A clef (from 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 (and in rare cases, the space) on which it is placed. (G and F clefs are placed as treble and bass clefs, respectively, in the vast majority of modern music.)
||G-clef, treble clef||G4||passes through the curl of the clef.|
||C-clef, alto clef, tenor clef||Middle C (C4)||passes through the centre of the clef.|
||F-clef, bass 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 various 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 notable exception of transposing parts, which are written at a pitch different from their sound, often even in a different octave.
Placement on the stave
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 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 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.
Where 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. 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, cor anglais, all clarinets, all saxophones, horn, trumpet, cornet, vibraphone, xylophone, mandolin, recorder; it is also used for euphonium, baritone horn, and guitar (which sound an octave lower). 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†
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a special clef was used for violin music, particularly that published in France. For this reason it is known as the French clef or French violin clef although it was more commonly used for flute music. The G-clef is placed on the first line of the stave, it is identical to the bass clef transposed up two octaves.
When the F-clef is placed on the fourth line, it is called the bass (// BAYSS) 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.
The baritone clef has the less common variant as a C clef placed on the 5th line which is exactly equivalent (see below).
Where 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.
Where the C-clef is placed on the third line of the stave, it is called the alto clef.
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, A vestige of this survives in Sergei Prokofiev's use of the clef for the cor anglais, 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).
Where 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. These instruments use bass clef for their low- to mid-ranges; treble clef is also used for their upper extremes. Where used for the double bass, the sound is an octave lower than the written pitch. The tenor violin parts were also drafted 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 where written alone or the bass clef where combined on one stave with the bass part.
Where the C-clef is placed on the 5th line of the stave, it is called the baritone clef. It is precisely the equivalent to the other more common form of the baritone clef, an F clef placed on the 3rd line (see above).
Where the C-clef is placed on the second line of the stave, it is called the mezzo-soprano clef.
Where the C-clef is placed 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.
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 the numeral eight below it, indicating that the pitches sound an octave below the written value. As the true tenor clef has 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.
Tenor banjo is commonly notated in treble clef. However, notation varies between the written pitch sounding an octave lower (as in guitar music and called octave pitch in most tenor banjo methods) and music sounding at the written pitch (called actual pitch). An attempt has been made to use a treble clef with a diagonal line through the upper half of the clef to indicate octave pitch, but this is not always used.
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.
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. The F clef notated to sound an octave higher is used for the bass recorder. 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 cor anglais 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.
Use of octave-marked clefs appears to have increased as computers have become more important in musical transcription. Performers will normally know the right octave to use with or without the octave marking. However, the appropriate use of octave marking ensures that music files (such as MIDI files) generate tones in their proper octaves.
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 standardised, 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 where non-percussion instruments play non-pitched extended techniques, such as hitting the body of a violin, violoncello or acoustic guitar, or where 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.
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 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 stylised, 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 occasionally used 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.
Varying shapes of different clefs persisted until very recent times. The F-clef was, until as late as the 1980s in some cases (such as hymnals), written like this: .
In printed music from the 16th and 17th centuries, the C clef often assumed a ladder-like form, in which the two horizontal rungs surround the stave line indicated as C:
The C-clef was formerly written in a more angular way, sometimes still used, or an, even more, simplified K-shape, when writing the clef by hand.
In modern Gregorian chant notation, the C clef is written (on a four-line stave) in the form and the F clef as .
The flourish at the top of the G-clef probably derives from a cursive S for "sol", the name for "G" in solfege.
C clefs (along with G, F, Gamma, D, and A clefs) were formerly used to notate vocal music. Nominally, the soprano voice parts were written in first- or second-line C clef (soprano clef or mezzo-soprano clef) or second-line G clef (treble clef), the alto or tenor voices in third-line C clef (alto clef), the tenor voice in fourth-line C clef (tenor clef) and the bass voice in third- fourth- or fifth-line F clef (baritone, bass, or sub-bass clef). However, in practice transposition was applied to fit the range of the music to the available voices, so that almost any clef might be used by all voice types.
Until the 19th century, vocal music used the following standardised clefs:
- Soprano = soprano clef (first-line C clef)
- Alto = alto clef (third-line C clef)
- Tenor = tenor clef (fourth-line C clef)
- Bass = bass clef (fourth-line F 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. Many pieces, particularly those from before the 21st century, use an unaltered treble clef, with the expectation the tenors will still sing an octave lower than notated.
- 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 an 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 proper 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.
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