Exploring Music's Complexities

Need for Music Staves and Clefs

Reading Music Using Clefs



Have you ever wondered how a musician knows what notes to play? While it isn’t necessary to read music it helps if you want to play a composition written by someone else. If you take a look at a piece of sheet music you will see the notes are notated using a staff. A staff is a group of 5 lines and four spaces. Look at the sign at the beginning of the stave. This symbol is called a clef. Clefs are needed to identify the pitch of written notes. Clefs tell us which notes correspond to which lines or spaces. (1).

Clefs Nomenclature

There are three different clefs used in contemporary music notations: F, C, and G. These are illustrated below.

The names of notes on a staff depend on which music clef is at the start of the staff. In the example above the clef curl is on the second line from below and marks the position of the note G. F and A are in the space below and above. Most instruments usually use this clef, the Treble or G-clef.


note names


The Alto and Tenor Clefs have two curves that meet in the center. The line on the staff where these curves meet is the note C. These clefs are also called C Clefs for this reason. This clef is currently used for the viola, the viola da gamba, the alto trombone, and the mandola (2). The Bass Clef has two dots, above and below the second line from the top. The dots tell us that this line is F.

When the F-clef is placed on the fourth line, it is called the bass clef. This clef is used for the cello, euphonium, double bass, bass guitar, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone, baritone horn, tuba, and timpani. It is also used for the lowest notes of the horn, and for the baritone and bass voices.

Placing the C-clef on the fourth line of the staff makes it the tenor clef. This clef is used for the upper ranges of the bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass, and trombone. These instruments use bass clef for their low- to mid-ranges; treble clef is also used for their upper extremes. Where used for the double bass, the sound is an octave lower than the written pitch. It is simply a convention that indicates that the lines and spaces of the stave are each assigned to a percussion instrument with no precise pitch.

Three different clefs enable music to be written for all instruments and voices. In this way it enables each part to be written for ease of use.


1. http://musictheoryblog.blogspot.com/

2. Much of the information cited in this post was obtained from Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clef.

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