clef and the placement of the middle C note on each of these staves of music’s secret stairway.

Take note that the middle C falls on different lines however each is still the same middle C note.  Depending upon which instrument is actually sounding, the C note will determine the actual note’s character that we hear. Please reference the article, the Characteristics of Sound for learning the importance of this significant detail.

In brief, here is the twist when writing for the stringed instruments – we must also remember that the viola, commonly notated on the C clef staff, is tuned a perfect fifth interval below the violin (which is notated on the G clef staff). Also, the cello is tuned an octave below the viola and notated on the bass or F clef staff making the entire discussion rather confusing. Again, it is for that reason that a thorough study of these and other musical instruments must be undertaken. These ideas are considerably beyond the scope of this article and it is reserved for another time.

In an attempt to re-establish clarity, whenever you are writing for a given instrument, you will need to know which clef you are writing on for proper placement of the notes when notating for a given instrument. You must also know how the instrument is tuned relative to the other instruments the composition calls for.  Understanding the commonality of the middle C note provides a unique basis and orientation for notes pertaining to specific instruments when creating music and when notating music.

As an additional reminder and in reference to music’s secret stairway metaphor, the G clef represents the top five lines and four spaces. For those interested in writing for strings this clef is used most often for the violins. The C clef represents the middle line, the two above and the two lines below the middle line, commonly used for the viola. Lastly, the bass or F clef represents the bottom five lines and four spaces, commonly reserved for the cello and upright or contra bass.

Comment – It is relatively commonplace to write the viola part of a string trio or string quartet where the viola mirrors the melody line or the bass line of the work. Other common practices are to harmonize the viola in either, 3rds, 5ths, 6ths or octaves to either the violin or the cello. All notes are written on the C clef staff unless there is a longer passage where the viola is playing in either the higher or lower registers of the instrument requiring the use of a lot of ledger lines. In which case, some composers will then use the G clef staff marking for the higher register to avoid excessive use of ledger lines making it easier for the performer to read the music. The same is true for the lower register of the viola and sometimes the cello where a composer would use the F clef staff to notate for extended use of the lower register of the viola and higher register for cello although this is not used too widely. Typically, it is more common to use the alto for the viola and the bass clef for the cello.

Music’s Secret Stairway and the String Trio

The String Trio – To provide an even further understanding of the C clef, let’s take a look at the staff layout for a string trio.

Music's Secret Stairway - String Trio Staff

Music’s Secret Stairway – The Grand Staff and the String Trio

The string trio typically includes the violin, the viola and the violoncello, however it can also be comprised of other instrument groups such as; two violins and one viola, one violin and two violas, one violin and two cellos, one viola and two cellos, etc. Another option is to compose using the upright or double bass instead of using the cello. Different and various combinations of instruments can be written for when notating for the string trio depending upon the overall sound you seek to convey as a composer.

In a typical string trio ( one violin, one viola and one cello) each instrument uses its own staff and each staff uses a different clef. We are now demonstrating the use of all three clefs that we have been discussing; the G or treble clef, the C or alto clef and the F or bass clef, (top to bottom). The same bracket is used and the instrument names are included on the left. This is the same bracket we discussed in part one of this article when looking at the staff for the duet or keyboard staff.

Each clef staff places the middle C note in a different location also previously discussed. This is vitally important to remember as we have moved beyond the two staff grand staff when writing for this collection of instruments. Although our understanding of the middle C note up to now has been fairly easy to understand the use of the middle C note can become confusing unless we remember that each of these instruments are tuned differently.

To assist in gaining a more in depth understanding of the comparisons between the three instruments the graphic below should do the trick.

Music's Secret Stairway - Trio Clef - Strings

Take some time to look over this graphic and make the following distinctions while doing so.

  1. Red notes are out of range for the instrument
  2. Blue notes are the middle C note we have been discussing.
  3. The time signature 26/4 was used only to provide the spacing for the graphic.
  4. As you can see the use of ledger lines can become cumbersome and difficult to read.
  5. There are a lot of notes that are similar by note name among these instruments however their sound is not the same as each instrument produces different sound characteristics based upon its actual design, its size, the type of wood used when manufacturing the instrument, the string diameter and how the string is played, i.e. plucked or bowed.
  6. The clef determines the note name by its placement on a given staff. It is the clef that is the real secret of the staff. Without this distinction there is little meaningful understanding of the purpose of music notation and that is to represent graphically the intent of the composer and to provide a visual mechanism for the performer to attempt to recreate the composers intent.
  7. Notice that the bracket is the same as used when notating for the string duet.
  8. Notice that the C clef staff is actually in the middle of the G clef and the F clef staves. While looking at the middle C note on the C clef, imagine overlaying it onto the C note on the G clef staff and notice that the middle C note is  indeed the same note on both staves. Also, do the same for overlaying the middle C on the C clef staff on top of the F clef staff. The same applies.

