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Beyond E Major

Article from One Two Testing, April 1985

conquering the stave

What is a stave, and why do household pets leave footprints across it... well, that's what it looks like. Billy Jenkins makes (some) sense of pitch and written music.

For a column written by a guitarist mainly for guitarists, it's about time I wrote about keyboards. After all, God gave music a keyboard with black and white notes so we might as well make use of it to unravel the logic of pitch and melody.

I've already spent two months telling you about rhythm and tempo and how to write chord/rhythm charts. Now we'll go the whole hog, snout and all, and add a touch of tunefulness. So put your beloved guitar away and come with me to the keyboard. You'll find it somewhere on this page marked DIAGRAM A.


The keyboard is the most immediate visual reference to our Western musical system, and it consists of blocks of notes like the one shown. It's called an octave and a synth may have 2½ of them, a grand piano over seven. The eight white key notes (counting top and bottom) are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet — A, B, C, D, E, F, and G (back to A) — and are known as Naturals.

Notes are written on a Stave (DIAGRAM B) and we won't insult your intelligence by going through the Every-Good-Boy-Deserves-Food practice of naming where the notes fall.


Every instrument has its own comfortable pitch and therefore to encompass the whole range of a particular instrument, the stave is adjusted to fall roughly in the middle of it to ease both notation and reading.

In days of old when Bob Dylan was hanging out with Old Greensleeves singing Madrigals circa 1400, the stave, or staff, consisted of just one line with a square above or below it to denote the rough pitch of the notes. Then they got commercial and went through a four line stave, on to seven then finally they arrived at the Great Stave with eleven lines, the middle being C.

It's split into two top and bottom halves for convenience, denoted by Clefs. The clef is placed at the beginning of a line of music to indicate which section of the stave we're talking about. There are four main clefs in use today but only the two most common ones are of direct interest to us.

These are: 1) The treble clef which looks like a seahorse. It starts from the second line up which in this case is a G, giving the treble clef the alternate name of the G clef. 2) The bass clef looks like Bill Haleys' kiss curl with two specks of dandruff falling either side of the second line down, which is an F. Yes, the bass clef is also known as the F clef.

For the record the other two are the C or alto clef with the middle line of the stave being C and the C or tenor clef with the second line down being C.

Look at DIAGRAM C and all should be plain to see.


The middle C, the one nearest the keyhole on a piano, is the note from which the clefs are determined. For the boffins, this middle C is usually tuned to 261.6 Hz. Diagram C also illustrates pitch notation. Taken literally when sitting at the keyboard, the left-hand handles the bass clef and the right hand the treble.

A Ledger Line is a short line placed above or below any stave for notes that go beyond its top or bottom line. Three or four ledger lines above the stave are not unusual in guitar music.

So there you have it before you. The musical stave from A to Z, or should I say A to G.

Those of you who share my love of the 'Sound of Music' will know there is another system which replaces letters with names. This is the Tonic Sol-Fa:

"DOH a deer some dung of deer, RAY — a martian and his gun, ME — me me me etc." Pretty much redundant, really, in this modern world of musical computation and logistics.

It's much easier to refer to each note of a scale as a number — tonic being 1, up to the octave which is 8 — which of course ties in with the naming and sound of chords (F6, D7, A9 etc, see back copies of OTT for chord analysis). Think of the stave as a ladder. The higher the note, the higher the pitch, and vice versa.

Returning to Diagram A, you will note that the black keys are either sharps or flats. They are known as Accidentals. They take their name from the closest white note(s). The general rule is when ascending they're called sharps, when descending, flats.

Where does the guitar fit into the stave? Well here's another "when it says that, it doesn't actually mean that" example that plagues the whole system. Diagram C has the six strings from the top E to low E numbered above the stave (E-1st, B-2nd, G-3rd, D-4th, A-5th, E-6th).

As the bass clef is not used ledger lines are utilised. DIAGRAM D shows how the notes below the D string and above the top E are written on the stave.


So far, so good, but what is not realised by many is that guitar music is actually written down an octave higher than it sounds.

I refer you back to that 261.6Hz of middle C which sits twixt the two halves of the Great Stave. This is the C you get when playing the B string on the first fret. Therefore the top E string (two steps or tones higher) would sit on the bottom line of the treble stave. If written as it actually sounds, guitar music would therefore break awkwardly across both staves. By writing it an octave higher than it sounds, it can fit comfortably on one.

When playing the keyboard the brain splits into two — left hand and right hand — bass and treble clef. The guitarists hands do two different jobs — one tonal, the other rhythmical. To ask the player to transpose two different pitches for the left hand would be too taxing — especially for the poteen drinking, sight reading hillbilly. Which proves that for all the contradictory information regarding musical notation, there is one common denominator. Clarity.


Get some manuscript paper and practise drawing a treble clef. Like I say, clarity is the password and the treble clef is not the easiest symbol to master. Who knows, Hermann Rorschach may have been no more than a misunderstood musician...

Having set the pitch by denoting the clef jot down twenty or so notes at random on the stave. Then put names to them. Do the same using ledger lines above and below the stave.

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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Apr 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter


Music Theory

Feature by Billy Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> Playback

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> Overtones

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