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- For other senses of this word, see clef (disambiguation).
A clef (also, in former times, cleff) is a symbol used in musical notation that assigns the pitch of notes to lines and spaces on the musical staff. The word itself is based on the French word for key. 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.
Use of clefs
The use of a particular clef specifies a certain tessitura:
- the F clef assigns its line to the F below middle C
- the C clef assigns its line to middle C
- the G clef assigns its line to the G above middle C
In this way, the positioning of different clefs on different lines may either imply the same tessitura (the 5th line C clef vs. the 3rd line F clef — i.e. the baritone clef) or seemingly imply the same notes (see below for the 5th line F clef vs. the 2nd line G clef).
However the musical range can be further 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 on the top of the clef, 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 may omit the "8"; usage in these cases is not uniform.
The tessitura implied by a clef can also be modified throughout the music 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.
The following image shows most of the clefs found in modern musical notation:
Although only the first four clefs and the percussion clef are common today, as many as eight have been used previously. The reason for using multiple clefs is to avoid the use of ledger lines.
The G clef
The G clef is composed of a spiral in the approximate form of a capital letter G, overlaid on a stretched letter S. It assigns the note G to a line on the staff, determined by the center of the curl of the "G" symbol. It is normally placed on the staff with the spiral originating from the 2nd line; this usage of the G clef is so common that the name treble clef is often used as a synonym, but the G clef can be placed on other lines: in the baroque period, for example, the G clef was sometimes placed on the 1st line of the staff for music with a high range, known today as the French clef.
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 2nd line from the bottom of the staff.
Most woodwind instruments read treble clef (even low-pitched transposing instruments), as well as high brass, violins, tuned percussion, and other instruments of acute tone; violas and cellos occasionally use the treble clef to avoid excessive ledger lines in extended high passages. 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 French 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 violin clef or French clef although it was even more commonly used for flute music. Being a G clef rather than a C clef, it sets the position of the G above middle C - in this case, on the bottom (i.e. 1st) line of the five line stave. This clef implies the highest tessitura of all. It is sometimes used in E♭ clarinet or E♭ trumpet music.
The F clef
Two symbols, both a stylized letter F, are used to represent the F clef, although the one pictured below 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 4th line 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 5th line F clef, or subbass clef, used for example in scores by Heinrich Schütz, 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 their pitches are 2 octaves apart. When the tessitura implications of clefs are followed strictly, the 5th line F clef is the lowest clef (i.e. the clef implying the lowest tessitura).
- 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.
- The 2nd line and 1st line F clefs are never used since they are entirely equivalent to the 4th line and 3rd line C clefs respectively.
The bass clef
The bass clef uses the F clef to assign the note F immediately below middle C to the 4th line of the staff (the second line from the top). Most lower-pitched instruments, such as the lower brass, lower 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 usually written in treble clef.
Mnemonics are commonly used to remember the five notes corresponding to the five lines of the bass clef, such as:
- Gold Buttons Dress Fine Actors
- Good Boys Do Fine Always
- Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart
- Gee Barbie Don't Fall Again
- Great Big Dreams For America
- Green Buses Drive Fast Always
- Grizzly Bears Don't Fly Away
- Great Big Dog From America
- Great Big Dogs Fight Alligators
- Gorillas Buy Doughnuts From Asda
- Glad Bags Don't Fall Apart
- Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always
- Good Boys Deserve Ferraris Always
Mnemonics are commonly used to remember the four notes corresponding to the four spaces of the bass clef, such as:
- All Cars Expect Grease
- All Cows Eat Grass
- All Cars Eat Gas
- Awesome Cabbage Earns Gold
- Aristotle Calls Earth Γη (Ge)
- Alley Cats Eat Garbage
The subbass clef and the baritone clef
The baritone clef sets the F below middle C on the 3rd line of the stave, while the rarely encountered subbass clef sets it on the 5th line of the stave.
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 4th line of the staff (the second line from the top). The C clef is sometimes also used to indicate the mezzo-soprano clef, which assigns C to the 2nd line from the bottom of the staff. The C clef on the bottom line is named the soprano clef, which is occasionally seen in music for violin and clarinet in A.
- The 5th line C clef, or baritone clef, is often written as the 3rd line F clef; both ways are exactly equivalent.
