An introduction to music theory
An introduction to music theory

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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.Audio player: a224_1_pm_mu007.mp3
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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.Audio player: a224_1_pm_mu008.mp3
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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.Audio player: a224_1_pm_mu009.mp3
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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

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