# Why are ledger lines (lines below or above the staff) used in writing music?

Is the C represented on a line below the staff same as the C on the third space in the staff? If so why are the ledger lines used, when they make reading the music slightly difficult?

Edit: I am an amateur music enthusiast who just started learning violin. The youtube tutorials I watched seemed to imply that they were just same as the other notes. If someone can point me to some good yet concise resource to understand the basics, it would be great.

• It seems like your question is making an incorrect assumption---namely, that the C below the staff is the same C as on the staff---and is therefore drawing an invalid conclusion. It would be like asking, "If cats are horses, then why don't we ride cats?" If you have a question only about ledger lines in particular (why they are used, when they are used, etc), you should edit your question to be about that and leave aside the question of which C is which, unless that is your question, in which case... well, no, they're not the same. :)
– Neal
Jan 24, 2018 at 13:44
• What are the other options for writing down notes over 10 octaves? Jan 24, 2018 at 14:07
• Aww, why the downvotes? This is a perfectly legitimate question, I think. Jan 24, 2018 at 14:22
• @Richard I didn't downvote but I also didn't understand the question until I read Laurence Payne's answer. Sometimes it's hard to cast one's mind back to the total beginner mindset and make that connection. Jan 24, 2018 at 16:24
• The youtube tutorials I watched seemed to imply that they were just same as the other notes : Please do yourself a favor and don't rely on youTube and online resources to learn music - there are endless unreliable sources online. Try this - an excellent book for beginners: Harmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians Jan 24, 2018 at 23:40

No, they are two different C's, an octave apart.

But we sometimes use ledger lines even when notes COULD be written within a stave.

It's easy to see why they're needed when the notes go too high for the treble stave.

But why do we do this

When we could do this?

Well, it just sometimes clarifies where the musical line goes, and which hand plays what (in keyboard music).

• That's mostly correct . For many instruments, it's pretty much historical convention. Clarinet music is never written in bass clef but only uses low ledger lines. Some brass (sorry, forget which) are written to be played sub8va and that's known by convention. Cello music can be written in bass, tenor, or treble clef, and in any of these clefs both upper and lower ledger lines may be used. It's pretty random. Jan 24, 2018 at 14:49
• Oh, also, it's relatively rare to use the TrebleClefPlus8va symbol, which would reduce the number of upper ledger lines used. Again, it's mostly historical convention. Jan 24, 2018 at 14:50
• Complicated, perhaps. But far from random! DON'T use the Treble+8 clef as a substitute for an 8va line. Just don't. Jan 24, 2018 at 15:41
• I find the last example to be actually less readable then the previous one. It's much easier to recognize the shape of a phrase (here, a descending scale) when it doesn't get interrupted by a change in clef or staff, even when this means reading some ledger lines. Jan 25, 2018 at 7:15
• This is what the answer is trying to say. Maybe the wording there is too terse, so it's difficult to understand what it implies. Jan 25, 2018 at 8:47

Imagine, once upon a time, someone used eleven lines, ten spaces, to represent mostly the notes that could be sung. It would work, but got quite confusing. Inventor B had a better idea. "Let's get rid of the middle line1" A replied "But we need it for notes on middle C" B then says "True, but if we leave that line out, it can always go back smaller if and when middle C notes are played."

So, we have the two lots of 5 lines, and a little ledger line for when C needs it. When there's notes below that that need to be written when there's only a treble clef available, then the next two or three lines down - those that usually belong to the bass clef - are used as well. Guitarists are used to seeing a note in the space below three ledger lines - it's their bottom E.

It would be a pain when writing for the bottom strings of a guitar to suddenly find you had to write it in bass clef. And it's the same the other way, at the top of the treble clef. There's a way around that, though, using '8va' or 15va'.

And, no, the two C notes quoted are not the same - they're an octave apart.

• This is logical, but not historically-informed. 11-line staves have never been widely used. 4, 5, and 6 were in use up until around 1600. The modern staff is largely attributed to Guido D’Arezzo. Jan 25, 2018 at 20:00
• @jjmusicnotes - hence, the opening gambit - 'imagine'. Heard of make believe? Of course it's probably not true, but it makes sense to my students, at least !
– Tim
Jan 25, 2018 at 20:29
• The Oxford Companion to Music says: The eleven-line stave ...'is a FICTIONAL notational device rather unnecessarily introduced by musical pedagogues for the purpose of explaining the clefs' Jan 26, 2018 at 13:38
• @BrianTHOMAS - I had a suspicion it's fictional - hence the 'imagine', but I've used it many times, and it certainly explains in a simple way how the staves work. Haven't found a better one yet. However, can't find reference in my copy of Oxford Companion to Music. Pity, 'cos it's a great tome.
– Tim
Jan 26, 2018 at 14:06

The ledger lines (used for middle C) are due to the origin of musical staves. The stave used to have 11 lines, middle C being right in the middle. As instruments and the skill of instrumentalists/singers progressed, having such a large score became too cluttered so they split it into 2 5-line staves with a middle line bridging the two staves.

The C below the stave (assuming treble clef) is an octave below the one 3 spaces up. And it is an octave higher than the C in the second space of a bass clef stave (picturing a 'standard' piano score).

Ledger lines have also become a concept due to the development of instruments, being able to play higher and lower. Remember the first scores were for voices so the range of written music did not have to be too large.

• This answer has no basis in historical fact. 4, 5, and 6-line staves were in use as late as 1600. 11-line staves have never been used wisely. Jan 25, 2018 at 19:58
• @jjmusicnotes - do you mean 'wisely' or widely? Typo...
– Tim
Jan 25, 2018 at 20:31
• @jjmusicnotes I disagree. This is what has been taught in schools and is on my music A level syllabus. I have also read online and have been taught by several music theory teachers. Jan 25, 2018 at 20:33
• @Tim - whoops! I meant widely! The typo kind of works though... Jan 27, 2018 at 14:06
• @BenHughes - sorry, but you’ve been misinformed. It’s not taught in all schools, and your teachers are perpetuating a myth. 4-7 line staves were most common with an emphasis on movable clefs for the sole purpose of keeping music on staves. Guido d’Arezzo Is widely credited with standardizing the 5-line staff we know today. The myth you believe most likely stems from engravers embracing the practice of putting the staves quite close together, the effect at a glance is that of a single large staff comprising 10-15 lines. Take a look at Pérotin for reference. Jan 27, 2018 at 14:11