Music Theory Crash Course: The Very Basics

What is a staff? Which note goes where? And what does Botox have to do with it?

Yes, you read that right: Botox will play a part in this article—but you'll have to keep reading. First, the facts...

A musical staff is a symbol that is comprised of five parallel lines and four spaces, as seen below:

Musical staff

A grand staff is formed when two staves are fused together.

Grand staff

On a grand staff, the top staff is usually assigned to the treble clef and is notated as such by the treble clef symbol. The treble clef is sometimes called the "G clef" because the symbol looks like the letter G (on steroids), and because it circles around the G line on the staff.

The bottom staff is usually assigned to the bass clef, notated by the bass clef symbol. This clef is sometimes called the "F clef" because the line in between the two dots is always where the note F is placed.

Grand staff with clefs

There are other clefs, such as the alto clef, but since choral music is primarily written using treble and bass clefs, we will only focus on those two.

Note Assignments

Did we just use the word assignment? Ick. So sorry—we did not mean to scare you (for the record, there will be no assignments after this lesson). What we mean is that each line and each space on the staff represents one note. To determine which note goes where, you must first identify which clef you are in.

Treble Clef

Clefs with notesThe order of the lines in the treble clef, starting from the bottom line going up, is E-G-B-D-F.

Many people remember the order of these line notes by reciting this mnemonic device: "Every Good Boy Does Fine."

But since this music theory series aims to entertain rather than sedate, we prefer this one: "Evil Geologists Barter Dangerous Feldspar."

Next, space notes. The order of the treble clef space notes starting with the bottom space going up is F-A-C-E. (Pssst, it spells the word face). 

Bass Clef

The order of line notes, starting with the bottom line, is G-B-D-F-A.

The traditional, unimaginative mnemonic device for bass clef line notes is "Good Boys Do Fine Always," or the slightly more creative "Great Big Dogs From Alaska" (although this loses points for being an incomplete sentence).

Chorus America's revamped mnemonic device: "Good Botox Does Fight Aging." (See, we told you Botox would factor into this article!)

Finally, the bass clef spaces, starting with the bottom space, are A-C-E-G.

Just remember: Aligned Chi, Everything Groovy.

Feeling inspired to write your own mnemonic device for remembering lines and spaces? Post your compositions in the comments section at the end of the article.

Ledger Lines

Perhaps you have heard of these things called ledger lines. Ledger lines are short lines that extend the staff below or above as needed. The most famous of ledger lines is Middle C, aptly named because it is the note that falls directly in the middle of the grand staff. Middle C is theoretically where the bass clef and the treble clef intersect, though the Cs of either staff need not always fall in the same place on the page.

More Music Theory Crash Courses

1) Introduction

Why should we learn about music theory?

2) Intervals

All you need to know is various combinations of half-steps and whole-steps.

3) Scales

A scale is a series of ascending and descending notes. The way a scale sounds depends on the interval relationship between the pitches.

4) Chords

Chords are made up of linked intervals.

5) Key Signatures

A key signature is a bank of either sharps (#) or flats (b) found at the beginning of each staff to the right of the clef symbol.