In standard Western musical notation, the staff or stave, is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces, each of which represents a different musical pitch, or, in the case of a percussion staff, different percussion instruments. Appropriate music symbols, depending upon the intended effect, are placed on the staff according to their corresponding pitch or function. Musical notes are placed by pitch, percussion notes are placed by instrument, and rests and other symbols are placed by convention.
The absolute pitch of each line for a non-percussive stave is determined by the placement of an appropriate clef symbol at the appropriate vertical position on the left-hand side of the staff. For example, the treble clef, also known as the G clef, is placed upon the second line (counting upwards), fixing that line as the pitch first G above 'middle C'.
The lines and spaces are numbered from bottom to top; the bottom line is the first line and the top line is the fifth line.
The musical staff is analogous to a mathematical graph of pitch with respect to time. Pitches of notes are given by their vertical position on the staff and notes to the left are played before notes to the right. Unlike a graph, however, the exact timing of the beginning of each note is not directly proportional to its horizontal position; rather, exact timing is encoded by the musical symbol chosen for each note in addition to the tempo.
A time signature to the right of the clef indicates the relationship between timing counts and note symbols, while bar lines group notes on the staff into measures.
The Staff as we know it today originated from musically annotated text, through the Gregorian Chants around the 12th to 13th centuries. Until this time, symbols were used in conjunction with text to represent pitch. However, when the chants were written, people began to use lines to represent pitch, in addition to the pitch symbols above the text. While at first only one line was used, eventually the system expanded to four lines and used mainly dots among those lines to represent pitch. However, different numbers of lines were used throughout Europe for different instruments. France soon began to incorporate five lines into its music, which became widespread by the 16th century, and was the norm throughout Europe by the 17th century. The names of the staff in some languages, such as the Italian pentagramma, reflects the importance of five lines.
Staff, with staff positions indicated
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 is joined by a brace or 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.
A simple grand staff. Each of the staves shown above have seven notes and one rest.
- ^ Staff is more common in American English, stave in British English. The plural is staves in either case; stave is, in fact, a back-formation from staves. (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, p. 514.)