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Looks Like it Sounds--
or, those bizarre squiggles we call music.
(part two)

Why do we write music the way we do and is it actually the best method? Dare we ask?

part one
part three

I said the last time that clef signs were going to make things more complicated.  When Guido invented his system, the little round block on the bottom line of the staff always stood for the same note. It didn't matter if it was a Tuesday, or the moon was full, or if you were standing in Australia. Differing perspectives, or reference points, didn't affect the material. If you'd tried to even hint that it might, Guido would've thought you were nuts.

If, for instance, you have learned always to acquaint the round blob on the second line from the bottom with the note G, it is going to be a little disturbing when I point out to you that the same blob, in the same location, could just as well be several others. Similarly, if you were taught in your very first music lesson that a quarter note is equal to one beat, there will eventually come a day when you will find out that that is not always true. We usually teach beginners a few inalterable "facts" and then later, when we think they can handle some conflicting information, pile on the exceptions, and the differently oriented systems. This nicely recapitulates the human race's once cherished opinion that the earth was flat and the unmoving center of the universe until the day we found out that it was spherical and moving. At which point we promptly assumed the sun to be the stationary center, until it too got fidgety and started to dance around. Doesn't anything hold still anymore?

Our journey through the ever expanding series of lines in the last installment shows a bit of a keyboard-bias on the part of the author, since many instruments don't need to have staves joined together to allow their full range to be written down, and it was not meant to be a historical survey either because, actually, the system of clefs we are about to explore came earlier.

Bach, for example, almost never uses ledger lines. Instead, he has a whole range of options ranging from the employment of different clef signs.

A clef sign is a reference. It is written at the beginning of a staff, and its often florid design points at a particular spot on the staff, which always stands for a particular note. From there, the rest of the notes can be determined by how they relate to the note that has been "fixed." Today, the most common two clef signs are the "treble", or "G" clef, and the "bass", or "F" clef. The G clef is probably the most attractive looking clef, and is written so that it encircles the second line from the bottom of the five-line staff, which is henceforth to be known as a "G". It is a particular G, the one commonly known as G above middle C, and sounds like this. You just have to know that. The rest can be determined by working from the G.

The F clef (or bass clef) works the same way, only the two dots which follow this relatively pedestrian looking shape are above and below the second line from the top, marking that line as an F below middle C.


At one time, most musicians had to know lots of other clefs. What most of those have in common is that the squiggly line points to wherever middle C happens to be on the staff. The reason having all of these clefs is useful is that, if you have a soprano who can sing a lot of high notes, and, say, few below middle C, you will want your staff to make available to you notes which are mainly above middle C. A tenor, on the other hand, has a lower voice range, and, if you move your reference point up, you allow room for lower notes to be written. In other words, the higher the clef appears on the staff, the lower is the range of notes, which is how this chart makes sense:


The reason for all of this monkey-business is so that you don't have to use ledger lines (additional lines drawn above or below the staff when needed to hold notes that don't fit in the staff's range), which, at one time, would have involved more work for your quill pen, or more expensive stamps for your printing press. Nowadays nobody thinks ledger lines are a problem, and this allows us to mostly focus on two clefs, the treble and bass. The practical effect of this is that reading music is much simpler, since there are only two different clefs to worry about. Those alternate clefs have not completely gone away, however, which is why they still teach them to students in music conservatories.

If you are a violist, for example, you have to use one of these:

The reason being, I suppose, that the poor viola has a range about equally above and below middle C, and so whichever clef (treble or bass) you chose to use, you would end up writing a ridiculous number of extra, or ledger lines outside the staff. At one time ledger lines simply weren't done; now, despite their relative popularity, it is still a good idea to have at least half of your notes actually on the staff itself.

