In complex piano music, one sometimes notates the notes over an additional stave - though I cannot say for sure I always know the reason. Here's an example from Stravinsky's Firebird, arranged by Agosti: firebird

I myself cobbled together an arrangement of the finale of Shosty's 11th symphony for solo piano. The ending features a loud melody across the register and dominant percussion underneath, which I transcribed like this: arrangement I elected to put the percussion on a separate staff, even though it is also played by the left hand, because:

  • it is of a very different character from the chords
  • it is pseudo-optional - you could add any actual percussion instrument to replace this
  • I personally found this more readable

But, as I am not actually schooled in engraving (I do this just for fun), chances are not everyone will agree with me.

Is this a proper use of a separate stave? If so, or if not, when does one add additional staves to piano music? What factors does one consider?

  • 2
    Just for clarity, are you asking exclusively about piano arrangements? Some piano music - Debussy comes to mind - uses three staves in the original piano music. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 14:39
  • @MichaelCurtis Piano music in general. To be honest, I'm not sure why one would have different notation rules for arrangements than for original compositions, if that's what you are implying.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 14:40
  • I'm reasonably sure that the Stravinsky example uses the third stave -- and the choice of connected eighth notes - to specify which hand should be playing which set of notes. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 14:50
  • @CarlWitthoft that's possible (though it looks awkward to play). I also considered that it is because the middle stave is at a different volume from the higher one, at least for the first two bars.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 14:57
  • 1
    On the other hand the first two bars of the treble staves have different expression marks. I suppose if they were on one staff you would need more markings to make clear the alternating expressions. Again, the origin of this may be the original orchestration. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 17:04

3 Answers 3


Elaine Gould recommends the use of additional staves "if multiple parts are otherwise hard to read" (Behind Bars, p. 332). That is clearly the case here, since with only one bass stave, chords would collide with the pauses and tuplet braces. Also, the staves should be arranged in pitch order, and a given stave should consistently be assigned to the left or right hand. So your arrangement is a textbook example.

However, you should probably extend the brace to all three staves, as in the Agosti example. As it is, this looks like organ music.


There isn't much reason for three staves in the second example. It is readable enough on two.

enter image description here

The first one is more arguable. The first two parts are probably better on three staves though it isn't really necessary, but the in the last bar I personally detest the style of using cross-staff notes just to save a few leger lines, and IMO those bars are more readable on two staves than three.

I don't understand the comments about "different dynamics" here. The first note is marked with an accent (sfff). The following passage is marked "quasi f". If the "quasi f" was meant to apply to the middle staff only, it should have been below the middle staff, not where it is. (And let's not start a debate about what "quasi f" is supposed to mean. Either you play a note loud or you don't!)

enter image description here

Of course there are times when you really do need 3 (or more) staves (e.g. from Scriabin Sonata No. 7)

enter image description here

  • 2
    Could you explain why more staves are needed in the Scriabin example? I have an idea but I'd want to know what makes the difference to you.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 18:19
  • 1
    The top two staves should be combined into one, at least given what this excerpt shows. Debussy has written even denser passages in only two staves. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 21:25
  • @CamilleGoudeseune That's what I thought. Maybe the right hand plays the 1st and 3rd staves, and the left hand the 2nd and 4th staves?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 22:39
  • 1
    I disagree with the assertion that the "quasi f" applies to the top staff because it's not below the middle staff. In this case, it's written on top of a staff, so that's almost certainly the staff to which it applies. Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 0:13
  • @Keizerharm good point, RH+LH 3&4, then R+L 1&2, argues for "two pairs" of staves. Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 0:22

I just wanted to address a point that came up in comments, namely, "I'm not sure why one would have different notation rules for arrangements than for original compositions."

The response is that sometimes an arranger is also trying to create a sort of reduction when writing out a piano version of a piece for orchestra or other large ensemble. I've even seen some piano arrangements that contain notations about what instrument was originally playing a particular voice. That can be helpful sometimes in gauging things like articulation or trying to better emulate the effect of various instruments. (This can blur the line between a "short score" which is often a reduction of orchestral parts written on 3-4 staves, and a true "arrangement" which is necessarily practically playable on piano with only two hands. Sometimes orchestral transcriptions do a bit of both.)

In that case, sometimes additional staves are used to separate out instrumental parts. I would have to look at the score of Firebird to know whether this is at all applicable in the Stravinsky example, but an arranger might use multiple staves in a situation like this to emphasize that different instruments are playing syncopated parts, which would likely give a more disjoint effect when performed by an orchestra. Seeing the notation like this may make it more clear to a pianist that the separate staves should be seen/heard as separate parts normally played by separate instruments and therefore should be articulated as such.

  • Thank you for that insight. I suppose that's an argument in favour of having three staves in my example, as the lower one is very much its own instrument (the percussion). Though I may need to write that explicitly in a comment.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 22:35
  • 1
    @KeizerHarm: Regarding your own example, perhaps. But as seen in the other answer where someone actually typeset your example in two staves, it's very clear that the bass rhythm is its own voice with its own rhythm, whereas in the Stravinsky case, the voices are in the same register, overlapping in rhythm, etc. so it's harder to see them as two separate elements within the texture without separating them further. In the end, it's a judgment call, but I don't personally think it's necessary in your example.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 1:56

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