I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  •  indicates both and .
  • Notes are written on a . Notes with a higher frequency (shorter wavelength) are written higher on the staff than notes with a lower frequency (longer wavelength). That is, higher notes are placed above lower ones.
  • A must be written carefully on a staff. A notehead is oval (not round); additionally, it should be neither too large nor too small, and it is tilted slightly upward toward the right.
  • The of notes can point either upward (on the right side of a note) or downward (on the left side of a note). For notes above the middle line, the stem points downward, and for notes below the middle line, stems point upward. Notes on the middle line can point in either direction, depending on the surrounding notes.
  • Writing seconds always involves displacing one note to the left or right of a stem. The lower note always goes on the left, regardless of whether the stem points up or down.
  • A indicates which pitches are assigned to the lines and spaces on a staff.
  • Extra lines called extend a staff higher or lower.

Western musical notation privileges two musical features: and . Pitches are notated vertically (on the y-axis), while rhythms are notated horizontally (on the x-axis). Western musical notation is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom, like the page of a book in written English.

Notation of Notes

A indicates both pitch and rhythm. Each written note consists of a (either empty or filled in) and may also have a and a or (see Rhythmic and Rest Values). Example 1 shows an illustration of noteheads, stems, beams, and flags:

A picture of elliptical noteheads, some filled in as solid black and one left open. Vertical stems, horizonal beams, and curved flags are also depicted.
Example 1. Noteheads, stems, beams, and flags.

Staff Notation

A (plural “staves”) is essential for conveying pitch. A staff consists of five horizontal lines, evenly spaced, and each note is placed on the line or space that corresponds to its pitch (see Clefs below). Example 2 depicts a staff:

Five horizontal lines spaced evenly.
Example 2. A staff.

Placing Notes on a Staff

Noteheads on a line should fill in half of each space above and below. Noteheads in a space should just touch the lines above and below. Example 3 shows examples of correct noteheads, both open and filled in, both on lines and in spaces:

Provides an illustration of correct noteheads, both open (white) and filled in (black). The noteheads are drawn on both lines and spaces.
Example 3. Correct noteheads, open (white) and filled in (black), both on lines and in spaces.

Noteheads should be oval (not round), and they are tilted slightly upward toward the right. Example 4 shows incorrect noteheads. As you can see, noteheads can be drawn too small, too big, or the wrong shape.

Shows incorrect examples of noteheads. Some of the noteheads are too small, some are too big, and some are the wrong shapes. Noteheads on both lines and spaces are depicted, and there are both open and filled in noteheads.
Example 4. Incorrect examples of noteheads.

Stems and Beams

The of notes can point either upward (on the right side of a note) or downward (on the left side of a note). For notes above the middle line, the stem points downward, and for notes below the middle line, stems point upward. Notes on the middle line can point in either direction, depending on the surrounding notes. This is shown in Example 5:

Notes with stems are shown. Above the middle line, their stem points down, on the left side of the note. Below the middle note, their stem points up, on the right side of the note.
Example 5. Correct stemming directions.

Stemming directions and beaming conventions are discussed more in Simple Meter and Time Signatures and Compound Meter and Time Signatures. When hand-drawing stems, their length is equal to four lines of the staff. Beams are about four times thicker than stems.

Drawing Seconds

When notes at the interval of a second (see the Generic Intervals section of The Keyboard and the Grand Staff) occur harmonically, they are on an adjacent line and space of the staff, so one note needs to be displaced to the left or right of the stem. The lower note always goes on the left, regardless of whether the stem points up or down. Example 6 shows the correct way to draw seconds:

Three seconds are shown. The lower note is always on the left.
Example 6. Three correct seconds.

Seconds should not be stacked on top of one another, nor should the lower note be on the right, as seen in Example 7:

Three incorrect seconds are shown. One stacks two notes directly on top of each other. The right note is on the bottom in the other two pairs of notes.
Example 7. Three incorrect seconds.

Drawing seconds in seventh chords is discussed in Seventh Chords.

Clefs

The notes drawn on the lines and spaces of a staff represent pitches. Musicians use spatial metaphors to describe notes placed on a staff: notes appearing toward the top of the staff are said to be “higher” than those toward the bottom, which are said to be “lower.” Higher pitches are produced by with a shorter (and consequently a higher ); sound waves with a longer wavelength (lower frequency) produce lower pitches. Such spatial metaphors vary with —i.e. across cultures and time periods. For example, for some music theorists in ancient Greece, higher-sounding notes were visually placed below lower-sounding notes.[1] As Example 8 demonstrates, this is because these theorists were likely most familiar with string instruments that functioned similarly to the violins, guitars, and harps we know today.

Example 8. Dr. Jacob Tews (Christopher Newport University) explains more about ancient Greek musical notation.

