The staff and the score

The staff is the small set of five horizontal, parallel lines in which musicians write and read music.

The staff has not always been five lines, though. Old staffs had eleven lines. The staffs for Gregorian chants had four lines. Five-line staffs originated when musicians simplified the eleven-line staff by deleting the central one. The central one represents the space for the middle do note.

The old staff and how it was simplified.

Today, musicians use clefs to specify the order in which the notes are distributed on the staff, allowing them to recreate the eleven-line staff through two parallel staffs of sol and fa clefs, if necessary.

The notes in the staff

The staff considers that each line or space represents the position of a note. To know which note goes where, musicians use the clef as a standard. There are three popular clefs these days: the sol or treble clef, which indicates the note sol is on the second line; the fa or bass staff, which indicates the note fa is on the fourth line; and the do or alto clef, which indicates the note do is on the third line.

In all staffs, lines are counted from the bottom to the top, and sharps and flats are expressed with the # and b symbols, respectively.

Notes are arranged from lower pitch to higher pitch from the first line (the one at the bottom of the arrangement) to the last one (the one at the top of the arrangement). In case you need to write a note which is over or under the staff arrangement, you use ledger lines to indicate them. In theory, musical staffs are endless. In practice, they are not, because human hearing has its limits.

By means of example, this picture shows how notes are arranged from do to do in the three most usual clefs.

From do to do in the three most used staffs.

It is always understood that if two notes are in the same position of the staff, they are played at the same time. If they are one next to the other, they are played in succession.

Musicians also use bars to separate and tidy the notes in a staff. A song will have as many bars as necessary.

How to read and write a score

Now that you understand what is a staff and what the position of the notes are on it, let's imagine we need to write one to learn how they are prepared and read, too.

Place the clef

Let's start by placing the clef. This will indicate which note indicates each position.

Place the key signature

Next, let's add a key signature. The key signature indicates in which tonality the song is played in. Here you have a list:


+ No sharps nor flats – do major or la minor
+ One sharp – sol major or mi minor
+ Two sharps – re major or ti minor
+ Three sharps – la major or sharp fa minor
+ Four sharps – mi major or sharp do minor
+ Five sharps – ti major or sharp sol minor
+ Six sharps – sharp fa major or sharp re minor
+ Seven sharps – sharp do major or sharp la minor
+ One flat – fa major or re minor
+ Two flats – flat ti major or sol minor
+ Three flats – flat mi major or do minor
+ Four flats – flat la minor or fa minor
+ Five flats – flat re major or flat ti minor
+ Six flats – flat sol major or flat mi minor
+ Seven flats – flat do major or flat la minor

Try to identify them on the picture.

The key signature will affect all the notes in the lines where these flats and sharp symbols are placed. If you choose to compose a song in fa major —and, therefore, use a key signature with one flat— all notes ti will be flat in the song without the need of additional symbols. If by chance you need a normal (and not flat) ti in the song, you will use the natural symbol to cancel the flat in that bar.

When learning about key signatures, someone who learns music usually asks whether there is any way to memorize them easily. There is one, yet it is not flawless. It is by counting. Count five notes, starting from do, forward or backwards as many times as there are symbols as key signature. For example, if the key signature has three sharps, then count do, re, mi, fa, sol to the first one; sol, la, ti, do, re to the second one; re, mi, fa, sol, la to the last one. The key signature will be a major la. If the key signature has two flats, then count do, ti, la, sol, fa to the first one; and fa, mi, re, do, ti to the second one. Taking into account the distance between do and ti is just a half-tone, then the key signature is a flat ti major.

Hopefully, you got the idea. It is not perfect, but it is a good reference anyway.

Add the time signature

We need to finish the introductory part with the time signature. This will indicate to the musician how many symbols are there in each bar of the song. You indicate this with a fraction in which:

+ The numerator is the number of times there will be in a bar
+ The denominator is the value of the notes you will take as measure.

If you ever see a C, it means you are playing a song written in a 4/4 time signature. That is to say, a song in which every bar will have the same duration as four quarter notes.

Here you have a table with most of the note values available.

Numeric value Name Sound symbol Rest symbol Duration
1 redonda imagen de una redonda imagen de un silencio de redonda 4
2 blanca imagen de una blanca imagen de un silencio de blanca 2
4 negra imagen de una negra imagen de un silencio de negra 1
8 corchea imagen de una corchea imagen de un silencio de corchea 1/2
16 semicorchea imagen de una semicorchea imagen de un silencio de semicorchea 1/4

In British English, these are named semi breve, minim, crotchet, quaver and semi quaver, respectively. Rarely, other notes can be used.

Now insert the notes

Once you have stated the clef, key and time signatures, you start writing note by note until completing the song. Just remember that when you need to play the notes at the same time, you place them in the same line (levelled). If you need them to sound in sequence, you write them one next to the other.

All bars should have the same measure of sounds as the time signature says. If for some reason you need to continue the sound of one bar in the next one, you use a tie. You also use a tie to indicate which notes need to be played without periods of silence or rests.

Sometimes you will see notes with a dot beside it. The dot indicates you play that note plus its half. For example, a whole note with a dot will be played six times. You will find a double dot in some songs too. That will be the sound of the note plus its three quarters.

Sometimes you will see three or six notes joined by a sort of bracket with a three or a six. This means the three or six notes will sound in the time of one. They are useful for changes in rhythm.

A full example to download. It's Pachelbel's Canon score in compressed XML format. Enjoy it.

Last but not least, if you ever need to play a song in another tonality, you transpose. This means, you move every note as many spaces up or down in the score as you need.

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