The Stave Or Staff: What Is It?

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

When learning to read and write a language, you arrange individual letters in groups from left to right. You then stack them in lines on top of each other just as I’ve done in this paragraph. We do a similar thing when writing music, except we write notes on something called a stave (or staff).

In this guide, which is one of our free music theory lessons, we’re going to look at how to notate the pitch of the notes using the stave. But first, we need to talk about pitch.

What is pitch in music?

Pitch is the word we use to describe whether a note is high or low. Is the note very high in pitch, like a female opera singer trying to break a glass with their voice?

Or are the notes very low in pitch like the theme tune to jaws?

An example of this would be if we were to play a note on a keyboard and then play a second note to the right of the first note. 

The second note would be higher in pitch than the first.

The opposite is also true. A note to the left of another note is lower in pitch.​

What is the Stave (Staff)

We write music on what we call a stave, but it’s also known as a staff in the US. 

A stave is made up of five horizontal lines on top of each other. 

The Stave or Staff

We can place notes on the stave in two places, either:

On the lines:

Notes on the line of a stave

Or in the spaces:

Notes in the spaces of a stave

Each note in a space or on a line represents a different letter note and a different pitch. 

We call these different letter notes the musical alphabet.

The higher that the note is on the stave, the higher the pitch.

And vice versa.

The lower the note is on the stave, the lower the pitch.

Notice how each note sits exactly in the middle of the space and exactly on the center of the line. 

This is really important, and you should take care when writing notes to make sure it’s clear.

The Direction of the Note Stems

When it comes to notes with a stem (minims, crotchets, quavers and semiquavers) there are a few rules about whether their stem should point up or down.

The general rule is that:

When a note sits below the middle line of the stave its stem points up.

And the opposite is also true:

When a note sits above the middle line of the stave, its stem points down.

Now, this isn’t always the case, as there are some exceptions, which we’ll cover now.

The first exception is when a note sits on the middle line of the stave.

Direction of notes on a stave

If the note is on the middle line, you can choose whether to have the note’s stem point up or down.

It’s up to you, and both are correct.

Stem Direction When Beaming Notes

When beaming notes, you might come across a pair of notes where one is above the middle line and one is below.

For example, take a look at these two bars below:

Beaming notes on the stave

How do you know which direction the stems should point?

To know which way is correct, you have to work out which note is furthest from the middle line of the stave and use that note as your guide.

So, in the example above, the first note in each bar is further away from the middle line of the stave than the second note in the bar.

This means that we use the first note (because it’s the furthest from the middle line) as our guide to deciding whether the note’s stems should point up or down.

The first notes are below the middle line of the stave so their stems should point upwards.

How to Angle the Beams

The beams of the quavers and semiquavers can be drawn straight, angled upwards, or downwards, but it depends on the direction of the music. 

The general rule is:

If the music is rising in pitch, then we angle the stems upwards.

If the music is descending in pitch, we angle the stems downwards.

Here are some examples that are correct:

Angling the beams of notes

I’ll do a more in-depth post on beaming notes soon.

Ledger Lines

Notes can also be placed above and below the stave. 

When we want a note to go above or below the stave, we draw in a short new line of the stave just for that note.

It’s only short, though, and goes right through the middle of the note-head.

These little lines through the notes are called ledger lines.

Side note: We can keep going up and up and down and down, adding more and more ledger lines.

Ledger lines above the stave
Ledger lines below the stave
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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.