Seventh century music scholar Isidore of Seville said it was impossible to notate music. Boy, was he ever wrong: there is evidence that notation was practiced by the Egyptians in 3,000 BC. Ancient Greece also had a system, and other forms arose in China and Japan. Now you too can know the proper history of the staff.
Modern notation originated in the Catholic church, where monks developed methods to put plainchant to paper. The earliest systems, from the 8th century, used neume, or dots and strokes placed above text. Although capable of musical complexity, neume couldn’t express pitch or time. It served mainly as a reminder to someone who already knew the tune, rather than an aid to sight reading.
To address the issue of exact pitch, the staff was introduced, consisting originally of a single horizontal line, which was progressively extended to a system of four parallel lines. The vertical positions of each mark on the staff indicated pitch. The modern system of a universal standard five-line staff was first adopted in France, and became widely used by the 16th century.
To indicate the pitch and order of notes on a staff, the clef was invented. Three clefs exist for the tones G, F, and C. Hence their names—G-clef, F-clef, and C-clef—and shapes, which are an elaborate version of each letter. Where each clef is written also indicates its tone. The G-clef, or treble clef, curls around the G line in a treble staff, whereas the two dots of the F-clef, or the bass clef, are bisected by the F line. The C-clef is used in two positions and therefore has two names. When it’s an alto clef, the note C is on the staff’s third line; when it’s a tenor clef, the C is on the fourth line.
In music that predates the eighteenth century, many more clefs can be found. Or rather, the three basic clefs were repositioned to indicate a different staff and order of notes. The C-clef had five positions; the F-clef three. Confusing? You bet! Today, ledger lines—notes written above and below the standard five lines—are how a staff’s range is extended.
Lines: Every Good Boy Deserves Fun
Lines: Good Boys Don’t Fight Anyone
Spaces: All Cows Eat Grass