Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reading Notation: Voyage to the Bottom of the Staff

Prepare yourself for a geeky look at a slightly obscure aspect of music theory for the guitar. What you are about to read, should you proceed beyond this introduction, will require both courage and patience - traits which are not often found in the same individual. But if you are one of those rare guitar players who is willing to stretch your synapses, read on.

Guitar music is usually written in the treble clef, transposed on the page an octave higher than its true pitch. For instance, the note pitch of middle C falls here in guitar notation;
... and here in piano notation;

Both of these notes are the same pitch on their respective instruments when played as written, but the piano follows the standard, so notation for the guitar is actually written an octave higher than standard. What this means in practice is that music written specifically for guitar will take into account the proper octave transposition - so the notes will be in their intended pitch, but if you play music written for piano or voice on the guitar, you will sound an octave too low, so you have to compensate by playing an octave higher than you would if the music was written for guitar.

For example; here is a melody written for piano;
First example.
... and the same melody written an octave higher on the staff for guitar but sounding the same pitch as if they were played on the piano from the example above (including tablature for reference);
Second example.
Both examples above will sound the same if played as written for each instrument. In other words, the pitch of the notes indicated on the tablature is actually the pitch of the notes indicated on the piano version of the melody in the first example. As you can see, the guitar notation places the notes higher on the staff. Notice that the Gs on the piano staff are two ledger lines below the staff.

If you were to play the melody notated for the piano in the first example as if it were written for guitar it would sound an octave lower;
Third example.
However, this would be wrong if you were trying to play what the piano was intended to play, since the intended pitch of the notation for the piano is an octave higher than the tablature shown here. As a guitarist reading notation for piano, you have to make the mental shift to the octave shown in the second example above, so it sounds an octave higher.

Here's the melody one more time with tablature indicating its 'true' pitch;
Fourth example.
As you can see, the true pitch of the notation of this melody on the fretboard is around the middle of the guitar's range – but low enough on the treble staff that going lower would require using the bass clef.

Here is the lowest note on the guitar (the open low E string) as written for guitar;
... and here is the same note as written for piano (its true pitch);
Piano music is written on the 'grand staff' which includes bass and treble clef.
As you can see, the open low E string on the guitar is quite low. So - as a rule - guitar notation is shifted an octave higher on the staff.

Now, suppose you have sheet music written for piano which you want to play on the guitar. You may have to make some changes in terms of chord voicings. But do you really have to re-write everything onto the treble staff, or should you just read it as it's written?

The great jazz guitarist and composer Johnny Smith is a firm believer that guitarists should read and write music on the grand staff, rather than transposing to the treble staff. Though this is not a majority view, there is certainly some merit to the idea. Being able to read in the bass clef has several benefits. Aside from being able to read piano music and play it on the guitar, you will be conversant with bass players, who read in bass clef. Interestingly, because the bass is so low, it also transposes, so the bass sounds an octave lower than written.

While the treble clef is a stylized letter G, The bass clef is a stylized letter F. The two dots on the clef surround the line of the staff assigned to the note F. Below you see the names of the notes on the bass clef;
Notice that the central note of the bass clef is D, also that E is one leger line below the staff and C is one leger line above.

The diagram below shows the symmetry of the notes on the bass clef;

Interestingly, the symmetry of the bass clef is centered around the note D, just like the Fretographic symmetry of the guitar fretboard.

Notice that the true pitch of the open strings of the guitar brings them will into the bass staff. Only the notes of the open 1st and 2nd strings are placed above the staff.

Now let's compare the bass symmetry with that of the treble staff;

(To review the treble staff symmetry in depth - read the previous entry here)

The respective symmetrical note-pairs are shown in boxes above the treble and below the bass staves. The diagonal dotted lines in the middle are connecting the equivalent central notes of the two staves to draw attention to their symmetrical positions across both staves. The note positions of the open strings are indicated to the right. Notice that the upper part of the bass and lower part of the treble staff include the same notes. For instance; the lowest E on the treble staff (below the 3rd leger line) is actually the same pitch as the E in the center of the bass staff. Likewise, the highest A indicated on the bass staff (above the 3rd leger line) is the same pitch as the A in the middle of the treble staff.

In piano music, the bass staff is used to indicate notes which are played with the left hand on the piano. The treble staff indicates notes played with the right hand. The two staves may therefore overlap so that the left hand can occasionally move into the territory of the right hand and vice versa.

Being aware of the note relationships on the staff, with or without the guitar at hand, will widen your musical horizons. Spend some time just studying the treble and bass staves. Memorize the note positions so that you can close your eyes and picture them. That's the first step to being able to connect the concept of music as sound with music as written language.

Still with us?

To be continued ....

All contents of this blog are © Mark Newstetter

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