An Introduction to Ledger Lines

If the term ‘ledger lines’ isn’t ringing any bells for you, then read on, here’s all you need to know.

For starters, music couldn’t be written down without them. That means all the music you know and love, everything from Beethoven’s “9th Symphony” to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”, all started life making use of ledger lines.

So let’s get to grips with these building blocks of music so that you can use ledger lines confidently and accurately to record your musical stylings.

What Are Ledger Lines?

Whenever you open a fresh book of manuscript (music) paper, you’ll see virgin staves, ready to be filled with notation. The staff (plural – stave) refers to the 5 lines, that usually have a clef mark at the start.

The problem is there isn’t an infinite number of lines on the staff. If we were restricted to notation simply on the stave provided, we could only write 11 notes on any staff.

That’s a problem because as even the least eagle-eyed of us will have noted, there are far more than 22 notes on the piano, let alone in an entire orchestra.

Enter ledger lines. The problem solvers.

Ledger lines are an elegant solution to this limitation. They simply extend the staff both beyond its upper reaches and down below its lower depths.

In piano terms, this is invaluable. It allows the section performed by the right hand (with the treble clef at the start of the line) to boldly venture into territory below middle C–traditionally the domain of the left hand.

Conversely, it allows the left hand (indicated by the bass clef) to perform notes above middle C, in right-hand territory.

But how are they decyphered? And what about notes that don’t belong on a line? Let’s address those two questions.

How to Read Ledger Lines

The first use of ledger lines you’ll ever learn will likely come on day one of your piano lessons–identifying middle C.

Middle C seems to represent the start of the treble clef and the upper limits of the bass clef, yet the wonder of it is that it resides on neither–it lives on a ledger line below the treble clef and above the bass.

Let’s explore further.

On the Treble Clef

On the treble clef, it represents C by following the pattern of EGBDF – E being the bottom line. The space below D is occupied by D. Logically, the first ledger line below the staff represents C. The next represents A, the next represents F and so on.

Let’s turn our attention to the top of the staff.

A standard piano has 88 keys–a smidge over 7 octaves. The staff on its own can record just over 1 octave–you see where we’re going with this.

In order to take advantage of the glorious high notes, ledger lines are also needed to indicate these notes. These mini lines continue above the staff on the treble clef to indicate A, C, E, etc.

What about the notes that do not sit on the line? As on the standard staff, they are nestled into the space between the lines. They can also sit atop the ledger line, just like top G does on the staff.

On the Bass Clef

Following exactly the same pattern, ledger lines above the bass clef take us into ‘right-hand’ territory by starting with middle C and then carrying on to indicate E, G, B, etc. The spaces in between are used to indicate the notes in between.

Ledger lines on the bass clef also hold the key to getting down into the growling, brooding low tones of the bass notes on the piano.

They simply extend the staff below low G–carrying on with E, C, A, etc. The spaces in between continue in the same pattern.

Hitting the Dizzy Heights and the Lowest Lows

Clearly, though, even ledger lines could become clumsy and cluttered if they were used to show the very highest or very lowest notes on the piano.

The elegant solution to this is the 8va or 8 followed by a dotted line over the notes to be played an octave higher. The 8 indicates an octave, as there are 8 tones in an octave.

History of Ledger Lines

The history of music notation is interesting. Having once been considered an impossible undertaking, music notation as we know it has been around for about 500 years.

The staff is so revolutionary because it allows you to indicate pitch exactly. Although we have focused on the treble clef and bass clef here, that fix the pitch of G above middle C and F below middle C respectively, they are not the only clefs out there.

There are two more–the alto clef and tenor clef. These fix the pitch of middle C–on the 3rd line and 4th line respectively, and are used by various orchestral instruments.

Although it took time, eventually other clefs were dropped and just these 4 remained. However, the issue of how to record notes that fall beyond these ranges has always come down to one set of helpers–ledger lines.

We can be pretty relieved that nowadays we have standardised notation that allows us to read and perform music from just about anywhere in the world and on any instrument, thanks to clefs, staves and ledger lines.

Getting Better at Reading Ledger Lines

Admittedly, as we do not use most ledger lines as often as the standard staff, they can take a little more work to read.

However, you will soon find that you become very familiar with ones that are commonly used. In most pieces, it is fairly unusual to find many notes that go beyond two ledger lines.

Although there aren’t any handy mnemonics to learn to help you read them, like Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, you’ll find that once you’ve mastered the reading the staff, ledger lines are so orderly that your brain will quickly pick them up.

The key is to keep practicing! The more your practice, the quicker your brain will become at recognizing the different lines. As notes often run consecutively on in thirds, that makes it a little easier too.

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