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...
In 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
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
Over 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!