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In musical notation, the staff or stave is a set of five horizontal lines on which note symbols are placed to indicate pitch and rhythm. The lines are numbered from bottom to top; the bottom line is the first line and the top line is the fifth line.
The musical staff can be thought of as a graph of pitch with respect to time; pitches are roughly given by their vertical position on the staff, and notes on the left are played before notes to their right. In both cases, however, the notations are not exactly proportional but are encoded by symbols.
Music on the staff is read from left to right: one note to the right of another means that it is to be played later; how much later depends on the note value of the preceding note, and on the tempo. A time signature groups notes on the staff into measures.
The vertical position of the notehead on the staff indicates which note is to be played: notes that are higher in pitch are marked higher up on the staff. The notehead can be placed with the center of its notehead intersecting a line (on a line), or in between the lines touching the lines above and below (in a space). Notes which fall outside the range of the staff are placed on or between ledger lines, lines the width of the note they need to hold, added above or below the staff.
Exactly which notes are represented by which staff positions is determined by a clef placed at the beginning of the staff; the clef identifies a particular line as a specific note, and all other notes are determined relative to that line. For example, the treble clef puts the G above middle C on the second line. The interval between adjacent staff positions is one step in the diatonic scale. Once fixed by a clef, the notes represented by the positions on the staff can be modified by the key signature, or by accidentals on individual notes. A clefless staff may be used to represent a set of percussion sounds; each line typically represents a different instrument.
When music on two staves joined by a brace is intended to be played at once by a single performer (usually a keyboard instrument or the harp), a great stave (BrE) or grand staff (AmE) is created. Typically, the upper staff uses a treble clef and the lower staff has a bass clef. In this instance, middle C is centered between the two staves, and it can be written on the first ledger line below the upper staff or the first ledger line above the lower staff. When playing the piano or harp, the upper staff is normally played with the right hand and the lower staff with the left hand. In music intended for the organ, a grand staff comprises three staves, one for each hand on the manuals and one for the feet on the pedalboard.
The following is a grand staff (to be played, for example, on a piano). Each staff has seven notes and one rest.
Here is an example image with some typical music notation.
- Tonalsoft Encyclopaedia of Tuning
- Musical Staff Quiz
- Dolmetsch Online: Printable PDF files of musical staff (A4 size)
- Printable files of musical staff in PDF and PostScript formats provided by Perry Roland of Alderman Library at The University of Virginia