Treble and bass clefs shown with names of the notes.

A clef (French: clef "key") is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch of written notes.[1] Placed on one of the lines at the beginning of the staff, it indicates the name and pitch of the notes on that line. This line serves as a reference point by which the names of the notes on any other line or space of the staff may be determined. Only one clef that references a note in a space rather than on a line has ever been used.

There are three types of clef used in modern music notation: F, C, and G. Each type of clef assigns a different reference note to the line on which it is placed.

Clef Name Note Line
G-clef G4 encircled by the curl of the clef.
C-clef Middle C (C4) that passes through the center of the clef.
F-clef F3 between the two dots of the clef.

Once one of these clefs has been placed on one of the lines of the staff, the other lines and spaces can be read in relation to it.

The use of three different clefs makes it possible to write music for all instruments and voices, even though they may have very different tessituras (that is, even though some sound much higher or lower than others). This would be difficult to do with only one clef, since the modern staff has only five lines, and the number of pitches that can be represented on the staff, even with ledger lines, is not nearly equal to the number of notes the orchestra can produce. The use of different clefs for different instruments and voices allows each part to be written comfortably on the staff with a minimum of ledger lines. To this end, the G-clef is used for high parts, the C-clef for middle parts, and the F-clef for low parts - with the important exception of transposing parts, which are written at a different pitch than they sound, often even in a different octave.


Placement on the staff

In order to facilitate writing for different tessituras, any of the clefs may theoretically be placed on any of the lines of the staff. The further down on the staff a clef is placed, the higher the tessitura it is for; conversely, the higher up the clef, the lower the tessitura.

Since there are five lines of the staff, and three clefs, it might seem that there would be fifteen possible clefs. Six of these, however, are redundant clefs (for example, a G-clef on the third line would be exactly the same as a C-clef on the first line). That leaves nine possible distinct clefs, all of which have been used historically: the G-clef on the two bottom lines, the F-clef on the three top lines, and the C-clef on any line of the staff except the topmost, earning the name of "movable C-clef". (The C-clef on the topmost line is redundant because it is exactly equivalent to the F-clef on the third line; both options have been used.)

Each of these clefs has a different name based on the tessitura for which it is best suited.

The nine possible clefs

In modern music, only four clefs are used regularly: the treble clef, the bass clef, the alto clef, and the tenor clef. Of these, the treble and bass clefs are by far the most common.

Common clefs

Individual clefs

Here follows a complete list of the clefs, along with a list of instruments and voice parts notated with them. Each clef is shown in its proper position on the staff, followed by its reference note.

An obelus (†) after the name of a clef indicates that that clef is now obsolete.



Treble clef

Treble clef

When the G-clef is placed on the second line of the staff, it is called the treble clef. This is the most common clef used today, and the only G-clef still in use. For this reason, the terms G-clef and treble clef are often seen as synonymous. It was formerly also known as the violin clef.[citation needed] The treble clef was historically used to mark a treble, or pre-pubescent, voice part.

Among the instruments that use treble clef are the violin, flutes, oboe, English horn, all clarinets, all saxophones, horn, trumpet, cornet, euphonium (and occasionally baritone), vibraphone, xylophone, Mandolin, and guitar. Treble clef is the upper staff of the grand staff used for harp and keyboard instruments. It is also sometimes used, along with tenor clef, for the highest notes played by bass-clef instruments such as the cello, double bass (which sounds an octave lower), bassoon, and trombone. The viola also sometimes uses treble clef for very high notes. Treble clef is used for the soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto and tenor voices. The tenor voice sounds an octave lower, and is often written using an octave clef (see below) or double-treble clef.

French violin clef

French clef

When the G-clef is placed on the first line of the staff, it is called the French clef or French violin clef.

This clef is no longer used. Formerly, it was used by the flute and violin, especially in parts published in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its placement causes the note names on the staff to be identical to those of the bass staff, although the pitches are two octaves higher.



Bass clef

Bass clef

When the F-clef is placed on the fourth line, it is called the bass clef. This is the only F-clef used today, so that the terms "F-clef" and "bass clef" are often regarded as synonymous.

This clef is used for the cello, euphonium, double bass, bass guitar, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone, baritone, tuba, and timpani. It is also used for the lowest notes of the horn, and for the baritone and bass voices. Tenor voice is notated in bass clef when the tenor and bass are written on the same staff. Bass clef is the bottom clef in the grand staff for harp and keyboard instruments. The contrabassoon, double bass and electric bass sound an octave lower than the written pitch.

Baritone clef

Baritone clef

When the F-clef is placed on the third line, it is called the baritone clef.

This clef is no longer used. Previously, it was used to write the baritone part in vocal music.

Sub-bass clef

Sub-bass clef

When the F-clef is placed on the fifth line, it is called the sub-bass clef. The use of this clef gives the same note names as the treble clef, but the actual notes are two octaves lower.

