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On the Wikipedia article for Passacaglia, there is an excerpt of a piece by 17th-century composer Bernardo Storace. It has a 6-line staff with both G and C clefs above a 7 line staff with both C and F clefs.

It seems obvious how to read this, but I had never encountered it before. Was it something that saw frequent use in the era?

Storace Passagagli 1

One answer mentioned a connection to the harpsichord, and it seems plausible— could it be that the staves are expanded to match the ranges of the upper and lower manual on a 2-manual instrument?

However, another part of this score suggests that it might just be a way to write for four parts on two staves that is more readily accessible to musicians accustomed to reading soprano and tenor clef:

Storace Passagagli 2

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    The two manuals in a two-manual harpsichord typically have the same range as one another. They also typically have a coupler, so that playing the bottom one optionally causes the top one also to play. Some harpsichords have a "4-foot" stop that is an octave higher, but I've never seen a harpsichord where one manual is an octave higher than the other. Usually the manual with the 4-foot stop also has an 8-foot stop; the 4-foot stop is for texture and volume rather than for range.
    – phoog
    Nov 24, 2021 at 21:49

3 Answers 3

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Note: I'm not an expert in ancient notation (and English is not my native language), so please forgive me for using wrong terms.

What we're seeing here is not "really" a staff notation, but actually an ancestor that shared common aspects with tablature.

Finger/fretted instruments used lines to indicate each string, and numbers placed on each line for the finger or fret to be used for that string.

Keyboard instruments used a similar pattern, but since keyboards obviously don't have strings (and have lots of keys), the pattern was more similar to that of vocal tablature, with both lines and spaces used to place notes.

The reference for those lines and the resulting pitches depended on the instrument, and one might assume that what became standard staff notation is due to convenience aspects: using a standard notation system makes it easy to play/sing the same piece with different instruments, even if the player doesn't know the technical aspects (string intervals, fret spacings, keys) of the instrument for which that piece has been written or transcribed. Vocal influence (which used notation based on pitch) was also an important aspect.

At that time, there was no absolute standard for "staff notation", and staves with different line count were used even in early 1600.[1]

The image you're linking is very interesting, as it shows a passage of that moment in music history for which there was no common standard yet (while already using some aspects of notation we still use nowadays):

  • clefs are already clearly placed (the bass key indicates the F, the treble the G);
  • there are alterations indicating the tonality (interestingly enough, it's using those of C-dorian, instead of C-aeolian);[2]
  • quavers and semiquavers are "empty" when the meter is based on the minimum (3/2);

An (un)educated guess

The reason for the line count and reference is unknown to me, but I'll give it a guess anyway.

As already said, I'm no expert in the field, so I'm writing the following only based on personal research and experience: it's an assumption, it makes sense to me, but I'll be glad to be wrong. Please comment or write your own answer if you do know more on the matter, and I'll be happy to rectify the following.

I believe we should consider that, since notation was not a strict standard yet, composers choosed their own reference for staves, based on the instrument they were writing for.

Harpsichords usually have a 4½-5 octave range, often starting from the F ("F2") two octaves below the "middle-C" ("C4")[3], which gives us the base common lower note as that under the first line on the bottom staff, but yet with some models going to the C below that (allowing the lower notes in the given score[4]); the "added" lines above are probably to provide a better visual reference for intervals used within the piece, instead of constantly using ledger lines.

The upper staff is based on the middle C (which makes sense, as C was already considered as a reference), and extends to a reasonable height considering the range of the piece and the basic range of the instrument, in the case of a "standard" keyboard extending to F6.

Notes and references:
· [1] See the Staff article on Wikipedia, which supports the same based on the Harvard Dictionary of Music.
· [2] Almost any recording we can find seems to be played in B minor, but remember that the usage of A at ~440Hz is much more modern, and almost any musician playing ancient music uses a much lower tuning (~415Hz) which often results in listening to about a semitone lower than what's being written;
· [3] using the scientific notation that gives us the middle C as C4; note that in electronic instruments is not uncommon to have a C5 for the "middle C" (MIDI note 60);
· [4] we are now used to music "played as it's written" (or recorded, a concept that obviously didn't exist at the time); remember that notation was never considered to be the absolute depiction of what "should" be played: as much as a written theatrical play, notation is more like [one of] the beginnings of the music, not its performed result; early written music was more of a guidance than it then became in later centuries - and, interestingly enough, more similar to what became again with the new contemporary music starting from early 20th century (see Aleatoric music and including jazz/pop music;
· About clavichord octave range (and other aspects): https://www.saladelcembalo.org/instruments/myths30.htm
· Staff notation and line count in early keyboard music: https://www.britannica.com/art/musical-notation/Evolution-of-Western-staff-notation

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Nov 25, 2021 at 19:26
  • I would really like to accept this answer, but there are still a few things brought up in the chat that I would like to see addressed.
    – Theodore
    Feb 17 at 21:08
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There were many staff styles tried over the years. I have done a bit of perusing over the years of old manuscripts (but I cannot really read them at sight) and I found that 4, 5, or 6 staff lines were the most common. A bit of history:

http://cartusiana.org/sites/default/files/Haines_Origins%20of%20the%20musical%20staff.pdf

I haven't seen written any reason for the use of five but there were suggestions that it's easier to read than seven or more lines and more compact than three or fewer. The grand staff using F and G clefs in nicely symmetric about middle C with double ledger lines above or below also being C.

This article doesn't say that seven or more lines were in wide use, but I have seen six lines in several manuscripts. Of course, a four-line staff is still used for Gregorian Chant.

This may not answer the question directly, especially if seven or more staffs were common, however, the referenced article does indicate that a "handful" or so of lines was used over many years.

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    See the comments I left on musicamente's answer; I didn't know the details a few hours ago, but it appears this was much more than a haphazard practice in an unregulated era. Nov 24, 2021 at 14:42
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As has been noted in other answers and in comments, this is a style of keyboard notation that was supposed to be easier to read than open score. But why do the staves have different numbers of lines? Is it because of a lack of standardization?

No. Rather, it is the product of standardization: each of the two staves is conceived as a fusion of two run-of-the-mill five-line staves: the upper combines the treble clef with the soprano clef, so the top line is F5 as in the treble clef, and the bottom line is C4 as in the soprano clef. The lower staff has E4 as the top line, as does the tenor clef, and G3 as the bottom line, as does the bass clef.

Contrary to speculation that clefs and staves were very flexible in those days, these four clefs (and alto clef) were already favored over other clefs that have since fallen completely out of use. Therefore, the choice of a staff ranging from C4 to F5 makes the staff easier to read for musicians accustomed to reading soprano and treble clefs: when the notes are near the top, think treble clef, relative to F5; when they're near the bottom, think soprano clef, relative to C4. The same logic applies to the left-hand staff, of course. Similarly, the ledger lines have a familiar identity thanks to this approach, because they have the same meaning as those of the corresponding standard five-line staff.

This also explains the use of two actual clef signs on each staff, which is otherwise redundant: it expresses the conception of these two staves as a condensed representation of a four-staff open score.

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    That makes a lot of sense. Can you point to a source?
    – Aaron
    Nov 25, 2021 at 0:19

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