Hopefully by taking a little bit of time to try the overlaying exercise of the C notes in your minds eye you can more thoroughly understand one of the great secrets embedded in the Grand Staff. Unfortunately, I do not have a 3D graphic program to produce a short video demonstrating the exercise in number 8 above. That would make a very cool presentation to deepen your understanding even further. Maybe someone out there is so inclined and would offer to provide this for others. If so, thanks in advance and I will give you credit in this article for doing so. For now, you will have to actually exercise your mind to get this visual exercise completed as suggested. This particular concept is part of an upcoming article planned to be called the Seven Dimensions of Music.

Music’s Secret Stairway – The grand Staff and the String Quartet

We can continue to add instruments disclosing another of the secrets to Music’s Secret Stairway. One secret that enables us to write music for the string quartet, string quintet, small group ensemble, up to and including complex symphonic or orchestral music. For this paper we will include a brief discussion of the string quartet and leave the remainder to future posts.

The String Quartet – To assemble the previously discussed information into a cohesive graphic for standardizing the collective data necessary to notate for the string quartet and its instruments, let’s briefly look at how a composer lays out the individual staves for this group of instruments. The order of the staves is important, so pay close attention to that point. It will serve you well.

First, the common instrument collection for a string quartet is made up of a first violin, a second violin, a viola and a cello. It is commonplace for a composer to make a designation to the left of the staff to instruct which instrument is to be used for a specific staff. In that way we are naming the staff. For example, in the graphic below we see the Violin I, Violin II, Viola and the Violoncello (cello for short is acceptable too) instrument names to the left of the staff.

Music's Secret Stairway - String Quartet StaffFurther, we also see the use of the three clefs when notating for the string quartet. Violins I and II are using the G clef, the viola uses the C clef and the violoncello or cello uses the F clef. By applying what we have been discussing, we can see the benefits of using the clef markings to help us to demonstrate the common notation format used for the string quartet. The higher pitched instruments, the violins, are placed on top, the middle range instrument or viola is placed in between the violins and the cello, the lowest sounding instrument of a typical string quartet the cello is placed below the viola. By using this standard string quartet layout or format, performers have become accustomed to seeing this layout and they recognize where they must look to perform their respective instrument’s parts. Many times each instrument part is provided on its own rather than giving the string quartet performers the complete instrument layout under discussion. This is what is referred to as “Parts” rather than a full score which the conductor requires. We will be delving into the string quartet a lot in the future and so this beginning introduction will be helpful to you as we progress through the ideas of music notation as well as music composition for this ensemble.

Conclusion – By continuing to build upon very basic ideas about the lines and spaces used in music notation, we arrive at an in depth look through music notation for understanding the grand staff and uncovering some of the secrets to music’s secret stairway. We expand our understanding of it by utilizing the various clef markings as related to the grand staff and how to overlay them onto one another. This was demonstrated in a few of its uses, specifically for the string trio and the string quartet.

There is a lot more to say about the concepts presented here. For this paper and our presentation about the grand staff and music’s secret stairway we have come to a basic understanding that the eleven lines and ten spaces included in the grand staff are used specifically for certain instruments and that there is a commonality between the various staves, the middle C being the note tying them all together.

When reviewing the collective group of staves, the G clef, F clef and C Clef staves as used in notation of the string trio and string quartet, we have learned how each can be used in a common layout or format. We have further looked visually at how these staves fit together, based upon the clef symbols placed on each line of music within the grand staff.

Seeing the stairway at the airport reminded me of music’s secret stairway and the grand staff. The lower steps represented the F clef the middle step were representative of the C clef while the top steps reminded me of the G clef. It was my hope to use music’s secret stairway metaphor to attempt to explain the basics of the grand staff. I hope it has been helpful for you to gain additional insights into music’s secret stairway, the grand staff.

Again, I strongly recommend that you secure a copy of Music Notation, A Manual of Modern Practice by Gardner Read. This resource is invaluable for those just starting out and it serves well as a great reference book for those who continue to notate music.

All graphics were produced using Sibelius 6 a product of  Avid.

Music’s Secret Stairway – The Grand Staff – Part 2

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