This clef is no longer used. Formerly, it was used to write low bass parts (e.g. in the works of Heinrich Schütz).



Alto clef

Alto clef

When the C-clef is placed on the third line of the staff, it is called the alto clef. As with all C-clefs, this line indicates the position of middle C.

This clef (sometimes called the viola clef) is currently used for the viola, the viola da gamba, and the alto trombone.[2] Formerly, it was used for the alto voice and for instruments playing a middle part (such as oboes, recorders). A vestige of this survives in Sergei Prokofiev's use of the clef for the English horn, as in his symphonies. It occasionally turns up in keyboard music to the present day (Brahms's Organ chorales, John Cage's Dream for piano).

Tenor clef

Tenor clef

When the C-clef is placed on the fourth line of the staff, it is called the tenor clef.

This clef is used for the upper ranges of the bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass, and trombone (which all use the bass clef in their lower and middle ranges, and in their extreme high ranges, the treble clef as well). Formerly, it was used by the tenor part in vocal music but its use has been largely supplanted either with an octave version of the treble clef when written alone or the bass clef when combined on one staff with the bass part. The double bass sounds an octave lower than the written pitch.

Baritone clef

Baritone clef

In the past, the C-clef was occasionally placed on the fifth line and called the baritone clef, like the baritone F-clef on the third line, to which it is exactly equivalent. Because of this equivalency, it was rarely used in the past; the baritone F-clef was used instead.

Mezzo-soprano clef

Mezzo-soprano clef

When the C-clef is placed on the second line of the staff, it is called the mezzo-soprano clef.

This clef is no longer used. Formerly, it was used in vocal music to write mezzo-soprano parts.

Soprano clef

Soprano clef

When the C-clef occurs on the first line of the staff, it is called the soprano clef.

This clef is no longer used.[citation needed] Formerly, it was used in vocal music to write soprano parts.

Other clefs

Octave clefs

Three types of suboctave treble clef showing middle C

Starting in the 18th Century treble clef has been used for transposing instruments that sound an octave lower, such as the guitar; it has also been used for the tenor voice. To avoid ambiguity, modified clefs are sometimes used, especially in the context of choral writing; of those shown, the C clef on the third space, easily confused with the tenor clef, is the rarest.

This is most often found in tenor parts in SATB settings, in which a treble clef is written with an eight below it, indicating that the pitches sound an octave below the written value. As the true tenor clef has generally fallen into disuse in vocal writings, this "octave-dropped" treble clef is often called the tenor clef. The same clef is sometimes used for the baritone horn. In some scores, the same concept is construed by using a double clef—two G-clefs overlapping one another.

At the other end of the spectrum, treble clefs with an 8 positioned above the clef may be used in piccolo, penny whistle, soprano recorder, and other high woodwind parts and is sometimes known (informally) as the "sopranino clef".

The F clef can also be notated with an octave marker. The F clef notated an octave down is sometimes used for contrabass instruments such as the double bass and contrabassoon and, as the traditional subbass clef has fallen into disuse, that term is sometimes[citation needed] used to describe this clef. The F clef notated an octave up is used for bass recorder and sometimes, though seldom, used for countertenor parts and called the countertenor clef, as it is easy for a bass or baritone to read while singing the part in falsetto. However, both of these are extremely rare (and in fact the countertenor clef is largely intended to be humorous as with the works of P.D.Q. Bach). The unmodified bass clef is so common that performers of instruments and voice parts whose ranges lie below the staff simply learn the number of ledger lines for each note through common use, and if a line's true notes lie significantly above the bass clef the composer or publisher will often simply write the part in either the true treble clef or notated an octave down.

Neutral clef


The neutral or percussion clef is not a clef in the same sense that the F, C, and G clefs are. It is simply a convention that indicates that the lines and spaces of the staff are each assigned to a percussion instrument with no precise pitch. With the exception of some common drum-kit and marching percussion layouts, the keying of lines and spaces to instruments is not standardized, so a legend or indications above the staff are necessary to indicate what is to be played. Percussion instruments with identifiable pitches do not use the neutral clef, and timpani (notated in bass clef) and mallet percussion (noted in treble clef or on a grand staff) are usually notated on different staves than unpitched percussion.

Staves with a neutral clef do not always have five lines. Commonly, percussion staves only have one line, although other configurations can be used.

The neutral clef is sometimes used when non-percussion instruments play non-pitched extended techniques, such as hitting the body of a violin, violoncello or acoustic guitar, or when a vocal choir is instructed to clap, stomp, or snap, but more often the rhythms are written with X marks in the instrument's normal staff with a note placed above as to the appropriate rhythmic action.