For notes to convey pitch information beyond “higher” and “lower,” the staff on which they appear must include a A clef indicates which pitches are assigned to the lines and spaces on a staff (see also Reading Clefs). The two most commonly used clefs today are the clef and clef. Two other clefs that you may encounter are the clef and the . Example 9 shows the same pitch placed after the treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs:

Four notes (C4) are placed after four different clefs: a treble, bass, alto, and tenor clef.
Example 9. The same pitch placed after a treble, bass, alto, and tenor clef.

Higher notes, such as those played by a flute or sung by a soprano, are usually written in treble clef, and lower notes, such as those played by a trombone or sung by a bass, are usually written in bass clef. Alto and tenor clefs are relatively rare compared to treble and bass. But in some cases, alto clef is used for medium-high notes, and tenor clef is used for medium-low notes.

Drawing Clefs

One can draw a treble clef in three simple steps, as demonstrated in Example 10:

A treble clef is drawn in three steps.
Example 10. Drawing a treble clef in three steps.
  1. Draw a slanted vertical line that extends slightly above and below the staff.
  2. Draw a half circle that intersects with your slanted line at the second staff line from the top.
  3. Circle around the second staff line from the bottom.

Likewise, one can also draw a bass clef in three steps, as shown in Example 11:

A bass clef is drawn in three steps.
Example 11. Drawing a bass clef in three steps.
  1. Draw a dot on the second staff line from the top.
  2. Draw a backward C that ends in the bottom space of the staff, making sure that the top part of the C does not extend above the staff.
  3. Place two dots to the right of the backward C, in the top two spaces of the staff.

One can draw an alto clef in four steps, as Example 12 shows:

An alto clef is drawn in four steps.
Example 12. Drawing an alto clef in four steps.
  1. Draw a thick vertical line that spans the staff.
  2. Draw a thinner vertical line next to it.
  3. Draw two backward Cs, the first taking up slightly less than the top half of the staff and the second taking up slightly less than the bottom half of the staff.
  4. Connect these backward Cs with a point that rests on the middle line of the staff.

As seen in Example 13, the tenor clef is drawn the same way as the alto clef, just shifted up one line of the staff higher. The vertical lines in steps 1 and 2 begin on the second staff line from the bottom and extend slightly above the staff. The first backward C extends slightly above the top half of the staff, and the second takes up slightly less than the middle two spaces of the staff. The point connecting them rests on the second staff line from the top.

A tenor clef is drawn in four steps.
Example 13. Drawing a tenor clef in four steps.

Sometimes when musicians draw the alto or tenor clef, they do so by writing the letter “K” as a form of shorthand. Example 14 shows this:

A hand-drawn alto and tenor clef, in which the clefs are shaped like the letter K.
Example 14. Using the letter “K” to draw the alto and tenor clefs.

Writing Ledger Lines

When notes are too high or low to be written on a staff, small lines called are drawn to extend the staff. Example 15 shows ledger lines written above and below a staff:

Depicts a staff with a bass clef. Above and below the staff are ledger lines. No noteheads are present.
Example 15. Ledger lines, both above and below a staff with a bass clef.

Example 16 shows notes (with stems and beams) drawn on ledger lines, above and below a staff.

A treble clef is on the left side of a staff. Notes (with beams and stems) are placed above and below the staff, on ledger lines.
Example 16. Notes (with stems and beams) on ledger lines, above and below a staff with a treble clef.

When writing ledger lines, be sure not to put in an extra ledger line above or below the note you are writing. Example 17 first shows the correct way of writing notes on ledger lines, followed by the incorrect way, with extra ledger lines above and below the notes:

To the left, a picture of correctly drawn ledger lines and notes is shown. To the right, incorrectly drawn ledger lines are shown. There should be no extra ledger line above or below notes.
Example 17. Correct and incorrect notation of ledger lines.
Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. The Staff (.pdf)
  2. Drawing Notes on Lines and Spaces, High and Low (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing Noteheads, Clefs, and Ledger Lines (.pdf, .docx)

Media Attributions

  • Noteheads, Stem, Beam, Flag
  • Staff
  • Correct Noteheads
  • Stemming Directions
  • Correct Seconds
  • Incorrect Seconds
  • Four Clefs and Notes
  • Draw Treble Clef
  • Draw Bass Clef
  • Draw Alto Clef
  • Draw Tenor Clef
  • K Clefs
  • Ledger Lines without Notes
  • Ledger Lines with Notes
  • Correct Incorrect Ledger Lines

  1. For one example, see André Barbera, The Euclidean Division of the Canon: Greek and Latin Sources. New Critical Texts and Translations on Facing Pages, with an Introduction, Annotations, and Indices Verborum and Nominum et Rerum (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 276–9.

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