# In piano music notation how are notes distributed between the staves?

I recently stumbled across a piece of music for the piano that confused me a little.

The first image is how I found the score, the second is how I rearranged it myself.

How I usually find pieces, is that the right hand takes the treble clef, and the left hand the bass clef. If this is the case then the top example would be very unpractical, but perhaps it is grouped by how the notes harmonically fit?

Personally I find it more comfortable when reading it like the bottom example. But there could be a good reason for the arrangement of the notes like above.

Is there a rule how to write/divide the notes between the clefs? Or are there guidelines for how this is usually written? And why is it done that way?

For those interested in the piece it is Ruins from Homestuck

• To illustrate the answer below, it's entirely reasonable to finger this so: 5-1 left hand on first two notes, 1-2-5 right hand on next three, and 2 left hand on the last G. This avoids the fairly large stretch if the first three notes are taken in the left hand. Personally, I would probably play it 3-1 l, 1-2-4 r, 2 l. Feb 27, 2014 at 18:45
• I would not suggest using a half or whole rest like that in compound meter. The first would work better with a dotted quarter rest followed by an eighth rest, and the second a quarter rest followed by a dotted half rest. This would keep each group of three eighths properly connected. Jul 31, 2015 at 4:38
• A clarification: this isn't about clefs. It's about staves. Dec 27, 2017 at 19:54

In piano, the staffs usually signifies what hand plays what note where the lower staff would be your left hand and the upper staff would be your right hand. While the clefs are important, you may see the same two clefs on a grand staff. In Imagine you can see there are two bass clefs because the piano part is low. It is kind of an unwritten rule of thumb in piano and I can see some people who don't play piano notating it that way thinking it fits better in the staff.

Without seeing more of the piece it could make sense that the G in the treble clef is alone because the next measure has notes in the treble clef that are higher and would make it easier to play.

That being said if it is easier to play it with your right hand do it. Just because it is notated in the bass clef does not mean it was the intent of whoever wrote it to be played in the left hand. Do what feels comfortable.

• Great answer. It's perhaps helpful to add that the first example also shows the meter far better than the second example. Keeping the three eighth notes of the second beat in one beamed group is much easier to read from a metric perspective. Feb 27, 2014 at 18:32
• Dom, thanks for the great answer! @PatMuchmore I just realized in 12/8 one beat is 3 8th notes. When keeping that in mind the top notation seems to make more sense to me, thanks again.
– Sam
Feb 28, 2014 at 9:15

If one wants to use staff association as a strong hand indication while retaining rhythmically helpful grouping, one can use notation like the following:

• Connecting beams between two staffs can sometimes be useful, but any staff containing both left- and right-hand notes should use stem direction to indicate which hand plays what, and both left- and right-hand parts should be rhythmically complete. For the above snippet, I would have first two bass-cleff notes should be down-stem, folowed by a dotted-quarter rest and dotted-half rest placed low on the lower staff. The upper staff would then start with a dotted-quarter rest and include the remaining notes. I would also use the bass-clef "g" rather than the two-ledger-line one. Feb 17, 2015 at 20:03

Notes are distributed across staves to indicate groupings. Usually this grouping is mechanical (between hands), but sometimes it's purely musical. For example, Franz Liszt's solo piano pieces sometimes use three or even four staves instead of two, to better show individual "orchestral" voices. Yes, four staves for just two hands.

Another example: Mozart's solo piano works often have passages where the left hand noodles along, while the right plays snippets that alternate above and below the left. Were that notated strictly one staff per hand, the right hand's staff would need a zillion clef changes and become unreadable. Instead, the right-below-left snippets are drawn in the left hand's staff.

In such cases, the editor may explicitly mark which hand plays something, with L.H. or R.H., or more traditionally, m.s. or m.d.

An anti-example: Scriabin, Ravel and others wrote well-known music for piano left hand alone, but these are written on two staves rather than one.

Finally, beaming (even cross-staff beaming) is another way to group notes together, again for either hands or for music (voices, phrase breaks).