For guitars and other fretted instruments, it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. In this case, a TAB-sign is often written instead of a clef. The number of lines of the staff is not necessarily five: one line is used for each string of the instrument (so, for standard six-stringed guitars, six lines would be used, four lines for the traditional bass guitar). Numbers on the lines show on which fret the string should be played. This Tab-sign, like the Percussion clef, is not a clef in the true sense, but rather a symbol employed instead of a clef.


The clefs developed at the same time as the staff, in the 10th century. Originally, instead of a special clef symbol, the reference line of the staff was simply labeled with the name of the note it was intended to bear: F and c (written as a small letter, since the capital C represented a note an octave lower) and, more rarely, g. These were the most often-used 'clefs', or litteræ-clavis (key-letters), in Gregorian chant notation. Over time the shapes of these letters became stylized, leading to their current versions.

Many other clefs were used, particularly in the early period of chant notation, including most of the notes from the low Γ (gamma, the note written today on the bottom line of the bass clef) up to the G above middle C, written with a small letter g, and including two forms of lowercase b (for the note just below middle C): round for B, and square for B. In order of frequency of use, these clefs were: F, c, f, C, D, a, g, e, Γ, B, and the round/square b.[3]

Early forms of the G clef—the third combines the G and D clefs vertically

In the polyphonic period up to 1600, unusual clefs were used occasionally for parts with extremely high or low written tessituras. For very low bass parts, the Γ clef is found on the middle, fourth, or fifth lines of the staff (e.g., in Pierre de La Rue’s Requiem and in a mid-16th-century dance book published by the Hessen brothers); for very high parts, the high-D clef (d), and the even higher ff clef (e.g., in the Mulliner Book) were used to represent the notes written on the fourth and top lines of the treble clef, respectively.[4]

Varying shapes of different clefs persisted until very recent times. The F-clef was, until as late as the 1970s in some cases (such as hymnals), written like this: Oldbassclef.svg.

In printed music from the 16th and 17th centuries, the C clef often assumed a square form, like this 1639 tenor clef (the written note is a low E): Britannica Horn Nozze C Clef Note A.png.

The C-clef was formerly written in a more angular way, sometimes still used, or an even more simplified K-shape, when writing the clef by hand. Old C-clef.png

In modern Gregorian chant notation, the C clef is written (on a four-line staff) in the form C clef neume.gif and the F clef as F clef neume.gif.

The flourish at the top of the G-clef probably derives from a cursive S for "sol", the name for "G" in solfege.[5]

Vocal music can be contracted into two staves, using the treble and bass clefs

C-clefs were formerly used to notate vocal music, a practice that dwindled away in the late 19th century. The soprano voice was written in 1st line C clef (soprano clef), the alto voice in 3rd line C clef (alto clef), the tenor voice in 4th line C clef (tenor clef) and the bass voice in 4th line F clef (bass clef).

In more modern publications, four part harmony on parallel staves is usually written more simply as:

  • Soprano = treble clef (2nd line G clef)
  • Alto = treble clef
  • Tenor = treble clef with an "8" below or a double treble clef
  • Bass = bass clef (4th F clef)

This may be reduced to two staves, the soprano/alto staff with a treble clef, and tenor/bass staff marked with the bass clef.

Further uses

Clef combinations played a role in the modal system toward the end of the 16th century, and it has been suggested certain clef combinations in the polyphonic music of 16th-century vocal polyphony are reserved for authentic (odd-numbered) modes, and others for plagal (even-numbered) modes,[6][7] but the precise implications have been the subject of much scholarly debate.[8][9][10][11]

Music can be transposed at sight if a different clef is mentally substituted for the written one. For example, to play an A-clarinet part, a B♭-clarinet player may mentally substitute tenor clef for the written treble clef. Concert-pitch music in bass clef can be read on a E♭ instrument as if it were in treble clef. (Notes will not always sound in the correct octave). The written key signature must always be adjusted to the correct key for the instrument being played.

See also


  1. ^ Strictly speaking, the clef does not indicate the 'pitch' of the notes, but their 'names'; the actual pitch may vary according to the tuning system or pitch standard employed.
  2. ^ Although Russian composers frequently wrote the first trombone parts of their works in alto clef well into the twentieth century.[citation needed]
  3. ^ Smits van Wasberghe 1951, 33.
  4. ^ Hiley 2001; P. and B. Hessen 1555.
  5. ^ Kidson[clarification needed]
  6. ^ Powers, Harold S. (1981). "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony". Journal of the American Musicological Society 34: 428–470. 
  7. ^ Kurtzman, J.G. (1994). "Tones, Modes, Clefs, and Pitch in Roman Cyclic Magnificats of the 16th Century". Early Music 22: 641–664. 
  8. ^ Hermelink, S. (1956). "Zur Chiavettenfrage". Musikwissenschaftlichen Kongress (Vienna): 264–271. 
  9. ^ Smith, A. (1982). "Über modus und Transposition um 1600". Balsler Jahrbuh für historiche Musikpraxis: 9–43. 
  10. ^ Parrott, Andrew (1984). "Transposition in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610: an "Aberration" Defended". Early Music 7: 490–516. 
  11. ^ Wiering, F. (1992). "The Waning of the Modal Ages: Polyphonic Modality in Italy, 1542-1619". Ruggiero Giovannelli: Palestrina and Velletri: 389–419. 


