Lesson 6: The Grand Staff and Ledger Lines

Lesson 6: The Grand Staff and Ledger Lines

In my last blog post, I discussed time signatures and rhythm to explain how notes written on the staff can be counted. For this lesson, we’ll be looking at how the treble and bass clef staves are joined together to make lines of music read in piano scores, as well as how to read especially high or low notes on the staff.
You know from one of my previous posts that piano music is written on a staff that has 5 lines and 4 spaces, and that there are two clefs used, treble for high pitches and bass for low ones. Music is read from left to right, and, because piano music needs to show the full range of pitches from low to high, the treble and bass staves are placed one over the other. Both staves are read as one line from left to right, and a curved bracket called a brace is used at the beginning of each line to show that the staves are meant to be read together.
As discussed in last week’s post, bar lines are used to break the line of music into measures. In piano music, they are a bit longer and run through both staves as well as the space between the staves. The time signature is also next to each clef sign.
Music written in this way is called the grand staff, which is used for all piano music. Check out what it looks like below. I’ve used arrows to show the direction your eye should follow when reading the notes, since the entire line should be read from left to right: one measure of treble clef E’s, two measures of bass clef G’s, and then the last measure of treble clef E’s.
Because some pitches played on the piano are either too high or too low to fit on the lines and spaces of the staff, the staff sometimes needs to be extended to represent those pitches. You can make the staff a bit longer by adding short lines called ledger lines above or below the staff. Ledger lines and the spaces between them are counted in the same way as the regular lines and spaces of the staff, and are seen as a continuation of the lettering order of whichever clef is being used.
Perhaps the most frequently seen ledger line note for either the treble or bass clef is Middle C, the C key directly in the center of the keyboard. Middle C is too low to fit on the treble staff and too high to fit on the bass staff, so it will need a ledger line either way. Middle C in the treble clef has one ledger line below the rest of the staff, which makes it a skip down from the first line of the treble staff (the E line). Here’s what Middle C looks like in the treble clef:
In the bass clef, Middle C has one ledger line above the rest of the staff, making it a skip up from the fifth line of the staff, which in bass clef is the A line:
Notes sitting just above or below a ledger line are one step away from the letter represented by the ledger line. For example, the treble clef note shown here is a high B. If the fifth line of the treble clef is the F line, then the ledger line represents A, and the note head is sitting on top of that A ledger line:
Here also is a bass clef example: a low D. If the first line of the bass clef is the G line, then the ledger line represents E, and the note head is just below that E ledger line:
Some notes don’t require ledger lines, but are still too high or too low to fit on the regular staff. These notes look like they’re sitting on top of the staff or hanging off of it. As with ledger lines, these notes should be seen as extensions of the letter order of the clef they’re in. In the treble clef, the note hanging off the bottom of the staff is D, since it is directly below the E line. The note sitting on top of the treble staff is G, since it is directly above the F line. Check out the examples below:
The same concept applies to bass clef. The note hanging off the bottom of the staff is F, since it is directly below the G line, and the note sitting on top of the staff is B, since it is directly above the A line:
Try writing some notes with ledger lines yourself. For a challenge, write some with anywhere between two and four ledger lines, then see if you can correctly identify the letter of the note. Mix it up and use both clefs, as well as some notes directly on the ledger line and other notes sitting above or below the ledger line.
Look out for the next lesson, which will explain rests, which are beats of silence in music, and how rests are notated. Make sure to subscribe to my mailing list for musical updates!