- The C clef can be used in manuscript as shorthand. Between the two staffs of a double-staff piano score, it signifies a treble clef on the upper staff (in which the first ledger line below the staff is the so called middle C) and a bass clef on the lower staff (in which the first ledger line above the staff is that same middle C).
The alto clef
The alto clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the middle line of the staff. The alto clef is used by violas, tenor viola da gambas, and occasionally by trombones. It is also used in some older vocal music. Sometimes the alto clef is written in a manner that is similar to a "K".
The tenor clef
The tenor clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the 4th line of the staff. Although until recent times it was labelled as the D clef, it is used in some older vocal music. Bassoons, cellos, euphoniums, double basses and trombones, which normally read the bass clef, use the tenor clef to avoid excessive ledger lines in extended high passages.
The mezzo-soprano clef
The mezzo-soprano clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the 2nd line of the staff. Although the clef is rarely used, it is sometimes used in mezzo-soprano parts to create minimal use of ledger lines.
The baritone clef (C clef)
The baritone clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the very top line of the staff. It is identical to the F clef baritone clef that sets the F below middle C on the 3rd line of the staff. This clef is not used in everyday music and is only found when the composer wishes to keep ledger lines in the baritone part to a minimum.
The soprano clef
The soprano clef uses the C clef to assign the note middle C to the bottom line of the staff. The clef is used, rarely, for soprano parts of a piece of music.
The 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 staff are each assigned to a percussion instrument with no precise pitch. With the exception of some common drum-kit and marching percussion layouts, a legend or indications above the staff are necessary to indicate what is to be played. Percussion instruments with identifiable pitches do not use percussion clef, and timpani (notated in bass clef) and mallet percussion (noted in treble clef or on a grand staff) are usually notated on different staves than unpitched percussion.
Staves with a percussion clef do not always have five lines. Commonly, percussion staves only have one line, although other configurations can be used.
Percussion clef is sometimes used when non percussion instruments play non-pitched extended techniques, such as hitting the body of a violin or cello.
Even with the freedom to move C, G and even F clefs around on the five line staff, the musical line is occasionally still too high or too low to fit neatly onto the five line staff. A useful device that overcomes this problem is one that moves the musical line up or down an octave. The music is read as though at one octave but sounds either an octave higher or an octave lower than it is written. To make a clef an octave lower a small 8vb is added beneath it, likewise, to make a clef an octave higher a small 8va is added above it.
Clefs in vocal music
In vocal or choral sheet music, polyphony is often displayed with each voice on its own staff. Until about 100 years ago, the 1st line C clef (soprano clef) was commonly used for the soprano voice. In the same context the alto voice would be written in 3rd line C clef (alto clef), the tenor voice in 4th line C clef (tenor clef) and the bass voice in 4th line F clef (bass clef).
In more modern publications, 4 part harmony on parallel staffs is usually written more simply as:
- S(oprano) = treble clef (2nd line G clef)
- A(lto) = treble clef
- T(enor) = treble clef with an "8" below or a double treble clef
- B(ass) = bass clef (4th F clef)
The above 4 lines of music are sometimes contracted into 2 staffs, to save space, particularly in simpler pieces of music. In this case the soprano and alto voices occupy the upper staff, using the treble clef, and the tenor and bass voices occupy the lower staff, using the bass clef.
These clefs developed at the same time as the staff, in the 10th century. Gregorian chant used moveable "Do"- and "Fa"-clefs on its early four-line staff. As chant notation used only relative pitch, they represented only the respective tones. These clefs became, respectively, the C- and F-clefs in modern music after absolute pitch was notated.
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, amongst others, 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. For some unclear reason, the 3rd line F clef (the baritone clef) is preferred in the French and Belgian pedagogical tradition to the equivalent 5th line C clef. This may have 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, though this is arguably more likely due to the visual impact of the fact that the 3rd line F clef is contained entirely within the staff whilst half of the 5th line C clef protrudes above it.
The treble cleft is surprisingly similar to the ampersand symbol, although both have completely different origins and meanings. It is an occasional mistake to get the two mixed up for novice musicians or, more commonly, sloppy writers.
Categories: French words | Musical notation