  • Dandelot, Georges. Manuel pratique pour l'étude des clefs. Revised by Bruno Giner and Armelle Choquard. Eschig 1999.
  • Hessen, Paul and Bartholomeus. 1555. Viel feiner lieblicher Stucklein, spanischer, welscher, englischer, frantzösischer Composition und Tentz, uber drey hundert, mit sechsen, fünffen, und vieren, auff alle Instrument … zusamen bracht. Breslau: Crispin Scharffenberg.
  • Hiley, David. 2001. "Clef (i)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.*Kidson, Frank. The Evolution of Clef Signatures. In The Musical Times, Vol. 49, No. 785 (Jul. 1, 1908), pp. 443–444.
  • Kidson, Frank. The Evolution of Clef Signatures (Second Article). In The Musical Times, Vol. 50, No. 793 (Mar. 1, 1909), pp. 159–160
  • Morris, R. O., and Howard Ferguson. Preparatory Exercises in Score-Reading. London: Oxford University Press, 1931
  • Smits van Waesberghe, Jos. 1951. "The Musical Notation of Guido of Arezzo". Musica Disciplina 5:15–53.

Further reading

  • Read, Gardner. 1964. Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice. Boston: Alleyn and Bacon, Inc. Second edition, Boston: Alleyn and Bacon, Inc., 1969., reprinted as A Crescendo Book, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979. ISBN 0800854594 (cloth), ISBN 0800854535 (pbk).

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • clef — clef …   Dictionnaire des rimes

  • clef — ou clé (klé ; l f ne se prononce jamais ; au pluriel l s se lie : les clefs étaient.... dites : les klé z étaient) s. f. 1°   Instrument ordinairement en fer, servant à ouvrir et à fermer une serrure. Une clef de caisse, de secrétaire, de bureau …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • Clef d'ut — Clef (musique) Pour les articles homonymes, voir Clef. Dans le solfège, une clef orthographe traditionnelle en musique[réf. nécessaire] ou clé dans l’orthographe aujourd’hui la plus courante est un signe graphique placé au début de la portée …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Clef de fa — Clef (musique) Pour les articles homonymes, voir Clef. Dans le solfège, une clef orthographe traditionnelle en musique[réf. nécessaire] ou clé dans l’orthographe aujourd’hui la plus courante est un signe graphique placé au début de la portée …   Wikipédia en Français

  • clef — CLEF. s. f. (On pron. Clé, même devant une voyelle.) Instrument fait ordinairement de fer ou d acier, pour ouvrir et fermer une serrure. Petite clef. Grosse clef. Une clef forée. Les dents d une clef. Fausser une clef. Forcer une clef. Une porte …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • clef — CLEF. s. f. On prononce clé. Instrument fait pour ouvrir & fermer une serrure. Petite clef. grosse clef. clef forée. les dents d une clef. fausser, forcer une clef. une porte, un coffre, une armoire qui ferme à clef, est fermée à clef, à la clef …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • Clef — (kl[e^]f; 277), n. [F. clef key, a key in music, fr. L. clavis key. See {Clavicle}.] (Mus.) A character used in musical notation to determine the position and pitch of the scale as represented on the staff. [1913 Webster] Note: The clefs are… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • clef — Clef, f. Vient du Latin Clauis et signifie le mesmes. Qui porte la clef, Clauiger. J ay retiré la clef, Clauem abduxi. Estre sous la clef et enfermé, Sub claui esse, Occludi. La clef du Royaume, Claustrum regni. Une clef in aedificiis, Fibula, et …   Thresor de la langue françoyse

  • clef — 1570s in a musical sense, from M.Fr. clef (12c.) key, musical clef, trigger, from a figurative or transferred use of classical L. clavis, which had only the lit. sense key (see SLOT (Cf. slot) (2)). In the Middle Ages, the Latin word was used in… …   Etymology dictionary

  • clef — [klef] n [Date: 1500 1600; : French; Origin: key , from Latin clavis] a sign at the beginning of a line of written music to show the ↑pitch of the notes treble/bass clef …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • CLEF — est un sigle qui peut faire référence : au Comité de liaison des étudiants de France ; à la Coordination française pour le Lobby Européen des Femmes Catégorie : Sigle de 4 caractères …   Wikipédia en Français

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