The Notation of Pitch

Topics covered on this page: Staff – Notes and musical symbols – C scale – G/treble clef – F/bass clef – C clef – Ledger lines – Grand Staff – Octave sign – Intervals – Half and whole steps – Accidentals – Enharmonic spelling of notes – Chromatic scale – Pitch designations

Music notation is a system of written symbols that describe what sound is perceived by the human ear. Modern music notation uses five parallel horizontal lines and four spaces called the staff (plural staves or staffs) onto which pitch and rhythm symbols are placed.

A five-line staff is shown below:

five line staff

The clef designates the pitch range of the staff. Common clefs used today are the G, F, and C clef. The C, G clef (also called treble clef) and F clef (also called bass clef) and are stylized after Gothic letters.

The treble clef, also called G-clef, is positioned on the G note, second line of the staff from the bottom.

This is shown below:
treble or g clef

The bass clef is positioned on the F note, fourth line of the staff from the bottom.

See picture below:
bass clef

The C clef is positioned on a staff line denoting middle-C but can also be placed on other lines of the staff to create tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano clefs. The treble and bass clef can also be placed on other staff lines for establishing pitch range. The C clef on the third staff line or alto clef:
c clef


Other clefs:
various clefs



Ledger lines extend the five lines of the clef for pitches higher or lower than the staff already has. The alphabetical pitch order continues above and below the staff.

The notes on ledger lines are highlighted in red below:
ledger lines

When treble clef staff and bass clef staff are joined together it is called the grand staff. This is used commonly for piano music notation among others.

Grand staff:
grand staff

Sometimes for the sake of clarity, notes are written an octave lower and given a special sign. The ottava sign (abbreviated 8va) is written above a note and means it is to be played an octave higher than written. The ottava sign may have a bracket spanning several measures to designate all notes underneath to be played an octave higher.

These two notes are the same:

The two examples below would sound the same:ottava example

ottava example b

Western music uses a tonal system of half and whole steps. The half step is the smallest interval of pitch used. A whole step is made up of two half steps.

Notes placed upon the staff in ascending or descending alphabetical order are said to be stepwise using half or whole steps.

The interval from C to D is a whole step. The interval from B to a C is a half step.

Basic notes, or those that are natural without alteration, are A B C D E F G. Since there are seven notes (before repeating the first as an octave higher or lower), the steps are called diatonic.

Here are the basic notes, from C to C:
c major scale


These notes may be raised or lowered by using the symbol in music notation called accidentals.


The sharp raises the pitch of a note a half step. The flat lowers the pitch of a basic note one half step. The natural cancels a previous accidental. The double sharp raises a basic note up two half steps. The double flat lowers the pitch of a basic note two half steps.

Remember that the accidental is placed to the left of the note it is to affect.

This picture illustrates where the accidentals should be placed in relation to the note:
accidentals placement example

Measures are segments of time defined by a given number of beats. A barline is a vertical line on the staff which separate measures. The barline cancels out any accidentals at the end of the measure.

Here is a G-clef on a 5-line staff that has three measures and two barlines:
measures and barlines example

The tie is a curved line that connects two notes of the same pitch and extends the duration or length of sound.

Here are a few notes with ties and their duration equivalent:
ties example

 If a note with accidental continues over the barline by using a tie then the accidental is continued until the note stops and a new barline passes.

This note would carry the same sharp:

When two notes have the same pitch by using accidentals they are said to be enharmonic.

These two notes are both C:
These two notes are both B:

These two notes are both F:
These two notes are both C:

Notes moving entirely by half steps are said to be chromatic. Chromatic half steps use one basic note and an accidental (ex., C to C#) unlike diatonic half steps which use two basic notes (ex., C to Db)

Here is a C moving to a C# chromatically:

Here is a C moving to a Db diatonically:

Note that the end note (C# or Db) is enharmonic and the same pitch.

Sharps (#) raise the pitch of notes inflected upward on the staff. Flats (b) lower the pitch of notes inflected downward on the staff.

Next section is Time Classification