Outside of the viola, the bassoonist needs to be familiar with this clef, to accommodate her range:

One thing that is interesting about the move from many clefs to only two is that it shows that musical notation does not always get more and more complicated throughout history. The practical effect of all these clefs disappearing from common use is that there are fewer competing systems to learn. This is not so different from the way that most of the modes disappeared from music around the 16th century. Instead of about 7 different modes and their variants, and theorists begetting elaborate theories on how to use them, music began to consist only of major and minor. E major, A major, B-flat Major, all represent the same pattern of notes in relation to one another, and share the same guidelines about how to use those notes effectively. A piece may be pitched higher or lower, but once it starts, most listeners won't notice a radical difference. Thus music has become simpler for the listener. As of the 20th century, and on into the 21st, however, those modes are back, along with a lot of other diverse things. We live in a comparatively complex age. In music and everything else.

strange clefs

In addition to the c-clefs above, there are several more interesting clefs. Putting an 8 on the top or bottom of a clef, like the treble clef in our first two examples above means that every note that follows will be played either an octave lower, or higher, than it is written. The next two items are actually for unpitched instruments like drums, and do not point to any pitches at all, since there aren't any. Different lines may be used for different drums, however.


The final item should be familiar to any theory professor because it appears to be an improperly placed bass clef, which is a favorite of freshmen who don't know how to draw one properly. It is in fact an alternative "baritone clef." I had to look that one up myself. When I did, I discovered several other rarely used clefs. There is a table of them at Dolmetsch  theory online. I don't agree, however, with the statement at the bottom of the page that every one of the 19 clefs shown is among those  "most often used today." I've got a doctorate in music and I didn't recognize a few of them. If you understand how clefs work, however, none of them is without a certain logic. The "G-clef" family always points the way to G; the "f-clef" family does the same for F; and the "C-clef" family always shows you where to find C.


Most of us do not need to know these alternate clefs. If you are only used to reading in one or two, you may not even have considered how clefs as a group function. A few people still concern themselves with these evolutionary discards, however. Conductors still need to know many of them. Composers writing for certain instruments, as well as the ones playing those quirky noisemakers. Organists who use older editions in which the music has not been reformatted into modern notation.  But for the rest, life is pretty simple.

Not simple enough, though, if you are just learning your way around. How come a note on the bottom line is a G in bass clef and an E in treble clef? Couldn't there be a universal clef?

I pose this question because I inhabit the same body as the strange child who once thought up a  scheme for converting us all to "metric time." The metric system was big in the 80s; everyone was going to convert to it by the year 2000 (remember?). Since one of its charms was getting rid of all those messy numbers (5,280 feet in a mile? I mean, come on. How about a nice round 1000 meters in a kilometer, whose name even means 1,000 meters, for Pete's sake.) I planned each day around divisions of 10, with, I think, 100 minutes in each of them. Weeks themselves could also have 10 days in them (although that does seem a bit exhausting, however long your weekend), But the earth herself didn't seem interested in helping my effort, since I couldn't get around the fact that while doing one orbit of the sun it spins around in an unfortunately complex number somewhere in the vicinity of 365. Anyhow, don't blame me if you secretly long for only 10 hours in a day. I'm sure my proposal would have been shot down by the people who don't think they can get enough done with 12.

As it happens, the two staves that we join together to create a grand staff, suitable for piano playing, are really one continuous staff (see part one for more detail). But, there are seven different notes before the series begins again, and a system of alternating lines and spaces is going to need an even number if you want the next octave to appear the same way it did the first time. As it is, that bottom-line G makes its next appearance in a space, like so:

The best I can do for you under the present circumstances is to make each staff consist of 7 lines rather than 5. That way, almost two octaves worth of notes can appear on a staff, with room for exactly one note between them, and then the bottom line on the next staff winds up a G again. Genius!

I suppose you are going to complain that this is a bit hard to read.

Or...and I shudder at my brilliance, let's cut one of the old five lines. Now we are back to the original four lines as brother Guido knew them. Maybe it was a mistake to ever add that fifth line in the first place. Start with an A, while we are at it. There is space for exactly one octave. No notes can or should be written in between them. The top line of the first staff is a G, and the very next note, courtesy of the elimination of that no-mans'-land in between (in other words, no ledger lines), is positioned on the bottom line of the next staff. And the next note is....do I hear an A?

Lather, rinse, repeat...it never changes!


Let's face reality. It ain't gonna happen. Custom has taken over. And besides, as we'll find out in a couple of installments, there happens to be some really useful flexibility about all this chaos. Sometimes a systemic weakness later turns out to be a strength.

on to part three: rhythm


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