The Music Clef

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The music clef ["cle"= key in French] is an important symbol in music notation. It is our key to help us find exactly where to play the notes on our instruments.

There are different types of musical clefs as well. Learn more about the different types of clef symbols and what they mean here.

A Music Clef Tells Us Two Things...

The type of music clef  (treble, bass, alto or tenor) tells us if the notes have a high, middle or low pitch.

  • Treble means high pitch
  • Bass is the lowest pitch
  • Alto is in the upper middle pitch range, and 
  • Tenor is the lower middle pitch range.

The music clefs also helps us find the names of the notes on the staff by showing exactly one note:

  • The Treble Clef shows the note G, this clef is also called the G-Clef.
  • The Bass Clef shows the note F, this clef is also called the F-Clef.
  • The Alto Clef shows the note C, this clef is also called the C-Clef.
  • The Tenor or C-Clef is movable, so it can also show the C a bit higher, (giving more room for lower notes below) then it's called a called Tenor Clef.

So, the musical symbol called a clef is the important Key to help us find and read all the notes on the music staff!

Music Clefs4 Types of Music Clefs.

The Music Clef Through Time

The musical clefs were "invented" around the same time as the musical staff lines during the 11th century AD.

Once upon a time there where two clefs; one C clef and one F clef. They were movable and looked like this:

Old C Clef
Old F Clef

The C clef showed where the note C or Do was, and the F clef where the note F or Fa was. Soon the G clef came along, it simply looked like the letter G.

Different types of G-clefs through time.Different types of G-clefs through time.

The clefs gradually developed through the 17th century to the design that we still use today.

The F clef was actually reversed in a lot of music!

Here is J.S Bach's handwriting (explaining the c clef). Observe the G clef in the beginning staff, and the reversed F clef on the bottom staff:

Music ClefCheck out the notes and clefs by J.S Bach! Just in case your teacher is complaining about yours...;)

This reversed F clef was actually used in a lot of older music up to recently. Here it is again if it was hard to see above:

Old Bass Clef"Reversed" F clef

A music clef tells us where on the staff a particular note is, it is a key to the music staff (the word “Clef” means “Key”).

So, How Does it Work?

Do you know what note this is?

No you don’t! ☺ That was a trick question.

Since there is nothing to refer to or compare with- this could be any note.

We need a symbol to show the music pitch, or if the note is high (treble), in the mid range (alto), or low (bass).

This is the job of the music clef!

But, wait- there is more!

The clefs point to one specific note on the musical staff; they show where either G, F or C is located. They are our guides to helps us locate all the other notes as well!

Three Types of Clef Symbols

Today we mainly use three different clef symbols:

  1. Treble (G),
  2. Bass (F),
  3. and the moveable Alto (and Tenor) clefs (C):
Music Clefs

Middle C is the C note exactly in the middle of the piano. This is how Middle C looks like with the different clefs:

Middle C with different clefs.Middle C with different clefs.

So, with the treble clef you can see that there's a lot of room for notes above with higher pitch. The alto clef has room above and below for mid range notes, the tenor has a little room above and more room below for mid to lower pitched notes, and the bass clef has the most room for low  notes.

Treble Clef

The treble clef tells us that the notes are high pitched, or in the treble range.

It also tells us where treble g is by circling around a line that is where the note G is. So- the treble clef is often called G-clef as well.

Treble clef and notenamesTreble Clef and Notenames.

Example of instruments that use the treble clef:

  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Recorder

Bass Clef

The bass clef is used for low pitched notes, in the bass register. It shows exactly where the note F is, and is often called a F-clef:

Bass Clef and NotenamesBass Clef and Notenames.

Examples of instruments that use the bass clef:

  • Double bass
  • Male voices
  • Tuba

Alto Clef or C Clef

C Clef

The alto clef tells us that the notes are in the mid range. It also tells us where the note “middle c” is, so it is called a C-clef as well.

This clef is still movable in some vocal music. Then it is called either the Soprano, Alto, and Tenor Clef.

Alto Clef and NotenamesAlto Clef and Notenames

Example of instruments that use the alto or tenor clef:

  • Viola
  • Violoncello (uses the bass clef as well)
  • French Horn

The Piano

Since the piano has so many notes (!), both high and low, pianists learn to read both the treble, or G-clef and the bass, or F-clef at the same time!

Grand StaffA Grand Staff with Treble and Bass Clefs.

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