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Musicians' Corner March 2016

A Clef for All Seasons

March 16, 2016

Treble and Bass Clef

Have you ever wondered why music is written in different clefs? And, where did clefs come from in the first place? Pianists are familiar with the two most common clefs: treble and bass. Most other instruments play in either treble or bass clef, but cellists and bassoonists frequently play music written in tenor clef. Violists read alto clef almost exclusively. Why do we have so many clefs? The answer dates back to the Middle Ages...

Evolution of the Treble ClefIn medieval times, music notation did not appear as it does today. The earliest music notation was written by monks and was used to indicate the rise and fall of pitch for singers of chant. At that time, there
was no staff, only square or triangular notes penned in a zig-zag pattern across the page. As musical instruments evolved and their ranges grew increasingly larger, it became necessary to develop a system that could determine exact pitch, not just 'high' and 'low.' Thus, the staff was born. The earliest music staves consisted of eleven lines...eleven! With that many lines, keeping track of which line was which was a daunting task. Clefs were invented as a guide to help musicians know exactly which lines of the staff they were reading. Bass clef - known as the "F" clef - indicated the lowest notes of the staff. Tenor clef - known as the movable "C" clef - indicated notes in the lower mid-range of the staff. Alto clef - also a "C" clef - indicated notes in the middle of the staff. Finally, treble clef - known as "G" clef - indicated notes near the top of the staff.

Evolution of the Bass ClefOver time, the number of staff lines were reduced to the five we use today. Clefs remain as a guide to show musicians the range of notes they are reading. Thus, musicians who play large, low-sounding instruments, such as tuba, read bass clef. A piccolo player, on the other hand, will always read music in treble clef. Pianists, who play an instrument with a very large range, read both treble and bass clefs...simultaneously! Without clefs, staff lines mean nothing; clefs are the keys that unlock the language of music!


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