Simplifying the Grand Staff


This article explores the nature of music staff notation and explains the purpose of the grand staff. It also illustrates that the grand staff is needlessly complex, and then demonstrates that we could have had an effective but simpler alternative.

To get started we'll look at single staff notation. Then we'll take a jaunt into music fiction and a look at examples of simpler grand staves.

Single staff notation

Most musical instruments have a pitch range of roughly two or three octaves. This amounts to 16 to 24 natural notes.

As shown here, a five-line notation staff can hold only 11 natural notes. These 11 notes amount to a pitch range of an octave and a 4th, and most instruments have more notes than that.

However with the addition of three ledger lines. above and below the staff, a single staff is capable of displaying more than three octaves of pitch, which is sufficient for most instruments. The following staff ranges from E to D, and covers three octaves and a second. Read more about ledger lines ...

Grand Staff notation

Some instruments have a range greater than three octaves. The piano has 88 notes—that's over seven octaves. To avoid using of a ridiculous number of ledger lines musicians created an extended staff—the modern day grand staff. The grand staff is the protagonist in this revery.

Shown below, with two ledger lines, the grand staff has a pitch range of four octaves and a third. (A grand staff with three ledger lines has a pitch range that's one note short of five octaves.)


The inherent challenge of the Grand Staff

The grand staff is a very useful tool indeed, but one of questionable design. There are lots of musical structures and terms based on questionable logic. The grand staff is one such structure. Iit could have been much simpler!

Many people find the modern grand staff difficult to learn and difficult to read. It's a complicated scenario indeed because it's composed of two different clefs: there's a treble clef on top, and a bass clef below. Thus the letter names of the lines and spaces differ between the upper staff and the lower staff, as shown in the image above. For instance, the name of the bottom line of the bass clef is G; whereas the name of the bottom line of the treble clef is E.

Many late comers to music literacy claim that reading grand staff notation takes two brains, one for each hand of the piano. The clef discrepancy is a large contributing factor.

Music Fiction — A simpler grand staff

The grand staff would be much simpler if composed of two matching clefs. Surprisingly there are a number of ways to achieve this end. Given the inherent simplicity of the the first solution below, it's hard to imagine why it wasn't adopted originally. So we proceed with an article of music fiction, a treatise on "what could have been" by offering some designs for a simpler grand staff.

Solution 1 — The dual-G clef

To a standard treble clef add an "A" ledger line below the middle C ledger line. Yes this means there will be two ledger lines between the staves of the grand staff.

Then add another treble clef directly below, actually a transposing clef two octaves lower. Both staves look like treble clefs, however the lower staff is two octaves lower than the upper.

That's it. Viola! (I mean, "Voilà!") Now the staff lines are lettered consistently, and the clefs match. Yes, the grand staff could have be designed like this:

Grand Staff with middle A


Solution 2 — The six line dual-A clef

Here's another simple grand staff with identical lettering on each staff.

This approach departs from the five line staff. In essence we start with a treble clef. Then we extend middle C ledger line to the full width of the staff. In other words, the sixth line (the lowest line) is the note formerly known as middle C.

The result is lovely:



NOTE: The staves of the actual grand staff are separated by a single ledger line at middle C. Arguably this is appropriate and necessary, or we'd have an instance where letter names change "from space to space" instead of alternately always from line to space, then space to line. I've only pursued solutions that honored this approach.

Solution 3 — The dual-F clef

You get the idea. The lower clef would be the standard F clef. The two ledger lines above it would be middle C and E, and the upper clef would be an F clef pitched two octaves above the lower one.

The Evolution of Languages

There many peculiarities in the music language, music notation, and music theory. Some of us swallow the sqirming beast whole, without a thought. Others questions the oddites and complexities, and they wonder how some of the fundamentals get so royally fouled up.

Music language and music notation evolved like spoken languages. Essentially they construct themselves. Terms, and grammar and conjugation twist and change unpredictably, at times without respect to coherent rules, logical structure or predictable pattern. Irregular verbs are a good example. 

Once a language advances to written form it begins to congeal and stabilize. The appearance of printing, dictionaries and mass media further cement the bulk of practice and verbiage, while it continues to fizzle and form unpredictably around its edges. There is no "governing committee" until these final stages. Everyday people are the unwary contributors.

Languages form themselves without oversight nor according to design. If they borrow and steal extensively from other languages, they, like English, have truly outrageous and unpredictable spelling. All languages have idioms and internal contradictions. Here's a couple of examples. Basically there's no difference between going "up the street" or "going down the street." We park in driveways and we drive on parkways. It's pretty nutty, and a real challenge for adults learning English as a second language. But native speakers comfortably negotiate these linguistic oddities and contradictions without even noticing—in fact, once pointed out, these unconscious absurdities generally provoke a good laugh.

Like any language the conventions of music notation evolved due to countless forces, innovations, and common practices. With the rise of notation, monks with quills began to stabilize and define it's structure and presentation. Gutenberg and music engraving stabilized matters further. And now we're pretty much stuck with what we have. A weird system that works pretty darn well, but looks shockingly peculiar to the unindoctrinated.

Ledger lines

This section is essentially a footnote about ledger lines.

As mentioned above, a single five-line staff allows us to notate a range of 11 notes; this narrow range is just shy of one and a half octaves, insufficient except for the simplest instruments.

Ledger lines help address this need by extending the staff. Each ledger line extends the staff's range by two addition natural notes. Musicians can comfortably read up to four or five ledger lines, above or below the staff.

Here we'll look at the impact of adding ledger lines above and below a staff.

One ledger line

A single line above and below the staff increases the range of the staff from 11 to 15 notes, almost two octaves. 11 + 2 + 2 = 15. On a treble clef staff, that's from B to B.

1 ledger line

Two ledger lines

With two lines above and below, the staff can hold 19 notes, which is two octaves and a 4th. 11 + 4 + 4 = 19 notes. For treble clef this is an octave and a 5th, from G up to D. This is the full range of the violin, up through third position.

2 ledger lines

Three ledger lines

With three lines above and below the staff can hold 23 notes. 11 + 6 + 6 = 23 notes. For treble clef this is three octaves, from E up to F, which is 14 frets of the guitar.

Four ledger lines

With four ledger above and below we the range increase to 27 notes. 27 (11 + 8 + 8). This is three octaves and a fourth. From C to A. [Image for a not shown.]


For more fun with music fiction read about the contention of A vs. C


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