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In standard music notation pitch is notated vertically showing the highness or lowness of each note. Let's discuss how to read pitches in written music.

The Staff

5 lines and the spaces around them...Music is written on the staff. The staff is a group of five lines and the spaces around them. Each line and space represents a letter of the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G).

Don’t be confused: the lines of the staff do not represent the strings of the bass. The lines are a completely separate system from the strings of the bass. This is a common misconception many beginning bass students have.

It's important to realize standard music notation is universal to all instruments and musicians. Everyone reads the same system with the same symbols and concepts. This is one of the biggest benefits to learning to read music. It places you inside the universal language of music.

The Clef

The clef is a symbol drawn at the beginning of the staff and defines which notes the lines and spaces represent.

the bass clef symbolThere are a number of different clefs. Each clef covers a particular range of pitch.

A musical instrument uses a particular clef depending on the range of notes it produces. The bass, tuba, cello, trombone, and other low-pitched instruments use the bass clef. Higher-pitched instruments like guitar, violin, and saxophone use the treble clef. Some wide-ranging instruments, like piano, read two clefs at the same time.

the treble clef symbolBassists are mainly concerned with reading in bass clef, however treble clef is the universal clef. It is a good idea for all musicians to know how to read treble clef, too. For instance, many music theory books are written only in treble clef with the expectation that every musician can read it.

Music Notes

Music note symbols--notehead, stem, flag, beam.Music notes are drawn on the lines and spaces of the staff. As you can see in the graphic, there are many different types of music note symbols. The notehead (the dot part of the note) is the part of the music note which defines the note's pitch. The stems, flags and beams are related to rhythm which we will discuss in an upcoming lesson.

note on the F line, and note on an A spaceThe location of the notehead on the staff indicates which note to play. If the notehead is on a line for F, the note to be played is F; a notehead on a space for A means to play the note A.

Ledger Lines

The pitch range of the staff can be extended using ledger lines. Ledger lines are added lines placed above and below the staff adding extra lines and spaces to draw notes.

Note Names on the Bass Clef Staff

The letters assigned to the lines and spaces of the staff are not random. The seven letters A through G ascend the staff in alphabetical order. The letters keep repeating through the natural notes of the musical alphabet — A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, … and so on.

Note names on the bass clef staff

Take a look at the bass clef notes above. The lowest pitch for a 4-string bass is E (what the big fat string is tuned to). E is the first ledger line below the bass clef staff. The next space is F, then G on the bottom line of the staff. Then the alphabet cycle begins again with A on the bottom space. Then B on the second line, and so on.

You will find a printable chart of all the notes of the fretboard associated with the notes on the bass clef staff in the upcoming bass clef fretboard notes lesson.

Memorizing the Bass Clef Notes

In the beginning people often learn a mnemonic phrase to help remember the letters of the lines and spaces. Piano teachers use "Good Boys Do Fine Always" for the bass clef lines, and "All Cows Eat Grass" for the spaces.

You can make up your own like: "Good Bassists Don't Forget Anything" and "Always Create Excellent Grooves".

Don't confuse the phrase "Every Good Boy Does Fine" which is the well-known phrase for the lines of the treble clef!

These memorization devices are a good start, but you must get beyond them quickly. Music goes by too fast to use any devices like this. You need to recognize the notes instantly. Luckily, you can test your note name recognition skills with my free bass clef quiz tool.


You may be wondering about how we get all of the other notes of the musical alphabet on the staff. To give us the rest of the notes, there are three basic symbols called accidentals which can be attached to notes: the sharp, the flat, and the natural.

The Sharp Symbol (♯)

the note F SharpWhen a sharp symbol (♯) is added before a note, it means to raise the pitch by one note (half-step). So if a note is on the line for F and a sharp (♯) is placed before it, the note becomes F♯.

Notice how the accidental is always placed before the notehead even though when you say the note name out loud the accidental is said after the letter name. It is written sharp F, but pronounced "F-sharp."

The Flat Symbol (♭)

the note B FlatSimilarly, a flat symbol (♭) is placed before a note to lower it by a half-step. If a note is on the space for A and a flat (♭) is placed before it, the note is played as A♭.

The Natural Symbol (♮)

Lastly, the natural symbol (♮) is used to return a note back to its natural note. For example, if a note is D♭ but needs to be followed by a D, a natural symbol would be placed before the second note to cancel out the earlier flat.