Staff, Clefs, Notes, and Rests

This article is going to be your go-to guide for basic musical symbols. Bookmark it. Memorize the address. Tell your friends. The analogy for this article will be installing windows, a popular pastime.

The staff, sometimes simply called ledger lines, can be thought of as the hole in your wall that a window will fill. It has the potential to be a single pane, a double pane, a bay window, a tarp affixed with duct tape…lots of things. It doesn’t mean much by itself. Here’s what a staff looks like:

Staff picture!

A staff is traditionally five lines. Here are two staffs. You can buy or print blank staff paper, just like lined paper or graph paper.

Just like a hole in a house, nobody really knows what kind of window belongs there without a frame. The frame of a window will hold in whatever glass you put in it, and will determine what panes will fit and what won’t fit. This is where the clef comes into play. The clef, which is French for “key”, gives a frame for the notes, just like a window frame. There are two main clefs, and some lesser used ones. For now, we’ll look at the Treble and Bass clef.

This is a treble clef, sometimes called a G clef. It kinda looks like the letter G.

This is a treble clef, sometimes called a G clef. It kinda looks like the letter G.

This is a bass clef, sometimes called an F clef. It looks more like the letter F than the letter G.

This is a bass clef, sometimes called an F clef. It looks more like the letter F than the letter G.

When writing music, you place the clef on top of the staff, just like you put a frame on a window. The two dots on a bass clef straddle the fourth line on a staff, and the center of the treble clef encircle the second line on the staff (counting from the bottom up). It looks like this!

Here we see the treble clef and bass clef positioned on the staff. Goldilocks would be happy- they fit just right. Unfortunately, they have terrible resolution.

Here we see the treble clef and bass clef positioned on the staff. Goldilocks would be happy- they fit just right.

If we return to our anaolgy, we’ve put a frame on the whole in the wall, and now we’re just waiting for glass to be installed. Fancy something colored, like stained glass, or plain clear panes? Do you want them to open and let in fresh air? If we connect music to our window installation, we’re ready to put in notes, just like the panes of glass.

This is a quarter note. We'll talk later about what it means, but for now, it can be placed on a staff to indicate a particular tone.

This is a quarter note. We'll talk later about what it means, but for now, it can be placed on a staff to indicate a particular tone.

A note is a tone with a duration. Depending on where you put your note on the staff, you’ll have a different note. Depending on what the note looks like, you’ll play the tone for longer or shorter. If you connect the concept of a note to a pane of glass, you can think of glass as a color and the size. Glass, for example, can be blue and huge, or red and tiny. Or, if you’re quirky, orange and oddly shaped. Similarly, a note can be a higher tone for a long time or a lower tone for a short time.

Aha! I can tell you have a question. You are probably thinking (or you will be thinking now),
“Well, what if I want an open window? What if I just want to install a screen and enjoy the delicious fresh air? How does that tie into our music analogy?”
I answer, “I anticipate your question and have an excellent connection. It seems that you want to learn about rests!”

This is a quarter rest. Don't worry about how long to hold it, just think of this as a period of silence. It doesn't matter much where you stick it on a staff.

This is a quarter rest. Don't worry about how long to hold it, just think of this as a period of silence. It doesn't matter much where you stick it on a staff.

A rest is exactly what it sounds like: a rest. When there is no tone being played, there is a rest. It can be long or short, depending on what it looks like. It has no particular position other than on the staff. As you probably guess, it doesn’t have a particular tone, so it doesn’t really matter where you place it on the staff, as long as it’s there. When playing or writing music, silence is just as necessary as noise, so rests are just as equal to notes in their importance.

So now, let’s piece together all this business and see what a note, a rest, and a clef look like on a staff.

This is a piece of music in context. See how the clef, notes, and rests are placed on the staff? This shows a whole bunch of different length notes and other symbols- we'll get to that later.

This is a piece of music in context. See how the clef, notes, and rests are placed on the staff? This shows a whole bunch of different length notes and other symbols- we'll get to that later.

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YackBack

Hi,
Thank you so much. You help me a lot. You’re a genius and you’re a great teacher! You explained it very clearly. your sense of humor and ample of examples helps a lot.

#1 
Written By Luz Ramos on June 27th, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

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