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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.
The type of music clef (treble, bass, alto or tenor) tells us if the notes have a high, middle or low pitch.
The music clefs also helps us find the names of the notes on the staff by showing exactly one note:
So, the musical symbol called a clef is the important Key to help us find and read all the notes on the music staff!
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:
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.
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:
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:
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!
Today we mainly use three different clef symbols:
Middle C is the C note exactly in the middle of the piano. This is how Middle C looks like with the 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.
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.
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:
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.
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!