Understand what the staff and clef do.
The staff is broken into 5 lines. These 5 lines have spaces in between them. A note may be placed on a line or space to give it a certain pitch. Notes that are higher on the staff have a higher pitch, notes that are lower have a lower pitch. (Note other special types of staves exist such as the 1 line staff.)
The staff may be extended using ledger lines. This simply adds more lines and spaces to the staff.
Clefs are what actually define the notes on the staff. There are many types of clefs out there but we only need to worry about 5 of them and of those 5 only 2 do we actually need to get good at reading. The other 3 you should just be able to recognize. They are the treble clef, alto clef, tenor clef, bass clef, neutral (percussion) clef.
The clef has 1 important job. Define a reference. From this reference we can find all other notes.
The Treble Clef (The G Clef)
The treble clef, also known as the G clef looks like a giant G. The clef circles the note G4 on the staff! The lower part of the clef that it grows from also lines up with the note C4. These are the important references.
A note represents a specific pitch. A pitch is a frequency to be played on an instrument but it is called a pitch instead because different instruments also have different frequencies above this specified frequency.
For example, a clarinet playing a lowest frequency (also called the fundamental frequency) of 800 Hz, and a trumpet playing 800 Hz will sound like they are playing the same note because their lowest frequency, the fundamental is the same, but the reason they also sound different is because the other frequencies they generate are different. This is a huge topic and if you're interested you could look into timbre and the harmonic series, but this is just an explanation for why we call them pitches and not frequencies.
Notes have a letter assigned to them. We use the letters A through G. There is also a number associated with the note that refers to the octave that note is in. For example, C3 and C4 are 1 octave apart with C3 sounding just like C4 but it is one octave lower.
The reason these notes sound like they are the same note is because C3 is half the frequency of C4. In other words an octave has a ratio of 2:1, so C5 is twice the frequency of C4. There is a very neat relationship that appears in the harmonic series that one day we will look at but for now, we just need to understand what the number means.
Treble Clef Natural Notes
Each line and space on the staff has a note associated with it. Keep in mind this system can be extended with ledger lines.
The treble clef makes it easy to find the notes G4 and C4, so going up to the next line or space will have us go up one letter. The space above C4 is then D4, the line above that is E4, and the space above that is F4 and then we get to G4 which was already known, since we have reached G we now start over at A, so the next space is A4, then B4 and finally C5. We have gone up 1 octave.
When reading music most musicians learn the notes as they learn their instrument, it is unusual for a musician to learn the numbers as well, instead they just learn the letters and how it feels to play that particular note. So when naming notes we typically just say the letter even though there is also a number that goes with it.
THIS IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD MEMORIZE!!! I cannot stress this enough. You should be able to look at a note and tell immediately what note it is. Knowing the notes is similar to knowing the alphabet, can you imagine spelling words while still learning the letters? Invest the time now in learning the note names and the next lessons will be much easier.
In general you should know 3 ledger lines above and below the staff. (This by the way is very close to the practical range for clarinet although it can go higher in the hands of an expert, and its lowest note is an E3)
Sharps, Flats and the Black Notes
So far we have only looked at the “white keys” of the keyboard, these notes are referred to as natural. To get to the black keys we need to raise or lower the notes. For this we have sharps and flats.
If you were to move a single note on the keyboard, you will have moved a half-step. If you start on C for example and go up to the next black you will have moved up 1 half step.
When we go up a half step we use a sharp, which looks like a pound sign. In this case we have moved to the note C#.
Conversely, if we were at the note D and then we move down a half step, we use a flat, which looks like a fancy lowercase b. In this case we have reached the note Db.
Note this is the same sound note as C#! This location on the keyboard can be described by more than one name! C# or Db! This is called enharmonics.
Since we are just starting we only need to understand how to use sharps and flats, enharmonics can seem odd, why have notes with more than 1 name? The primary reason enharmonics exist is so every line and space on the staff is used. It might seem silly now, but after we go over scales you will see why enharmonics are useful.
Note this system is general and can be extended easily. For example, say we start on the note C, we go up a half step, then we go up another half step. This would normally be the note D natural, but we instead got to it by starting at C and then raising by a half step twice, meaning we used a sharp and then another sharp. So we could instead write C double sharp! We could do the same thing with flats and have many flats. In theory you could get to any other note by starting with one note and adding the right number of sharps and flats. This is usually very impractical but it is common to see double sharps and flats for the same reason enharmonics exist. It will become more clear after scales are covered.
To write a double sharp we could just add more sharps next to the note, in this case 2 sharp symbols, or use the special double sharp symbol. You may see this symbol from time to time and now you know what it means. Flats are more straightforward, there is no special symbol. If you want a double flat just put 2 flat signs next to the note, if you want 3 you put 3, etc…
That's flats and sharps, using this we can reach all 12 notes of the western harmony system.
The Bass Clef (F Clef)
Before you move on to the bass clef make sure you are good at the treble clef. Learning both at the same time can cause confusion ensure you know the treble clef well first and can answer the questions within a second easily.
The bass clef has a large dot at the note F3, hence why it is called the F clef. The two small dots are around the F line. Because it is at F3 it sounds an octave lower. Some people see the bass clef as a shifted version of the treble clef, since on the treble clef the note F is the line above the note F on the bass clef. You may find this useful, but I would also commit the bass clef to memory.
Knowing the reference F3, we can reach all the others following the exact same logic as the treble clef.
The bass clef has the note C4, or middle C, one ledger line above the staff, where the treble clef has it one ledger line below the staff! This will become very important because instruments such as the piano use a huge range, and so they combine the treble and bass clef to reach that massive range and the bridge is at this ledger line spot! When you combine the two clefs to form one massive range it is called a grand staff.
From here it is just a matter of getting fast and learning the names of the notes. Again we should know 4 ledger lines above and below the staff.
The Tenor Clef and Alto Clef (C clef)
I only include this here to be complete, some instruments use these clefs, we won’t use it often if at all, but you should recognize it as it may appear in some scores.
The tenor and alto clefs define middle C to be wherever the center of the clef is. Technically the other clefs can also be shifted with this same logic as well, but I’ve never seen it done. The tenor clef on the other hand uses this all the time. Wherever the center is, that's where the note C4 is.
The Neutral Clef (Percussion Clef)
The neutral clef is used for non tonal instruments such as a drum set. There are standards for where notes lie on it depending on the instrument but in other cases a key is needed to define them. When it comes to the neutral clef you will also see single line staves more often since pitch no longer matters. Instruments such as the triangle for example, only have one sounding pitch so rhythm is all that really matters anyways.
Now you know about the different clefs and their meanings. I urge you to spend time on this lesson and get fast. To use the analogy from earlier, it will make it so you can focus on writing words instead of letters.
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