Demystifying Staff Notation Part One: Pitch

To the uninitiated, classical music notation looks beautiful and terrifying, filled with bizarre looping symbols, black dots scattered around lines like footprints and numbers and fragments of text in strange languages peppered all around. Many people have confused memories of school music lessons about good boys deserving fine apples and other nonsense with no obvious connection to musical sound, only to find themselves later presented with sheet music at a choir rehearsal or in a ‘teach yourself easy guitar’ book and being left feeling frustrated, left out and illiterate. The learning curve just to be able to get involved in making music feels steep, joyless and pedantic and many give up.

It does not have to be this way.

In this series of articles, I hope to present a logical approach that puts musical expression front and centre. I have not assumed any prior knowledge of music theory, but expect you will at least have attempted to put a tune together by ear, either singing or on an instrument. Teaching methods for getting children to read written text refer to this as ‘sound before symbol’ and it absolutely applies to learning to read notated music.

If you find you don’t fully understand a particular point, don’t get hung up on it – when starting out reading music I believe it’s more important to recognise overall patterns and shapes than to obsess over remembering all the technical details and bits of theory that will make more sense later as you get to making music in context. Also remember that staff notation (or any other type of notation) does not contain any actual music in the same way you will not find any cake in a book of recipes: the music must come from you, all sheet music can do is provide instructions for you to convert into sound. If in doubt, make it up and play/sing by ear – you can always check afterwards how close you were if it’s not immediately obvious.

It is beyond the scope of these articles to provide information on how to translate notes to all instruments, but I will provide help with singing, keyboard/piano and guitar.

Joining The Dots

Imagine you have been blindfolded and placed at the entrance to a maze. A friendly guide takes you by the hand and leads you all the way through the maze to the exit, before bringing you back around the edge to the beginning. You are then left to retrace the path through the maze without touching the walls. How would you remember what steps you took the first time?

Most answers to this would involve breaking the path down into two aspects, distance (or time) and direction – for example, take four steps forward, turn 90 degrees to the left, take three steps, turn 45 degrees right, sidestep two steps and so forth. In theory at least, it should be possible to list a series of instructions like this that would convey the path through the maze pretty accurately.

Now, here is a very well known tune written in staff notation:

This series of dots and lines represent two aspects that will help you recognise and recreate this tune:

Pitch – How high or low pitched each note is in relation to each other (similar to how direction was used in the blindfolded maze analogy)

Rhythm – How time is broken down into set note durations (similar to the blindfolded maze runner counting their steps or the distance travelled).

We’ll come back to rhythm later, but for now let’s look at pitch. At its simplest, we are looking at a series of dots rising up or down according to pitched notes in the tune. Here’s the same tune with the lines and other symbols removed, leaving just the pitched notes:

Join up the dots and you get this:

So your instructions so far for interpreting this tune are as follows; play the same note twice, go up a little bit, go back to the original note, rise up steeply to a higher note and drop down slightly. Recognise the tune yet?

This will give you a vague shape, here’s how you get the exact directions.

Good Evening, Here Is The Neumes

pitch, intervals and the sol-fa scale

Music notation as we know it traces its roots back to the 9th century, when Benedictine monks began finding ways to write down the tuned chants they were using for rituals. Specifically, these were Latin psalms written underneath square notes on a system of four lines. It looked something like this:

This type of notation, called Neumes, lacked two things that would later be featured in the classical music notation we use today. The first of these is rhythm – because the music being written here was for meditative ritual chants, the syllables would be sung to a set pulse dictated by a leader. The second was named notes specific to pitches you would find on an instrument – because these chants would be sung unaccompanied, how the pitched notes related to each other was more important than tuning those notes to a particular set pitch.

The notes sung were from an eight note major scale which would come to be known as sol-fa. The notes were named as follows (numbered from 1 to 8):

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

DO

RE

MI

FA

SO

LA

TI

DO

The advantage of the sol-fa scale is that once you’d decided on a pitch for DO (which, to reiterate, was up to the singers concerned and not standardised) all the other notes could be found in relation to it.

To hear the scale on piano or keyboard, use C as DO and play only white notes:

Here’s the scale on guitar, shown here starting from G, though you can use this note sequence starting anywhere on the fretboard:

If you’d rather just sing (or want a natty way to remember this scale) listen to Do Re Mi from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical The Sound Of Music (“Doh, a dear, a female deer / Ray, a beam of golden sun..” etc etc).

