An Introduction to the Grand Staff

A true understanding of music can take years.

And plenty of people manage to know just enough to get by in musical environments. Perhaps they sight read well, or have coveted perfect pitch. Either way, they’ve managed to get by with only a basic knowledge of musical concepts.

But if you want to take your understanding deeper, you have to have a working knowledge of music theory [1]. And the perfect starting point?

The Grand Staff.

If you are already intimidated, don’t be. It’s a very fancy sounding name for a pretty basic concept.

When you picture sheet music in your head, you are probably seeing the Grand Staff. It’s two staves connected by an invisible line, one directly above the other.

Let’s take a look at the grand staff and how we use it in musical notation.

Grand Staff Notation

First, let’s make sure we’re clear on what we mean when we talk about the grand staff.

The staff is made of two staves. Stave here is just the plural of staff.

In music, the staff is made of five horizontal lines used to notate music. The lines and spaces determine the musical pitch. Together, the two staves create the grand staff.

The top staff here is the treble clef and is used for most musical instruments, as well as soprano and alto voices. The bottom is the bass clef and is used for voices and instruments in lower tessituras [2].

These aren’t the only clefs that are usable on the grand staff, but they are the most common. Technically there are nine distinct clefs possible in musical notation, with four being used regularly in modern music.

These nine clefs are the French Violin, Treble, Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, and Subbass. The four most common are the Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, with the Treble and Bass being the two most widely used.

Let’s take a look at grand staff notation in middle C.

In middle C, the C note falls directly between the two staves, and forms the foundation for the rest of the scale, both above and below.

Treble Clef

The treble clef is the better known of the two staves on the grand staff. It’s the one taught to school children and to beginning piano players. It is used for the violin, flute, oboe, bagpipe, cor anglais, all clarinets, all saxophones, horn, trumpet, cornet, vibraphone, xylophone, mandolin, and recorder. Soprano, Alto, and Tenor voices also use this clef, making it the most commonly used clef on the grand staff.

The notes on any stave can be separated into two groups: lines and spaces.

In middle C, the lines on the treble clef correspond to the notes E, G, B, D, and F. Most music students remember this with the acrostic “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

The spaces correspond to F, A, C, and E. This, as you can see, spells the word Face, which is a useful mnemonic in music theory.

Bass Clef

The bass clef is less common and is used for instruments like the cello, euphonium, double bass, bass guitar, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone, baritone horn, tuba, and timpani. It is also the clef used by bass and baritone singers, as well as the lower notes of some horns.

The bass clef is a little more difficult. This isn’t inherent, but simply because most musicians grow up learning on the treble clef, but don’t add in bass until later.

On the bass clef, the notes on the lines are G, B, D, F, and A. This is usually remembered with the acrostic “Good Boys Do Fine Always”. It’s similar to the treble clef mnemonic on purpose, to try and create a mental link between the two and make them easier to remember in conjunction.

The space notes on the bass clef are A, C, E, and G. The mnemonic here is “All Cows Eat Grass.” No handy mental link to FACE on this one, unfortunately.

What About the Middle C?

If you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that a note is missing in both the treble and bass clefs. They both include a C, but the third C, the middle C, is missing.

It’s the note the entire scale is named for, so were is it?

In fact, the middle C falls right where its name implies, directly in the middle of the two staves. It is technically a line note, falling on the invisible line that separates the top and bottom staves.

There are two other “invisible notes” in middle C, which aren’t included in the mnemonics. The first is the B just below middle C, which appears in the space just above the bottom stave. The second, of course, is the D above middle C, which is in the space just below the top stave.

Challenges of the Grand Staff

The major challenge of the grand staff is that the two basic clefs are not identical. It seems like it would make much more sense for them to represent two identical octaves in the same key rather than be placed somewhat arbitrarily.

But, as with many things in music, the rules were set centuries ago. Music is an art form steeped in tradition, and you would be hard-pressed to change it now.

This can make learning the grand staff a huge challenge, especially for those who learned only the treble clef as children and are not attempting to internalize the bass clef. If you add in the alto and tenor clefs, the whole thing gets even more confusing.

The key to learning to grand staff, like with all things in music, is simply practice. With repetition, the notes will seem to fall into place more easily, just in time for you to add in the other scales and key signatures.

Wrapping Up

If you only plan to ever use one clef or the other, you can certainly get by in music without more than a passing knowledge of the grand staff.

But for a deeper understanding, this knowledge is truly fundamental.

To deepen your musical understanding, even more, take a look at our music theory category, an example of this is the music note names. Have you heard about the quarter rest? Do you know the importance and function of it? If not, read our blog.

Stephanie Su

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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