Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A clef (French for key) is a symbol used in musical notation that assigns notes to lines and spaces on the musical staff. A clef can be thought of as assigning a certain note to a specific line on the staff; adjacent spaces are assigned the notes that follow logically.
There are three commonly used types of clef symbols: the G clef, the F clef, and the C clef. All of these clef symbols intentionally resemble the cursive forms of their respective letters. They have letter names because they assign the note with that name to a particular line on the staff.
The use of a particular clef also implies a certain tessitura: the F clef assigns its line specifically to the F below middle C, the C clef assigns its line to middle C and the G clef assigns its line to the G above middle C (see below for the 5th line F clef vs. the 2nd line G clef, and for the 1st line G clef vs. the 4th line F clef). However the tessitura can be modified by using the "8" or "15" symbols:
An "8" immediately above or below a G or F clef symbol indicates that the tessitura should be an octave higher or lower. A 15 may be used to indicate a two-octave shift, but this is rarely used. For example, guitar music and vocal tenor parts are understood to sound an octave lower than written, and this is often indicated with an 8 below the treble clef. The small piccolo flute plays an octave above the normal flute, and occasionally its music is written in G clef with an "8" above it. See Transposing instrument. Some publishers of such parts omit the "8"; usage in these cases is not uniform.
The tessitura implied by a clef can also be modified in the course of a score with the 8va (variants: 8, 8a, 8vb) or 15ma notations.
In some cases the tessitura implication of the clef is ignored, e.g. when the use of a clef is simply a drill meant as a preparation for the skill of sight transposition (see below).
The following image shows most of the clefs found in modern musical notation:
But why all these different clefs? Although only four are common today, as many as eight have been used previously. The reason is to avoid the use of ledger lines.
The G clef
The G clef assigns the note G to a line on the staff, determined by the curl of the "G" symbol. It is normally placed on the staff with the spiral originating from the second line; this usage of the G clef is so common that the name treble clef is often used as a synonym (see below), but the G clef can be placed on other lines: in the baroque period, for example, the G clef was sometimes placed on the first line of the staff for music with a high range. The G clef on the bottom line is called "French Violin clef" which works for Eb clarinet or Eb trumpet music.
The treble clef
The treble clef is the most widely-used clef, followed by the bass clef. It uses the G clef symbol to assign the note G above middle C to the second line from the bottom of the staff.
Most woodwind instruments read treble clef, as well as high brass, violins, and tuned percussion. On the piano, the right hand usually is written in treble clef, while the left hand is written in bass clef. In vocal music, both Soprano and Contralto parts now use the treble clef, whereas in former centuries they would have each used their own clef.
The F clef
Two symbols, both a stylized letter F, are used to represent the F clef, although the one pictured is more commonly used. The two dots of the F clef surround the line that represents the note F. The most common use of the F clef is the bass clef, which places F on the 2nd line from the top of the staff; the name "F clef" is frequently used to mean the bass clef. However, the F clef has historically been used on other lines of the musical staff, most notably on the middle line, when it is known as the baritone clef (one can also use as baritone clef the entirely equivalent 5th line C clef). This usage is nowadays very rare, however.
The bass clef
The bass clef uses the F clef to assign the note F immediately below middle C to the second line from the top of the staff. Most lower-pitched instruments, such as the lower brass, strings and bassoon read bass clef; also choral music for bass and baritone parts are usually also written in the bass clef. On the piano, the left hand is usually written in bass clef, while the right hand is written in treble clef.
The C clef
The most common C clef symbol is the one shown, resembling two backwards letter 'C's, one above the other. The line that falls between the 'C's is assigned the note middle C. There are two common clefs that use the C clef symbol: The alto clef, which assigns C to the middle line of the staff, and the tenor clef, which assigns C to the second line from the top of the staff. The C clef is sometimes also used to indicate the mezzo-soprano clef, which assigns C to the second line from the bottom of the staff. The C clef on the bottom line means soprano clef which works for violin and the clarinet in A. The 1st line C clef used also to be commonly employed until about 100 years ago for the soprano voice when vocal polyphony was displayed with each voice on its own staff. (It is common to use the treble clef nowadays.) In the same context the tenor voice would be written in 4th line C clef (tenor clef -- see below, nowadays the treble clef with an "8" below would be used) and the alto voice in 3rd line C clef (alto clef -- see below, nowadays the treble clef would be used; thus 4 part harmony on parallel staffs would be written today: B(ass) = 4th line F clef i.e. bass clef, T(enor) = 2nd line G clef i.e. treble clef, with an "8" below), A(lto)= 2nd line G clef i.e. treble clef, S(oprano) = 2nd line G clef i.e. treble clef).
The alto clef
The tenor clef
The tenor clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the second line from the top of the staff. It is used in some older vocal music. Bassoons, cellos and trombones, which normally read the bass clef, use the tenor clef to avoid excessive ledger lines in extended high passages.
- As a kind of shorthand, one can also use in manuscript, in the case of a double-staff piano score a C-clef between the two staffs, at the level of the first ledger line, to signify 2nd line G clef on the upper staff (in which the first ledger line below the staff is the so called middle C) and 4th line F clef on the lower staff (in which the first ledger line above the staff is that same middle C).
- The 5th line C clef, or baritone clef, is often written as the 3rd line F clef; both ways are exactly equivalent.
- The 5th line F clef, or subbass clef, used e.g. in scores by Heinrich Schuetz, implies the same note names as the 2nd line G clef but is used two octaves down from the 2nd line G clef; in other words the names of the notes are the same for both clefs but the their tessituras are 2 octaves apart. The 5th line F clef is the lowest clef, i.e. the clef implying the lowest tessitura when one follows strictly the tessitura implications of the clefs—see above.
- The 1st line G clef, or French violin clef, used in France for violin music in the 17th and 18th century, implies the same note names as the 4th line F clef but is used two octaves up from the 4th line F clef; again: the names of the notes are the same for both clefs but their tessituras are 2 octaves apart. The 1st line G clef is the highest clef, i.e. the clef implying the highest tessitura when one follows strictly the tessitura implications of the clefs—see above.
- The 3rd line, 4th line and 5th line G clefs are never used because they are not needed: they are entirely equivalent to, respectively, the 1st line, 2nd line and 3rd line C clefs; similarly the 2nd line and 1st line F clefs are never used since they are entirely equivalent to, respectively, the 4th line and 3rd line C clefs.
- The "percussion clef" is not a clef in the same sense that the F, C and G clefs. It is simply a convention that indicates that the lines and spaces of the staff are each assigned to a percussion instrument with no precise pitch: e.g. bass drum on the 1st line, snare drum on the 3rd line, hi-hat on the 5th line is a common assignment. Note that percussion instruments with identifiable pitches, such as kettledrums (timpani) are assigned their own staff in orchestral scores. Kettledrums are written in 4th line F clef.
One more use of the clefs is training in sight reading: the ability to read in any clef is useful for being able to transpose on sight (see sight transposition ), although in that case the tessitura implied by the given clef must be ignored. It is then only necessary to use 7 clefs, so that any written note can take any of the 7 different names (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Students in French and Belgian conservatories and music schools (among other places?) are thoroughly drilled in this kind of exercise and solfeggios meant for use in those institutions are about the only scores where one will find nowadays a 1st line or 2nd line C clef or a 3rd line F clef. Note that for some unclear reason the 3rd line F clef is preferred in the French and Belgian pedagogical tradition to the equivalent 5th line C clef. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that very early medieval scores had only 4 line staffs, hence possibly the avoidance in some particularly traditionalist circles to write a clef on the 5th line.
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