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Hao Staff and Grand Staff Piano Sheet Music

- A Key Development in Adult Piano Self-learning and Teaching

Article by Jeff Hao
October 2007

1. Staff, Grand Staff and Written Music

Staff (staves in plural), or music staff, is a track on which music notes are written or printed to produce music scores on paper.

Staves and notes are the two essential parts of the music notation system.

The most popular form of staff is "five-line staff", on which almost all music of the past and present is written. One can guess by how it is called that it consists of 5 lines (and the 4 spaces in between). Piano music, because of its typical pitch range, usually uses two staves bracketed together (the treble and bass staves), which is collectively called the Grand Staff.
Grand Staff example
Figure 1 - The Grand Staff and a few beginning bars of Bach's Minuet

The Grand Staff can be dated back to as early as the 12th century, when monks in the monasteries in Europe tried to put the church music down on paper so that they could remember how to sing or play them. It has since played an instrumental role in the creation, recording, spreading, and development of music - an important part of our civilization and humanity.

The world's greatest music - symphonies, operas, piano concertos, violin concertos - and almost all others, were written and published on the Grand Staff.

Today the Grand Staff is faithfully relied upon by all people who need to work with music, from composers to concert performers, from conductors to instrument players in the orchestra, from music teachers to students.

2. The Problems with the Grand Staff for Adults (I)

Because of its supreme status in history, most people think that there is some magical link between the Grand Staff and music itself, or they are one and the same.

All instrument lessons start with playing notes from the Grand Staff. And learning to use the Grand Staff has long become an integral part of music theory education.

But staff is merely part of the music notation system for recording and expressing music on paper. It is one of the media only, be it an almost universally adopted one, and not music itself.

Young children learn by repeatedly playing notes from the Grand Staff on an instrument to develop an eye-hand reflex, and the overall capability of eye-hand-ear-mind association, i.e. the eye reading the score on the staff, the hand playing the read music on an instrument, the ear hearing the music played, and the mind appreciating the music heard and anticipating the music to be played next.

In the process of practicing sight-reading in such a way, the four functions feed on each other, check and correct each other, support, and reinforce each other. When all four functions are all fully developed and work in synchronization, one becomes proficient in sight-reading.

This is rather like picking up a mother-tongue language. It is a long process. But once done, using it becomes effortless. Sight-reading (of Grand Staff) is like reading a book or newspaper. Or rather, it is like reading them out loud with the hands playing the instrument.

This is all very well, except that when it comes to adults who do not already have this mother-tongue, it becomes a foreign language. Although adults have the advantage of understanding the theoretical side of the Grand Staff (just like studying grammar), they usually can't afford the time of practicing sight-reading to develop the eye-hand reflex. Almost invariably, all they can do is to spend a long time, sometimes minutes per measure, trying to figure out how the notes should be played on the instrument. Most people lose interest after trying.

3. The Problems with the Grand Staff for Adults (II)

Let's take a closer look at the "technical design" of the Grand Staff.

A music staff is effectively a two-dimensional chart for plotting the music notes. The pitch dimension, or the Y-axis, represents the pitch of each note (i.e. which piano key to be played for each note). The time dimension, or the X-axis, represents when each note is played and how long it sounds.

The Two Dimensions of Music Staff

Figure 2 - The Two Dimensions of the Music Staff

The problem with the Grand Staff is that the Y-axis is compressed, or encrypted. Instead of a simple Y-axis with each basic unit (line or space between lines) corresponding to a single key on the piano, the lines and spaces of the Grand Staff represent only the white keys on the piano. The black keys on the piano are represented by "sharps" (#), "flats" (b), placed on the lines and spaces. In fact, a whole system of Key signatures and accidentals, i.e. sharps, flats, and naturals employed to tell the readers exactly what key on the piano should be played. This system is like a kind of encryption. The reader has to decode them to be able to read and play music from the Grand Staff.

Those who have studied the Grand Staff will know that this is far from the whole story. Because certain black keys are involved in different music scales, "Key Signatures" are necessary to tell the user which line(s) and/or space(s) of the Grand Staff are shifted by a semitone to represent the black keys next to them.

There are 12 pairs of Major and Minor scales, with each pair sharing one Key signature (actually two enharmonically equivalent Key signatures). Some of the "Key signatures" are relatively simpler (i.e. involving less sharp or flat signs). But some are very complicated.

This is the reason why students are taught to play simpler Keys, or easier Keys first, such as C Major / A Minor (no sharp or flat sign in Key signature), or G Major / E Minor (just one sharp sign in Key signature), or F Major / D Minor (just one flat sign in Key Signature).

However, the notion that music on some Keys are more difficult than that on other Keys is a harmful side-effect created by the design of the Grand Staff. Most people cannot help but to have the impression that the more black keys involved (i.e., the more sharps or flats involved in the Key signature), the more difficult the music is. Many develop a "black-key-phobia".

As a result, lots of music is transposed and rearranged to be C Major Key, or A Minor Key to cater to those who are intimidated by the original Keys. But this in itself feeds the "black-key-phobia", resulting in a hopeless vicious cycle.

Actually, a piece of music with more black keys involved actually tends to be easier to memorize and play than those with no black keys (or only one black key) involved.

4. Benefits of the Hao Staff for Adult Self-Learning and Teaching

Patents for the Hao Staff (Piano Roll) Sheet Music
The Hao Staff patent applications have been filed around the world. On 21 Oct 2008, patent for the Hao Staff was issued in the United States by the USPTO (Patent and Trademark Office).
View Hao Staff (Piano Roll) Sheet Music Patent

We have now talked about the "problems" with the Grand Staff for the adult beginners. If one has the impression that we seem to be claiming the discovery of all these problems, we are not. Many people in history have noted these problems.

With one glance at the "Reference Cited" of the Hao Staff US Patent, you will find some of the more serious attempts made in history with one shared objective - to make music easier to read (than the traditional Grand Staff sheet music). These are only attempts registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Imagine the ones not captured on any record.

One interesting thing to note is, although the Hao Staff is not directly inspired by it, the significant relevance of Piano Roll in this discussion.

A piano roll is a roll of paper with perforations (holes) punched in it. The position and length of the perforation determines the note played on the piano. When used together with a special piano (called the pianola) made to "play back" the piano roll, we hear the transcribed music recorded on the piano roll. The Piano Rolls were in continuous mass production from around 1896 to fairly recent times, according to http://en.wikipedia.org.

Pianola and Piano Roll

Figure 3 - Pianola and Piano Roll

Nowadays, "Largely replacing piano rolls, which are no longer mass-produced today, MIDI files represent a modern way in which musical performance data can be stored. MIDI files accomplish digitally and electronically what piano rolls do mechanically. Software for editing a performance stored as MIDI data often has a feature to show the music in a piano roll representation."

Piano Roll MIDI Editor Window

Figure 4 - Piano Roll MIDI Editor Window in a computer software

The phrase "Piano Roll", as a result, has taken on a new meaning: the kind of chart with grey and white stripes representing black and white keys, laid out as shown in Figure 4 above. In fact, because of the fading out of the original Piano Roll from people's life, and the overwhelming presence of computer music softwares, most people use "Piano Roll" to mean its new meaning today, probably without knowledge of its origin.

The Hao Staff is essentially a special staff design based on the Piano Roll (the computer MIDI editing chart), and marrying it with the traditional music notes.

Let's see how the Hao Staff has helped solve the problems the Grand Staff poses for adults.

Hao Staff Example

Figure 5 - The Hao Staff and a few beginning bars of Bach's Minuet

The Hao Staff is much easier for adult beginners mainly for the following reasons:
  1. It does not have the Key signatures and accidentals such as the sharps (#), flats (b), and naturals (cancellation sign). The grey stripes corresponds to the black keys and the white spaces corresponds to the white keys.
  2. It visually unifies the sheet music and the piano keyboard, making it much more intuitive and easier to find the correct keys to play.
  3. It is effectively a kind of "visualized Grand Staff" which supports piano music of any difficulties. It does not limit the students' room for development like some of the other "instant" or "introduction" methods, such as numeric notation, or softwares for computer or mobile devices.

Actually, it does not take any formal study or training to master Hao Staff. As long as you are interested in playing the piano, you only need someone to explain it to you, or watch the video 2-minute tutorial video below, and read the 2-page Hao Staff User Guide.

2-Minute Hao Staff Tutorial
2-Minute Hao Staff Tutorial

Download the Hao Staff User Guide

Hao Staff (Piano Roll) Sheet Music are transcribed from the original Grand Staff scores to faithfully convey the original work of the composers, arrangers, or publishers. All details and marks of the original scores are preserved with utmost endeavor and care.

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