As a rock songwriter with interest in theory, I sometimes score my music to engage with it differently. I’d open MuseScore, create 3 treble clef staves—one for the voice and two for the guitars—and a bass clef staff for the bass guitar. I’d use the default “piano” instrument sound for playback and away I’d go!

After many years, I found out last night while reading Don Sebesky’s The Contemporary Arranger that the bass guitar is a transposing instrument (I didn’t know what this meant until yesterday). It dawned on me that this whole time the playback I was hearing was two octaves higher than the actual bass sounds I’d one day record. This was an unpleasant revelation because it meant my perception of the instrument’s range has been wrong for as long as I’ve been composing. I wonder if, for songs I’ve released, I would have written the bass part in a different octave or played different notes had I been aware of the massive space between the sounded bass notes and the notes the of the guitars (maybe) and my voice. Then, as you might have guessed, I learned that the guitar too is a transposing instrument. Yikes! I really was disoriented by this.

I took pen to stave to try to visualize the notes for myself—I was having trouble seeing notes one way but hearing them in my aural imagination a different way. I wanted to map out the actual notes so that I could see them where they “belong” on the staves. I started with the guitar. I had a treble clef, but I didn’t want to draw all the ledger lines to get down to the E2, which is the note sounded by the open 6th string of a guitar.

E2 on the 7th ledger line below the treble clef

So, I used the following staff, leaving it ‘un-clefed’ if you will, so that I could use those staff lines instead of ledger lines. Well, lo and behold, that must have been the wrong move because look:

E4 on the first line of treble clef, and two "staffs" of ledger lines showing notes of the open strings of a guitar, going down to E2 on the bottom-most line

If I count an octave down from E4 to E3 and then an octave down from E3 to E2, and then start writing the notes of the open guitar strings, I don’t end up on the right staff? This doesn’t make any sense to me.

So then, I took a different approach, just extending the ledger lines so that I had a treble clef with 12 staff lines. I would guess that this is the better representation of the notes, but it does bother me that the first method didn’t work.

12 line "staff" with treble clef at the top, showing notes of the open strings of a guitar

Can you please help me understand why I couldn’t use multiple 5-line staves to represent the notes of the open strings on a guitar?

Of course!

TL;DR: I've been using MuseScore for rock song notation. As a beginner in reading music, I find it mentally taxing to imagine a sound different from what's notated. I tried to represent guitar notes on an 'un-clefed' 5-line staff to help, but got confused. Why can't I use multiple 5-line staves to accurately depict the guitar's open strings?


3 Answers 3


You are trying to reinvent the wheel it seems. All you have to do if you want to see the actual pitches of the open strings of the guitar is use the grand staff:

enter image description here

I showed where the G and B strings are written in treble clef with parentheses.

As you said, you discovered both guitar and bass are transposing instruments, octave transposing to be more specific. They both sound one octave below where they are written so they are written one octave higher so they sound in the correct register.

The bottom line is guitar already has had a system in place for notating and reading music for hundreds of years, the octave transposing clef. This allows you to write for guitar using treble clef and only have to use 3 ledger lines to write the lowest note, open E on the 6th string.

By placing an “8” below the treble clef (which is usually excluded if it is written as specifically guitar music) it means that every pitch you see sounds an octave below where it is written. This is the way the open strings are represented for guitar, you just have to take into account that everything sounds an octave lower than written:

enter image description here

It takes a little getting used to but you do eventually get used to creating and reading guitar music with the octave difference.

