Clef Signs in Music Notation

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Clef Signs in Music Notation


Pianists have to deal with two clef signs in music, treble and bass (pronounced base). Most musicians know that there are clef signs – and their names – but, do you know what they actually do? And where they came from?

Treble (G) Clef clef

In piano music, this clef appears at the beginning of the top line (usually played by the right hand). There are two reasons why it is called the G clef. First of all (and you might have to use your imagination) originally it was a very fancy letter “G.”

Second, look at where it begins with a tapered line that circles around the second line of the staff, touches the bottom line, then proceeds upward. That happens to be – you guessed it – G. The treble clef is also called the “G” clef because it locates G on the staff.

From a practical sense, most people don’t need to remember where G is. When they see a treble clef, they know which notes go on which lines and spaces. Mostly they use the image of the treble clef to help them distinguish it from the bass or F clef.


Bass (F) Clef  Bass


Yes, the bass clef also has a letter name. You have probably figured out (if you didn’t already know) that it is used to locate the note “F” on the bass staff. It’s not terribly hard to decipher. The two dots to the right of the clef sign fall on either side of the F line and tell you where the note F is located.

The bass clef is also called the F clef because it was originally a fancy letter “F.”

As with the treble clef, the clef sign isn’t really needed to locate the note F. When you see it, you know instantly that it is bass clef and you already know where the notes are located.

However, there is a reason why clef signs aren’t just drawn on the staff randomly – why they actually do locate certain notes – and that is part of the history of clef signs.


The Grand Staff

Before we get into music history, however, let’s do one more thing. Let’s put both clefs together the way piano players see them.


This is called a Grand Staff and it’s how music for piano and some other instruments is written. A Grand Staff consists of both a treble and a bass clef, joined together. Low (left-hand) notes are written on the bass clef part and higher (right-hand) notes are written on the treble clef part.


History of Clef Signs

Guido of Arezzo was a music theorist (and monk) of the medieval era. He was born around the year 991 and is regarded to be the inventor of modern musical notation, including clef signs.

Guido is also credited with the invention of the Guidonian hand , a well-known mnemonic device (among musicians) where note names are mapped to parts of the human hand.

Although clef signs developed at the same time as the stave (musical staff), in the 10th century, the symbols we know today are not the ones originally used. Today’s clef signs developed over time as monks (who wrote most of the music in those days) became more and more ornate when writing musical notation.

It’s important to know that Guido of Arezzo and others of his time were not so concerned about notating rhythm. The primary goal at that time was to show where the notes were. Rhythmic notation, for the most part, came late.

Other Clef Signs in Use Today

Pianists have to deal mostly with the treble and bass clef signs when playing. However, sometimes piano players are asked to transpose and play orchestra or other music that uses some additional clefs. These commonly include the alto and tenor clefs – both of which are forms of the C Clef, so named because it locates middle C on the staff.

Alto Clef Alto clef

It is ometimes (rarely) used for the alto singing part because it places middle C on the middle line and makes it easier to write the music without ledger lines. More commonly, alto clef is used for viola music and sometimes music written for bassoon, trombone, or even English horn.

The middle or curved parts of the clef straddle the 3rd line, which indicates middle C.


Tenor Clef  
The Tenor Clef locates middle C on the fourth line of the staff. It is commonly used for trombone music. It is also sometimes used for bassoon, cello, and rarely, tuba music.

Bottom Line

We tend to take clef signs for granted today. Back when music was first being written down, however, clef signs served as reminders to help singers and other musicians know which notes belonged to which lines and spaces.

Clef signs in music serve the same purpose today, but since there are only two in common use, we do not rely on clef signs as much as early musicians did.

For further information on clef signs see Wikipedia:

And here is a video explaining the treble and bass clefs:


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