I am not a musician but this question is just out of curiosity. I saw a song book (this has some Christian songs) where the words to be sung are placed between two staff lines. The top staff line starts with a "treble clef" and the bottom with a "bass clef".

When they play the music, which staff line is a musician supposed to follow?

3 Answers 3


Anytime in written music that there are multiple staffs, they are all played simultaneously. Exactly who plays/sings what part will depend on the context of the music. Typically, in vocal music with two staffs, the upper staff (with the treble clef) will contain the female parts (Soprano and Alto), while the lower staff (with the bass clef) will contain the male parts (Tenor and Bass).

You can check that this is the case by noticing whether there are two different notes on each staff (though sometimes the two parts will coincide on the same note). This type of 4-part vocal arrangement is very common, and is often called an S.A.T.B. arrangement (for the 4 voice types). Typically, the Soprano (the upper female part) has what you would think of as the normal melody (which is also the part that non-musicians would sing), while the other three parts are singing various harmonies (if you aren't used to this idea, this means that, in addition to the melody, you have three other independent musical lines being sung simultaneously).

In addition, as Rockin Cowboy says, keyboard instruments can play both staffs together. The right hand usually plays the top notes, and the left hand plays the bottom notes. Alternatively, they can improvise an accompaniment that matches the same chords, but doesn't necessarily have to stick to the exact vocal lines. Chordal instruments like guitar have to deduce the chords from the music, unless they are written out above the staffs. Other instruments are free to play whichever part they want (as long as it fits their instrument's range) although it's usually a safe bet to double the melody (the soprano line) unless you're playing a bass (in which case you would double the bass line -- the lowest male part on the bass staff).

In the more general case of ensemble or orchestral music (where you could easily have over a dozen staffs at once) the staffs will usually be labeled as to which instrument is intended for each staff.

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    In addition - if sung, the S and T parts usually have their tails pointing up, while the A and B have theirs pointing down. If the music is to be played on piano, this is often not the case.
    – Tim
    Feb 8, 2015 at 8:09
  • Good point! I was going to mention that as well, but in a lot of music that I've seen, if the rhythm is the same in both parts, this often isn't the case, and I didn't want to confuse an already long answer. Feb 8, 2015 at 15:02

If it's a hymn tune, you might be looking at a SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) choir arrangement. Girls on the top stave, guys on the lower one. Or if it's a piano/vocal arrangement you're looking at a (broadly speaking) right hand/left hand split. A musician, playing keyboard, plays all of it. The tune is likely to be the top notes. Here's one of each sort. The multiple lines of text are for multiple verses.

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Treble clef is from Middle C upwards through the notes

Bass clef is from Middle C downwards through the notes

That's literally all there is to it

So find the middle C note of the piano, left is bass clef, right is treble clef

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