  • 3
    @MichaelSeifert The open strings can be easily written with just bass clef and 2 ledger lines (not 1) above the staff. However, the impression I got from the question is the need to be able to visualize the location of the open strings in relation to the actual non-transposing treble clef. The octave transposing treble clef was chosen as the standard for guitar music many decades before we were born. It is better than bass clef because the open high E in bass clef is already at 2 ledger lines and most guitar music extends up to an octave or more above that. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 14:11
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    To head off a few follow-up questions: There are a lot of questions on here in the form "Why do we X, when it would be better to Y," and the answer is often "because that's the way that's fallen into practice," like QWERTY keyboards still being the most common even though other layouts are more efficient. But there could be some good reasons not to use a non-transposing grand staff: Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 15:14
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    The grand staff evolved for organs, where there are a lot of voices stacked at once. Although the guitar is a polyphonic, chordal instrument, throughout its history it has also spent a lot of its time being melodic. Having a single staff is easier to scan at a glance and has suited the guitar's needs through the centuries. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 15:15
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    @286642 The bass transposes only one octave below bass clef, not two. In the case of bass and guitar it is assumed that those instruments will sound an octave below written so the “8” is rarely if ever used in their clefs. Guitarists are used to reading several ledger lines above the staff but there is always an option to write “8va” above a passage that goes very high. That takes the transposition into consideration, so a passage written for guitar with “8va” will actually sound at regular pitch. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 20:27
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    @286642 Alternatively to 8va, for high guitar passages, sometimes loco mark is used, which means "play the notes as written, not transposed" Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 21:05

I think where you've gone wrong in your second image, is by counting down one "staff" (of 5 lines) as being an octave, and two staffs (10 lines) as two octaves. But an octave is really 3½ lines.
So you're off by 2 × 1½ = 3 lines.

But you're also doing something weird by using ledger lines between "staffs" of ledger lines, because the B3 is apparently on a leader that wasn't there before. If you count up from the G3 directly onto the next "staff" of ledger lines (without any additional ledger lines in-between), you'll get B3 in the first space.
So you're off by 2 spaces. (And spaces are the same distance apart from one another as lines are), so that's equivalent to being off by another 2 lines.

If you add up these errors 3 + 2 = 5, that's a whole staff of lines out of place, which is why your E3 and E4 are apparently in the same position.

  • Thank you. I figured I was miscounting, and I appreciate the explanation here.
    – 286642
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 17:07

If I count an octave down from E4 to E3 and then an octave down from E3 to E2, and then start writing the notes of the open guitar strings, I don’t end up on the right staff? This doesn’t make any sense to me.

Well, it looks like you accidentally marked your staves in multiple different ways that contradict each other, and now you've noticed that there are contradictions, but you're not sure where they came from. I'm not sure what the initial mistake that you made was, but hopefully I can help you figure it out.

I'm guessing that you started by labeling the bottom line of the three staves as E2, E3, and E4. As you know, that's a non-standard way of doing things, but there's nothing wrong with it; it'll just be hard for other musicians to understand. So, everything is good so far.

I'm guessing that after that, you drew the notes A2, D3, and G3 on the bottom staff. Again, so far, so good.

Then I'm guessing that after that, you attempted to draw B3 on the bottom staff. However, you made a mistake in doing so. If E3 is the bottom line, then B3 is the third line from the bottom. You mistakenly drew B3 in the second space below the bottom line instead.

After that, you drew E4 in what would have been the correct location if B3 had been correctly placed. As a result, the bottom line ended up being labeled as both E3 and E4, and that's the point where you noticed that something was wrong.

I have a guess as to why you made the mistake. The standard bass clef and the standard treble clef have a "gap" between them—middle C is above the top line of the bass clef, but below the bottom line of the treble clef. When you drew your B3, you made a guess (a reasonable guess, but one that turned out to be wrong) that there would also be a similar gap between your bottom staff and the middle staff, and so you expected B3 to end up below the bottom line.

However, your staves actually overlap each other. For example, the bottom line of your middle staff is E3, but the top space of your bottom staff is also E3. The space above the top line of your bottom staff is G3, but the second-from-bottom space of your middle staff is also G3.

A good option would be to simply use the grand staff, with a bass clef and a treble clef, as the other answers have suggested. Another reasonable option, albeit a non-standard one, would be to just omit your middle staff, and have one staff where the bottom line is E2 and one where the bottom line is E4. (In order to "clef" that staff, you might draw a treble clef with the number 15 at the bottom, or you might draw a bass clef one line higher than usual. The result would still be somewhat confusing for other musicians, but that clef would make it less difficult than it would be with no clef at all. Of course, none of that matters if this is all for your own use and other people aren't going to read it.)

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