I. Fundamentals

The Keyboard and the Grand Staff

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • Playing the piano will help you in your music theoretical studies by allowing you to engage kinesthetically with music.
  • A pattern of black keys grouped into twos and threes repeats on the piano keyboard for seven octaves.
  • The white note C is to the immediate left of the two-note black key pattern, while the white note F is to the immediate left of the three-note black key pattern.
  • Piano players, also called pianists, read music on the grand staff.
  • Middle C is the note that appears on the line between the two staves in a grand staff.
  • When counting intervals on a piano keyboard, always count the first note as “one.”

Many students find studying music theory easier when they engage with music kinesthetically. In other words, physically creating sounds by playing a musical instrument (such as the piano) helps you to better visualize and audiate the music you are writing down or studying. This allows students to understand the relationship between different pitches more quickly.

The Piano Keyboard

Learning to play notes on the piano is one easy way to engage with music kinesthetically. You may find access to a piano keyboard (acoustic or electronic) at your school. You may also purchase an inexpensive electronic keyboard if you like. Another option is to download a free piano app that you can play on your phone, such as Tiny Piano.

In Example 1, notice that the keyboard has both white keys and black keys. The black keys are grouped into sets of either three or two. In Example 2, notice that the sets of three and two black keys alternate throughout the entire length of a piano keyboard, repeating the pattern for each octave.

A photograph of a piano keyboard. There are both white keys and black keys.
Example 1. A small portion of a piano keyboard.
An extended piano keyboard. Both black and white keys can be seen.
Example 2. A larger portion of a piano keyboard.

Playing the Piano

When you sit at the piano, it is important to sit up straight, keeping your head over your shoulders, which should be kept down. Your elbows should be a comfortable distance from your body, and your fingers should remain arched (as if you were pulling a library book off of a shelf). Keep your knees and wrists flexible (not stiff), and keep your feet flat on the ground unless you are using the pedals.

Example 3 explains how to achieve proper posture at the piano.

Example 3. Dr. Benjamin Corbin (Christopher Newport University) demonstrates proper piano posture.

Octave Equivalence and White-Key Letter Names on the Piano Keyboard

Example 4 shows a piano keyboard with the letter names of the white key pitches labeled. The same letter names appear on different keys of the keyboard. As discussed in the previous chapter, pitches in Western musical notation are designated by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, repeating in a loop. Because of the principle of octave equivalence in the Western system, pitches separated by an octave have the same letter name.

A blank piano keyboard is shown and letter names have been placed on the white keys.
Example 4. The letter names of the white key pitches are labeled.

On the piano keyboard, when the black keys appear as a set of two, the note to their immediate left is C. With a set of three black keys, the note to their immediate left is F.

The Grand Staff

Music for the piano is typically written in both the treble and bass clefs on a grand staff, as shown in Example 5. To make a grand staff, a staff with a treble clef is placed above a staff with a bass clef. The two staves are connected on the left side with a line and a brace. Typically, the pianist plays the lower notes (in the bass clef) with their left hand and the higher notes (in the treble clef) with their right hand.

A grand staff; the line and brace have been labeled
Example 5. A grand staff is connected with a line and a brace.

Example 6 shows the lines and spaces on the grand staff labeled with letter names. As you can see, the letter names of the lines and spaces of the treble and bass clefs match what was discussed in the prior chapter (Reading Clefs).

A grand staff is shown along with a piano keyboard above the staff. The notes are labelled on the piano keyboard, and lines are drawn to their corresponding note on the grade staff.
Example 6. A grand staff with the lines and spaces labeled with pitch names.

Let’s take a closer look at the ledger-line notes that might appear below the treble staff and above the bass clef staff. Example 7 shows some of these notes, labeled with letter names. Each vertical pair of notes is the same pitch, even though the notes are notated in two different clefs. (The notes with upward-pointing stems belong to the treble clef staff, while the notes with downward-pointing stems belong to the bass clef staff.)

Pitches are shown above the bass clef staff and below the treble clef staff. They are labelled with the letter names D, C, B, A, G.
Example 7. Pitches below the treble clef staff and above the bass clef staff, labeled with letter names.

Example 8 shows the staves of Example 7 vertically condensed—how these notes would appear if there were not so much space in between the treble clef and bass clef staves of a grand staff. The letter names are the same in Example 8 as they were in Example 7.

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Example 8. The staves of Example 7 have been vertically condensed and the two notes combined into one (with two stems).

Example 9 shows a vertically condensed grand staff with the note C boxed. This boxed C is called middle C, so named because in the vertically condensed grand staff shown in Example 9, it appears in the middle of the treble and bass clef staves. Additionally, middle C is the note that appears to be around the middle of a piano keyboard, usually underneath the brand name.

A staff has been vertically condensed. The note C (middle C) is boxed, in between the treble and bass clef staves.
Example 9. The note C is boxed in a vertically condensed grand staff.

Example 10 shows Example 9 vertically expanded to its regular spacing, with middle C still boxed. Though it now appears in both the treble clef and bass clef staves, this note would still sound as the same pitch.

A grand staff has been vertically expanded; middle C (in both the treble and bass clefs) have been boxed
Example 10. A vertically expanded Example 9.

Generic Intervals (Interval Size)

Often in music theory, you will want to measure or describe the distance between notes—either on a piano keyboard or on a staff. This “count” of notes on a piano keyboard or staff is called a generic interval. When counting generic intervals, it is important to know that when you count the first note, it should be counted as one and not zero. Example 11 shows two notes, an F and a C, on a staff with a treble clef.If you count the notes F to C in Example 11 (by counting each line and space between the two notes), you may be tempted to do this: F to G is one, G to A is two, A to B is three, and B to C is four. However, this would be incorrect. Instead, you need to count F as one, F to G as two, G to A as three, A to B as four, and B to C as five. Therefore, we would say that F and C are five notes apart, not four. Music theorists and musicians would call the distance between these two notes a “generic fifth.”

A generic fifth is shown with the notes F and C, on a staff with a treble clef.
Example 11. An example of a generic fifth.
Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet
  1. Drawing the Grand Staff, Identifying Notes (.pdf)
  2. Identifying Notes on the Grand Staff without Accidentals (.pdf.pdf.pdf.pdf.pdf)
  3. Identifying White Keys on the Piano (.pdf.pdf)
  1. White Keys on the Piano and the Grand Staff (.pdf, .docx)
  2. The Piano Keyboard and the Grand Staff with Ledger Lines (.pdf, .docx)
  3. Generic Intervals (.pdf, .docx)
  4. Grand Staff Note Names with Ledger Lines (.pdf, .docx)

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