An introduction to music theory
An introduction to music theory

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

An introduction to music theory

2.4 Middle C and ledger lines

Sometimes keyboard music has been notated using very large staves. However, if you have too many lines, the staff is not easy to read. Therefore, with keyboard music, the treble and bass staves are conventionally separated out – there is a substantial gap between the bottom line of the treble staff and the top line of the bass staff and there is no middle C line. Instead, middle C is notated using a ledger line. Middle C has its own little section of staff, long enough to make the position of the note clear, and this has to be written in for each of its appearances.

While this separation of the upper and lower staves is a good idea because it helps visual orientation, it has a drawback. And that is that middle C can be notated on both staves, in different positions on each staff. Example 7 shows that (i) the different visual positions of middle C on each staff represent one and the same sound and (ii) the gradual incline of the pattern of the notes as the pitch rises is fractured temporarily.

Example 7

Download this audio clip.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Other notes close to middle C can also be notated on either staff by using more and more ledger lines (Example 8).

Example 8

Download this audio clip.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Choosing which staff to use depends on the context. For instance, if you were notating a violin part, you would need the treble staff. So if you wanted to write the lowest note on the violin, the lower G on the top staff in Example 8, you would need the G that sits below the upper staff and has two ledger lines.

The concept of ledger lines can also be applied at the top of the treble staff and at the bottom of the bass staff (Example 9).

Example 9

Download this audio clip.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

However, the more ledger lines you use, the more difficult it is to read the notes at a glance, and you have to ‘count up’ the ledger lines – together with the spaces between them – to work out what the note is, and this can be a laborious process.

Example 10 shows all the note names mentioned above.

Example 10

A224_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus