A clef (French: clef; “key”) is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes. Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the stave, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line. This line serves as a reference point by which the names of the notes on any other line or space of the stave may be determined. Only one clef that references a note in a space rather than on a line has ever been used.
There are three types of clef used in modern music notation: F, C, and G. Each type of clef assigns a different reference note to the line on which it is placed.
|G-clef||G4||passes through the curl of the clef.|
|C-clef||Middle C (C4)||passes through the centre of the clef.|
|F-clef||F3||passes between the two dots of the clef.|
Once one of these clefs has been placed on one of the lines of the stave, the other lines and spaces can be read in relation to it.
The use of three different clefs makes it possible to write music for all instruments and voices, even though they may have very different tessituras (that is, even though some sound much higher or lower than others). This would be difficult to do with only one clef, since the modern stave has only five lines, and the number of pitches that can be represented on the stave, even with ledger lines, is not nearly equal to the number of notes the orchestra can produce. The use of different clefs for different instruments and voices allows each part to be written comfortably on the stave with a minimum of ledger lines. To this end, the G-clef is used for high parts, the C-clef for middle parts, and the F-clef for low parts—with the important exception of transposing parts, which are written at a different pitch than they sound, often even in a different octave.
Placement on the stave
In order to facilitate writing for different tessituras, any of the clefs may theoretically be placed on any of the lines of the stave. The further down on the stave a clef is placed, the higher the tessitura it is for; conversely, the higher up the clef, the lower the tessitura.
Since there are five lines on the stave, and three clefs, it might seem that there would be fifteen possible clefs. Six of these, however, are redundant clefs (for example, a G-clef on the third line would be exactly the same as a C-clef on the first line). That leaves nine possible distinct clefs, all of which have been used historically: the G-clef on the two bottom lines, the F-clef on the three top lines, and the C-clef on any line of the stave except the topmost, earning the name of "movable C-clef". (The C-clef on the topmost line is redundant because it is exactly equivalent to the F-clef on the third line; both options have been used.)
Each of these clefs has a different name based on the tessitura for which it is best suited.
Here follows a complete list of the clefs, along with a list of instruments and voice parts notated with them. Each clef is shown in its proper position on the stave, followed by its reference note.
An obelisk (†) after the name of a clef indicates that that clef is no longer in common use.
When the G-clef is placed on the second line of the stave, it is called the treble clef. This is the most common clef used today, and the only G-clef still in use. For this reason, the terms G-clef and treble clef are often seen as synonymous. It was formerly also known as the violin clef. The treble clef was historically used to mark a treble, or pre-pubescent, voice part.
Among the instruments that use treble clef are the violin, flute, oboe, bagpipe, English horn, all clarinets, all saxophones, horn, trumpet, cornet, euphonium, baritone horn, vibraphone, xylophone, Mandolin, recorder and guitar. Treble clef is the upper stave of the grand stave used for harp and keyboard instruments. It is also sometimes used, along with tenor clef, for the highest notes played by bass-clef instruments such as the cello, double bass (which sounds an octave lower), bassoon, and trombone. The viola also sometimes uses treble clef for very high notes. Treble clef is used for the soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto and tenor voices. The tenor voice sounds an octave lower, and is often written using an octave clef (see below) or double-treble clef.
French violin clef†
When the G-clef is placed on the first line of the stave, it is called the French clef or French violin clef.
Formerly, it was used by the flute and violin, especially in parts published in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is identical to the bass clef transposed up 2 octaves.
When the F-clef is placed on the fourth line, it is called the bass clef. This is the only F-clef used today, so that the terms "F-clef" and "bass clef" are often regarded as synonymous.
This clef is used for the cello, euphonium, double bass, bass guitar, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone, baritone horn, tuba, and timpani. It is also used for the lowest notes of the horn, and for the baritone and bass voices. Tenor voice is notated in bass clef when the tenor and bass are written on the same stave. Bass clef is the bottom clef in the grand stave for harp and keyboard instruments. The contrabassoon, double bass, and electric bass sound an octave lower than the written pitch; no notation is usually made of this fact, but some composers/publishers will place an "8" beneath the clef for these instruments on the conductor's full score to differentiate from instruments that naturally sound within the clef (see "Octave clefs" below).
When the F-clef is placed on the third line, it is called the baritone clef.
This clef was used for the left hand of keyboard music (particularly in France; see Bauyn manuscript) as well as the baritone part in vocal music.
When the F-clef is placed on the fifth line, it is called the sub-bass clef. It is identical to the treble clef transposed down 2 octaves.
When the C-clef is placed on the third line of the stave, it is called the alto clef. As with all C-clefs, this line indicates the position of middle C.
This clef (sometimes called the viola clef) is currently used for the viola, the viola da gamba, the alto trombone, and the mandola. It is also associated with the countertenor voice and therefore called the counter-tenor (or countertenor) clef, and is used also for the alto voice and for instruments playing a middle part (such as oboes and recorders). A vestige of this survives in Sergei Prokofiev's use of the clef for the English horn, as in his symphonies. It occasionally turns up in keyboard music to the present day (Brahms's Organ chorales, John Cage's Dream for piano).
When the C-clef is placed on the fourth line of the stave, it is called the tenor clef.
This clef is used for the upper ranges of the bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass, and trombone (all of which can be notated in bass clef as well, which is the current practice in most modern manuscripts, and when notating parts in the extreme upper range of these instruments, the treble clef can be used as well). The tenor violin parts were also written in this clef (see e.g. Giovanni Battista Vitali's Op. 11). Formerly, it was used by the tenor part in vocal music but its use has been largely supplanted either with an octave version of the treble clef when written alone or the bass clef when combined on one stave with the bass part. The double bass sounds an octave lower than the written pitch.
When the C-clef is placed on the second line of the stave, it is called the mezzo-soprano clef.
This clef was used in vocal music to write mezzo-soprano parts.
When the C-clef occurs on the first line of the stave, it is called the soprano clef.
This clef was used for the right hand of keyboard music (particularly in France; see Bauyn manuscript) as well as in vocal music for sopranos; it is useful for reading concert-pitch scores actually notated in treble clef, when playing transposing instruments like the clarinet in A.
Starting in the 18th century treble clef has been used for transposing instruments that sound an octave lower, such as the guitar; it has also been used for the tenor voice. To avoid ambiguity, modified clefs are sometimes used, especially in the context of choral writing; of those shown, the C clef on the third space, easily confused with the tenor clef, is the rarest.
This is most often found in tenor parts in SATB settings, in which a treble clef is written with an eight below it, indicating that the pitches sound an octave below the written value. As the true tenor clef has generally fallen into disuse in vocal writings, this "octave-dropped" treble clef is often called the tenor clef. The same clef is sometimes used for the octave mandolin. In some scores, the same concept is construed by using a double clef—two G-clefs overlapping one another.
At the other end of the spectrum, treble clefs with an 8 positioned above the clef may be used in piccolo, penny whistle, soprano recorder, and other high woodwind parts and is sometimes known (informally) as the "sopranino clef".
The F clef can also be notated with an octave marker. The F clef notated to sound an octave lower is used for contrabass instruments such as the double bass and contrabassoon and, as the traditional subbass clef has fallen into disuse, that term is sometimes used to describe this clef. The F clef notated to sound an octave higher is used for bass recorder and sometimes, though seldom, used for countertenor parts and called the countertenor clef, as it is easy for a bass or baritone to read while singing the part in falsetto. However, both of these are extremely rare (and in fact the countertenor clef is largely intended to be humorous as with the works of P.D.Q. Bach). In Italian scores up to Gioachino Rossini's Overture to William Tell, the English horn was written in bass clef an octave lower than sounding. The unmodified bass clef is so common that performers of instruments and voice parts whose ranges lie below the stave simply learn the number of ledger lines for each note through common use, and if a line's true notes lie significantly above the bass clef the composer or publisher will often simply write the part in either the true treble clef or notated an octave down.
The neutral or percussion clef is not a clef in the same sense that the F, C, and G clefs are. It is simply a convention that indicates that the lines and spaces of the stave are each assigned to a percussion instrument with no precise pitch. With the exception of some common drum-kit and marching percussion layouts, the keying of lines and spaces to instruments is not standardized, so a legend or indications above the stave are necessary to indicate what is to be played. Percussion instruments with identifiable pitches do not use the neutral clef, and timpani (notated in bass clef) and mallet percussion (noted in treble clef or on a grand stave) are usually notated on different staves than unpitched percussion.
Staves with a neutral clef do not always have five lines. Commonly, percussion staves only have one line, although other configurations can be used.
The neutral clef is sometimes used when non-percussion instruments play non-pitched extended techniques, such as hitting the body of a violin, violoncello or acoustic guitar, or when a vocal choir is instructed to clap, stomp, or snap, but more often the rhythms are written with X marks in the instrument's normal stave with a comment placed above as to the appropriate rhythmic action.
For guitars and other fretted instruments, it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB-sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the stave is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard six-stringed guitars, six lines would be used, four lines for the traditional bass guitar). Numbers on the lines show on which fret the string should be played. This Tab-sign, like the Percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef.
The clefs developed at the same time as the stave, in the 10th century. Originally, instead of a special clef symbol, the reference line of the stave was simply labeled with the name of the note it was intended to bear: F and c (written as a small letter, since the capital C represented a note an octave lower) and, more rarely, g. These were the most often-used 'clefs', or litteræ-clavis (key-letters), in Gregorian chant notation. Over time the shapes of these letters became stylized, leading to their current versions.
Many other clefs were used, particularly in the early period of chant notation, including most of the notes from the low Γ (gamma, the note written today on the bottom line of the bass clef) up to the G above middle C, written with a small letter g, and including two forms of lowercase b (for the note just below middle C): round for B♭, and square for B♮. In order of frequency of use, these clefs were: F, c, f, C, D, a, g, e, Γ, B, and the round/square b.
In the polyphonic period up to 1600, unusual clefs were used occasionally for parts with extremely high or low written tessituras. For very low bass parts, the Γ clef is found on the middle, fourth, or fifth lines of the stave (e.g., in Pierre de La Rue’s Requiem and in a mid-16th-century dance book published by the Hessen brothers); for very high parts, the high-D clef (d), and the even higher ff clef (e.g., in the Mulliner Book) were used to represent the notes written on the fourth and top lines of the treble clef, respectively.
C-clefs were formerly used to notate vocal music, a practice that dwindled away in the late 19th century. The soprano voice was written in first-line C clef (soprano clef), the alto voice in third-line C clef (alto clef), the tenor voice in fourth-line C clef (tenor clef) and the bass voice in fourth-line F clef (bass clef).
In more modern publications, four-part harmony on parallel staves is usually written more simply as:
- Soprano = treble clef (second-line G clef)
- Alto = treble clef
- Tenor = treble clef with an "8" below or a double treble clef
- Bass = bass clef (fourth-line F clef)
This may be reduced to two staves, the soprano/alto stave with a treble clef, and tenor/bass stave marked with the bass clef.
Clef combinations played a role in the modal system toward the end of the 16th century, and it has been suggested certain clef combinations in the polyphonic music of 16th-century vocal polyphony are reserved for authentic (odd-numbered) modes, and others for plagal (even-numbered) modes, but the precise implications have been the subject of much scholarly debate.
Music can be transposed at sight if a different clef is mentally substituted for the written one. For example, to play an A-clarinet part, a B♭-clarinet player may mentally substitute tenor clef for the written treble clef. Concert-pitch music in bass clef can be read on a E♭ instrument as if it were in treble clef. (Notes will not always sound in the correct octave). The written key signature must always be adjusted to the correct key for the instrument being played.
- Strictly speaking, the clef does not indicate the 'pitch' of the notes, but their 'names'; the actual pitch may vary according to the tuning system or pitch standard employed.
- Although Russian composers frequently wrote the first trombone parts of their works in alto clef well into the twentieth century.
- Moore 1876, 176; Dolmetsch Organisation 2011.
- Del Mar 1981, 143.
- Smits van Wasberghe 1951, 33.
- Hiley 2001; P. and B. Hessen 1555.
- Kidson[clarification needed]
- Powers, Harold S. (1981). "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony". Journal of the American Musicological Society 34: 428–470.
- Kurtzman, J.G. (1994). "Tones, Modes, Clefs, and Pitch in Roman Cyclic Magnificats of the 16th Century". Early Music 22: 641–664.
- Hermelink, S. (1956). "Zur Chiavettenfrage". Musikwissenschaftlichen Kongress (Vienna): 264–271.
- Smith, A. (1982). "Über modus und Transposition um 1600". Balsler Jahrbuh für historiche Musikpraxis: 9–43.
- Parrott, Andrew (1984). "Transposition in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610: an "Aberration" Defended". Early Music 7: 490–516.
- Wiering, F. (1992). "The Waning of the Modal Ages: Polyphonic Modality in Italy, 1542-1619". Ruggiero Giovannelli: Palestrina and Velletri: 389–419.
- Dandelot, Georges. 1999. Manuel pratique pour l'étude des clefs, revised by Bruno Giner and Armelle Choquard. Paris: Max Eschig.
- Del Mar, Norman. 1981. Anatomy of the Orchestra. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520045009 (cloth); ISBN 0520050622.
- Dolmetsch Organisation. 2011. "Counter-tenor clef". In Music Dictionary Online Dolmetsch Online (Accessed 23 March 2012).
- Hessen, Paul, and Bartholomeus Hessen. 1555. Viel feiner lieblicher Stucklein, spanischer, welscher, englischer, frantzösischer Composition und Tentz, uber drey hundert, mit sechsen, fünffen, und vieren, auff alle Instrument … zusamen bracht. Breslau: Crispin Scharffenberg.
- Hiley, David. 2001. "Clef (i)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Kidson, Frank. 1908. The Evolution of Clef Signatures. The Musical Times 49, no. 785 (1 July), pp. 443–44.
- Kidson, Frank. 1909. The Evolution of Clef Signatures (Second Article). In The Musical Times 50, no. 793 (1 March), pp. 159–60.
- Moore, John Weeks. 1876. A Dictionary of Musical Information: Containing also a Vocabulary of Musical Terms, and a List of Modern Musical Works Published in the United States From 1640 To 1875. Boston: Oliver Ditson.
- Morris, R. O., and Howard Ferguson. 1931. Preparatory Exercises in Score-Reading. London: Oxford University Press.
- Smits van Waesberghe, Jos. 1951. "The Musical Notation of Guido of Arezzo". Musica Disciplina 5:15–53.
- Read, Gardner. 1964. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice. Boston: Alleyn and Bacon, Inc. Second edition, Boston: Alleyn and Bacon, Inc., 1969., reprinted as A Crescendo Book, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979. ISBN 0-8008-5459-4 (cloth), ISBN 0-8008-5453-5 (pbk).
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