staff, in musical notation, a set of horizontal lines upon and between which notes are written so as to determine their relative pitch, and in connection with a clef, their absolute pitch. Staffs with several lines survive from the late 9th cent., the lines denoting only pitches. In early attempts at the notation of plainsong, a single line was drawn, with neumes placed above and below it, giving a rough idea of the relative pitches of the tones. Guido d'Arezzo, in the 11th cent., used several lines and put letters on certain of them to indicate their pitch, thus foreshadowing the use of the clef (see musical notation). Four-line staffs proved adequate for plainsong notation and are still employed for that purpose. In 16th-century keyboard music, staffs of six or seven lines were often employed, but later the five-line staff, with ledger lines for pitches outside the range provided for by the staff, became conventional.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.