Getting back to neumes notation, notes would be placed either on or between the lines (lines and spaces) with the position of Do being marked by a symbol resembling a letter C:

In this case, Do sits on the third line from the bottom, with notes either side alternating between lines and spaces to follow the notes of the sol-fa scale. Here is the above chant, annotated with the sol-fa notes:

Theoretically you could now accurately play or sing the melody of this chant either by matching the position of the note with the positions of the notes on the scale, or by counting how many lines and spaces the note has risen or lowered from the previous one and choosing your next scale note accordingly:

Or, to put it in a way that might mean something to the person in the maze at the head of this chapter, “go to this position” or “go that way” respectively.

Five Line Fury

As music notation was used to convey more complicated tunes played on instruments it was no longer enough to just pitch notes in relation to ‘Do’ – actual set notes across the entire frequency range needed to be conveyed. The system of four lines (the stave, or staff) moved to five lines and was marked with a new system of clefs (the first symbol seen at the beginning of the written music) to identify which pitched set of notes were being written. It now looks like this (showing the most common range of notes):

To begin understanding this, first look at the clefs (symbols) at the beginning of the music:

The highest symbol here is called the treble clef and indicates that the notes that follows will mostly be pitched higher than a particular central point. The bass clef, the one underneath, indicates the opposite, that the notated notes will mostly sound lower than that central pitch.

The central point is called ‘Middle C’, sounds at 261.63 hertz (a number you will likely have no practical use for outside of a trivia quiz, but there it is) and is the note placed on its own little line underneath the treble stave and above the bass stave.

Here’s how to find Middle C on piano and guitar:

Once you’ve placed that central note, the pitched notes go up and down by alternating line and space just like they did in neumes notation (. If you treat Middle C as “Do”, the letter names for each scale note in the C major scale are as follows:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Do

Re

Mi

Fa

So

La

Ti

Do

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

If you’re wondering why this starts from C instead of A when it is so obviously the first seven letters of the alphabet resetting to A after G, this has to do with things called modes, which we’ll look at later. For now, just go along with it.

Here are the note names written on the bass and treble clef music shown above:

Remember that little line that Middle C was sitting on below the treble clef and above the bass clef? You may even have noticed that there are similar looking notes above and below the treble and bass clef respectively marked as A and E. These little lines are called ‘ledger lines’ and are used to continue the stave upwards or downwards as needed for notes that don’t sound on the standard five line system. You can have as many as you like (though too many gets hard to read) and notes are placed on alternating lines and spaces as before:

Choose Your Own Mnemonics

A mnemonic is a little phrase, rhyme, acrostic or any other little memory aid to help you remember rote information. For a mnemonic to work effectively it has to be one that works for you personally and shouldn’t be regarded as anything more than the memory jogger it is. Unfortunately, teaching of pretty much everything has come to rely on mnemonics far too much over the years to the point where you can walk through conference rooms and classrooms and find dozens of acrostics of words like “key” and “smart” which utterly confuse whatever handy bullet points they were meant to be reminding you of. Bottom line: any time you find yourself stressing over remembering what a mnemonic is meant to be reminding you of, ditch it and find some other way to remember whatever it is. If a teacher insists on you remembering a particular mnemonic in order to pass a test that is up to them, but when teaching yourself go with what works for you.

That said, here’s how you can use your own chosen mnemonic as a shortcut to identifying notes on the stave.

First of all, decide whether the mystery note is sitting on a line or in a space:

For the treble clef, the notes reading from the bottom line upwards are E, G, B, D, F. Here is that sequence of letters converted into a mnemonic phrase:

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (the classic one used in old schools – sometimes the good boy deserves football or food, suggesting bad boys were left to starve with no recourse to sport).

Every Green Bus Drives Fast (the one I use)

Eat Green Beans, Don’t Fart (if you must)

… or anything else you come up with that works.

The notes on the spaces in the treble clef happen to spell the word “face” – if that’s not enough to jog your memory (it even rhymes with ‘space’) go ahead and come up with your own mnemonic to use instead.

For the bass clef, the lines from the lowest to the highest form G, B, D, F, A:

Good Boys Deserve Fine Apples (the classical one, though I find it confusingly similar to the treble clef mnemonic)

Go Buy Dog Food Again (my preferred mnemonic)

Green Burgers Don’t Feel Appetising

…and the spaces, A,C,E and G:

All Cows Eat Grass

Apes Can’t Enter Government (or perhaps they can, depending on your political views)

… and so on, and so on. The act of choosing the one you like best (or better still making up your own) will get the information into your subconscious in any case, more effectively if you can make a game of it.

There are other clefs as well, though you’ll only need to really worry about them if you play crazy moon instruments like viola, or conduct orchestras of people who do.

So, back to the mystery tune at the top of this article. Have you guessed it yet?

If not, you’ll have to wait until the next article for the answer.

Next time: Rhythm

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