Lines are everywhere in the music notation system. This lesson will show you the different types of lines you might encounter - barlines, grouping lines, and ledger lines. Take a quiz when you're ready.
Lines in Music Notation
Nearly everything in the musical notation system is based on lines. Lines give us the backbone of each note, they tell musicians how loud or soft to play, they illustrate the shape of musical phrases, and they give information about how different instruments relate to one another. To play from a piece of sheet music, you need to read all of these lines together and all at once. But it's not as hard as it sounds. Each line has a specific job and, once you understand them, you'll find it easy to interpret the information they give you, even if you're playing at virtuoso speeds. In this lesson, we'll look at three different families of musical lines: ledger lines, barlines, and grouping lines.
Let's start with ledger lines. You might remember that music is written on a staff, a collection of five lines and four spaces, which tell the musician to read from left to right. A musical note's vertical position on the staff gives information about that note's pitch. The higher the note appears on the staff, the higher the pitch.
Most musical instruments, however, have a range that stretches far beyond the five lines and four spaces within the staff, and composers need a way to indicate these ranges. The answer is ledger lines, extra lines appended to either end of the staff, which work to extend the readable range of the staff. Ledger lines can work in either direction on the staff. Ledger lines work just like the lines and spaces within the staff. Placing a ledger line on the staff creates an extra line as well as an imaginary space above or below it.
So one ledger line can actually create two notes. If the ledger line is ascending above the staff, then the ledger line creates a note that appears on the line and one that appears on the space above. If the ledger line is descending, it creates a note on the line and one that appears on the space below. By placing consecutive ledger lines, the composer can indicate a note as high or as low as they want. There is no limit to ledger lines, although for extremely high and low notes, it's often more practical to change clefs, or use another notation trick, than it would be to use ledger lines.
Most musical notation also includes vertical lines placed across the staff like railroad ties. These vertical lines are called barlines. Barlines break the music into measures, smaller chunks, which make it easier to understand the music's meter and construction. Each measure lasts for a certain number and type of beat, as determined by the time signature.
There are several different types of barline. The most common, a single vertical line, is just called a barline.; it separates one measure from the next. These are extremely commonplace, occurring in almost all concert music. Moments in pieces with major changes, such as a key change or a change in tempo, are often marked with a double barline, constructed using two normal barlines. At the end of the piece, composers will place a bold double barline, a barline connected to a thicker bold bar. This type of barline always signals the end of a piece or movement.
Several other types of barline exist as well, but there are fewer rules governing their use. For example, a composer might write music in which it makes sense to divide a measure in half without creating two measures. In this case, they'll often use a dotted barline to bisect the measure at a specific point without cutting it into two. Dotted barlines can also be used in music without measures to break music into phrases or small chunks. The exact use is up to the composer, and she's never obligated to use dotted barlines. In fact, most pieces use only regular solid barlines and don't make use of dotted barlines at all.
Lines can also be used to group multiple staves together. You might think of lines used this way as grouping lines. They don't affect the music the same way that ledger or barlines do, but provide information about the way different musicians are grouped together. In an orchestral score, for example, barlines will often extend through multiple staves, usually indicating instruments in the same family. Notice that this score groups together all the woodwinds before breaking the barline. This is one way lines can be used to group staves.
The other main use of grouping line is through the use of brackets and braces. These markings appear at the left of the staff and provide visual information about instrument groupings, usually to the performer or conductor. Brackets are generally used in large scores to group instrument families together. Look at the orchestral score again. You'll notice that the same woodwinds pictured earlier are also connected with a bold line on the left edge of the score; that's the bracket. It tells the conductor at a glance which music is to be found in the woodwind section.
Smaller grouping lines called braces are used when multiple staves are played by a single instrument. Braces are commonly used for instruments like the piano, harpsichord, or marimba - any instrument that habitually reads music on more than one staff. Using a brace to connect these staves, rather than a bracket, separates them visually, making sure conductors and performers know at a glance that they represent one instrument and not a group.
Lines make up just about every aspect of music notation. Beyond the basic uses in the staff and music notes, there are three principle uses of lines and music notation. Ledger lines are used to show notes beyond the range of the staff; adding a ledger line creates one extra line and one extra space above or below the staff. There is no limit to how many ledger lines can be used. Barlines are used to divide the music into smaller pieces, according to the information included in the time signature. The normal barline is a vertical line placed across the staff to separate one measure from the next. A double barline, constructed using two normal barlines, can signal changes, such as a key change or change in tempo in the piece. Every piece or movement will also use a bold double barline at the end of the final measure. Composers can also use dotted barlines to create divisions in a measure without breaking it into multiple measures. However, these aren't necessary and pieces commonly go without them. Grouping lines are used to indicate on the score instruments and staves that are grouped together. Brackets appear on the left side of the score and group together multiple instruments, such as those in a particular choir or instrument family. Braces are used for a single instrument that reads multiple staves, such as a piano or marimba. Their curved appearance helps conductors and performers easily and quickly distinguish them from brackets.