Reading Guide Notes on the Grand Staff
All Cows Eat Grass
Good Boys Do Fine Always
Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
F A C E
If you’re new to reading music, your teacher may have used these devices to show you the names of the notes as they lie on the staff. As musicians and teachers, we’ve all heard these mnemonic devices when it comes to reading on the staff. We may have even repeated them ourselves. They have been a device in elementary music lessons for so long that they often lose meaning to the student and to the teacher.
If you have studied and played music beyond your formative years I’m willing to wager that you no longer have to spell FACE in the spaces of the treble staff to figure out which note you’re playing. Hopefully your eyes and coordination have gone beyond reading every note as a letter name and you’re reading every note from its relationship to the ones around it or, if it’s a chord, the intervallic and functional relationships within it.
This is, in fact, how reading music works. If you’re playing and reading music on a higher level, you may realize this. Many of us who had trouble reading music in our youth have overcome the difficulties in doing so, but usually only the talented or dedicated were able to get beyond the mnemonics if your teacher used them exclusively. If you’re teaching reading this way, I’m sure you notice that your students will often get confused or frustrated with reading. If you’re using the mnemonics several times in a lesson without progress, I challenge you to stop using them. The reason why is because, to put it bluntly, they simply do not work. To me, and to many students, keeping these in mind (and remembering which one works for each staff) can be confusing and tedious.
The grand staff is brilliantly designed, it’s pretty ingenious actually. Accurate and easy reading is part of its design. Whether you’re new to reading or have been reading music for most of your life, these lessons on reading may shed some light on how to read more efficiently and accurately.
Things that are helpful to know first: the musical alphabet and the names of the white keys on the piano.
Today’s Lesson: Reading Guide Notes
Using guide notes is most helpful when starting a piece or when moving to a different position, so the student can read from them as a starting point. The staff is organized with 3 guide notes. C, F and G.
If we start with C as the tonic (root or home note) G and F would be it’s dominant and subdominant respectively - meaning that G is a fifth (five notes with the first note counted as one) above and F is a fifth below. These 3 guide notes will therefore be read either in perfect fifths or perfect fourths (four notes with the first note counted as one.)
We’ll start at the beginning with our first note friend, middle C! Middle C, as we’ve learned is the C in the middle of the keyboard and the middle of the grand staff.
Middle C isn’t exactly in the MIDDLE of the grand staff, but on one ledger line above the bass clef or below the treble clef. Therefore, it shouldn’t be taught as if it is read in one spot (in the middle) but that it can be read in two different places on each clef.
Treble G and Treble F
Using Middle C as a guide note, let’s go around it in fifths, finding G above it and F below.
Moving up or down a fifth from our first guide note, we see that we skip over one line on or space (skipping a line if the initial note is on a line or a space if it is on a space) on the staff and go to the next one. We see that these two notes mirror each other above and below middle C, G being on the first line from the bottom in the treble clef and F being the first line from the top in bass clef.
These two notes do not necessarily need to be read obstructively like this. You may have learned at one point that the treble clef and bass clef represent certain letters, which they do! G is represented in the treble cleft and F is represented in the bass clef.
You may have, at some point, even seen little illustrations like the ones below that outline the evolution of the clefs into what we see today. There is a specific symbol that surrounds a line in each clef, notating the letter it represents. The two dots in the bass clef surround the second line from the top as F, while the line that goes through the circle in the treble clef is G.
These are called our clef lines, clef line F and clef line G:
Treble and Bass C
So far, we’ve found the first C, F and G, but there are more that lie on the grand staff. If we go a fourth above the G clef line and a fourth below the F clef line, we find ourselves at the next C’s on the staff.
Fourths on the staff move from a line to a space or a space to a line (one spot less than a fifth.) We now see that the C inside the treble clef (treble C) and the C inside the bass clef (bass C) mirror each other again, treble C being in the third space from the bottom and bass C being the third C from the top.
Top Line F and Bottom Line G
The next F and G on the staff are a fourth away above treble C and below bass C. If we follow the pattern, we notice that we are now on the outward lines of each staff. The top line of the treble clef (G clef) is F, while the bottom line of the bass clef (F clef) is G. It’s helpful to think of the outward lines of the staffs a the letter of its counterpart.
High and Low C
We’ve read all the C’s F’s and G’s within the staff, but very high or low notes go beyond the staff and are read on ledger lines that go beyond the 5 lines of the staff. If we go to a fifth beyond the top and bottom lines, we find ourselves at the next C’s.
If we follow the rule of reading a fifth (remember: skips a line or a space from the starting point) we find ourselves at the second ledger line (two lines away) from the outer lines of the clef. Since these C’s are at more extreme registers in sound, we call them high C (not the juice!) and low C. Like treble C and bass C, the ones that lie three spaces inside their respective clefs, the high and low C are the same number of ledger lines beyond the grand staff.
Memorize their positions on the keyboard
These notes are used to help guide is on the staff. If you’re new to reading, memorize their positions on the staff and on the keyboard. Once you’ve memorized their position, you can remember notes by their relationship to the closest guide note which we will explore in the next lesson.