All About Clefs!

In this post we are going to learn all about clefs. A clef is a symbol that you find at the beginning of any piece of music notation. These symbols give us a frame in which to read and decode the music. Each of them corresponds to a different segment of the range that we use in music. Lower sounds are captured by the bass clef, higher voices occupy the treble clef. The space between these two is divided between the alto and tenor clefs. You can think of a clef like a little language of its own. As a musician you should learn all of them!

All About Clefs: A Brief History

The modern musical notation system that western music uses today has its origin in medieval Europe. If you go far back enough, you will find the west and the east using a common musical language. This common inheritance was liturgical, which means that its main object was Christian worship. You can get an idea of how much effort, skill and love went into the production of music back then by simply looking at an example of Gregorian musical notation:

Latin Gregorian Chant Manuscript

It is the Latin west that the clef concept developed. The origin of this concept is the latin word clavis, which means “key”. Over time, this word became our “clef”. Initially, manuscript writers would write a letter at the beginning of the stave, which told the singer the bass note for the song or chant. Over time, these letters became stylised. This means that people began to write them in a certain fashion or style. It’s not very different from the way in which we all develop our own handwriting. Eventually these letters morphed into what we now recognise as clefs.

Modern Uses

In modern music, the treble and bass clefs are the most widely used. The alto and tenor clefs are still in use, but for specific instruments. Higher voices and instruments read the treble clef, while instruments in lower registers read the bass clef. Some instruments, like the piano, utilises both. Let’s look at each of these in turn. For each one we will locate Middle C on the stave:

Treble (G) Clef

The treble clef is the one that we use to write down notes in the higher range. Another name for this clef is the G clef, because it evolved from a stylised letter “G”. To form Middle C in treble clef, you need an extra ledger line at the bottom. Middle C lies on this line. If you go up an octave, to the next C, you reach the second space from the top. These are two easy landmarks to remember, to help you read the treble clef:

Violins, flutes, oboes, clarinets and other high instruments all read the treble clef. Of course, pianists also need to know the treble clef because the right hand part of a piano piece is usually written in this clef.

C Clefs: Alto and Tenor

There are two clefs knows as “C” clefs: alto and tenor. Of these, the alto is the higher, and the tenor the lower. If you have ever sung in a choir, you will know that the alto section are the lower female voices. The tenors are the higher male voices. Believe it or not, this isn’t set in stone. There is such a thing as an adult male alto voice, and an adult female tenor voice. If you want to figure out what your vocal range is, you can use this handy article. An easy way to orient yourself when reading these clefs is to notice that Middle C lies on the line that intersects the clef symbol. You can see both of them by toggling the button in the middle of this image:

Alto and Tenor Clefs (drag the button in the middle to change)

In a modern orchestra, these clefs have a real but limited use. The only instrument that really uses the alto clef is the viola. So, viola players must know alto clef and treble clef, because some of their music is written in the treble clef, particularly high parts. Similarly, the tenor clef is not common. Some instruments do use it, however. Examples include the cello and the bassoon. These are deep instruments that use the tenor clef whenever their parts go into their higher registers.

Bass (F) Clef

Finally, we have the bass clef, which controls the deepest register. Its other name is the F clef. It has a distinctive appearance. You can use this to your advantage if you ever get stuck reading bass clef. The clef has a distinctive curvy shape, with two dots on either side of the line. In particular, we draw these dots above and below the second line from the top. This line, between the two dots, is the line on which we find the note F. To draw Middle C in bass clef, add an extra ledger line to the top. The C one octave below Middle C appears in the second space from the bottom. This is a mirror of the treble clef. You can go back and compare the two:

Instruments with deep voices use the bass clef. This includes the cello, double bass, bass guitar and many others. Of course, piano players also have to know the bass clef very well, because this is the clef that they must read with the left hand.

All About Clefs: Why they Matter

Learning about the other clefs will give you a deeper understanding of how we write, read and interpret music. It’ll also give you essential insight into how an orchestra works, which is indispensable if you ever want to play in an orchestra. Perhaps most importantly, understanding where clefs comes from gives us a way to understand music as part of a living history. Remember, everything in music has a reason behind it!

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