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Clefs

The clef is a symbol at the beginning of the staff that associates a staff line with a reference note, from which the names of the other notes can be deduced.

Three basic clefs

There are 3 musical clefs: the G clef, the F clef and the C clef.

FIGURE 1 - Les trois clefs de lecture
Treble Clef Bass Clef Alto Clef

Why multiple clefs? Each instrument has a different range (this is called the ambitus). The chosen clef makes it possible to adapt the staff to this ambitus so that the usual notes played on the considered instrument can be easily represented. When the staff is not enough to represent the notes, there will be two possibilities: either to make a clef change, or to add additional lines called ledger lines.

Versions

Each clef is declined in several versions, according to its position on the staff.

Theoretically, a clef could be placed on any line of the staff. However, in practice, they are not all used on each line. To avoid any ambiguity, it is necessary to specify the number of the line on which the clef is placed. We will thus speak of the "G-clef on the second line". Each version of the clef is also named after its main function. For example, the G-clef on the second line will be called as the "Treble clef", because it is used by treble instruments like the violin, the guitar or the trumpet. In the following paragraphs, the elements in square brackets can be omitted because they are implicit.

The clefs are presented here in the order of importance of use, from the most frequently encountered to the rarest.

Treble clef — G-clef [2nd line]

The Treble clef (or G-clef) fixes the G on the 2nd staff line. This is the G4, just above the central C on the piano.

FIGURE 2 - The Treble clef
g

KEYBOARD 1  - The G of the Treble clef on the keyboard
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

Instruments using this clef: violin, piano, guitar, harpsichord, trumpet, horn, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone...

Bass clef — F-clef [4th line]

The Bass clef (or F-clef) fixes the F on the 4th staff line. This is the F3, just below the central C on the piano.

FIGURE 3 - The Bass clef
f

KEYBOARD 2  - The F of the Bass clef on the keyboard
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

Instruments using this clef: cello, piano, bass, harpsichord, trombone…

Alto clef — C-clef 3rd line

The Alto clef fixes the C on the 3rd staff line. This is the C4 (central C on the piano).

FIGURE 4 - The Alto clef
c

KEYBOARD 3  - The C of the Alto clef (central C)
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

Instruments using this clef: viola, alto (voice)…

Tenor clef — C-clef 4th line

The Tenor fixes the C on the 4th staff line. This is the C4 (central C on the piano).

FIGURE 5 - The Tenor clef
c

KEYBOARD 4  - The C of the Tenor clef (central C)
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

Instruments using this clef: cello, trombone, bass, tenor (voice)…

Soprano clef — C-clef 1st line

The Soprano clef fixes the c on the 1st staff line. This is the C4 (central C on the piano).

FIGURE 6 - The Soprano clef
c

KEYBOARD 5  - The C of the Soprano clef (central C)
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

This is the traditional clef of the soprano voice. Even if it has been dethroned by the more widely known Treble clef, it remains used by singers practicing ancient music or in writing and counterpoint classes, for example. It serves as a transposition clef for instruments in A.

Mezzo-soprano clef — C-clef 2nd line

The Mezzo-soprano clef fixes the C on the 2nd staff line. This is the C4 (central C on the piano).

FIGURE 7 - The Mezzo-soprano clef
c

KEYBOARD 6  - The C of the Mezzo-soprano clef (central C)
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

This clef is used for the transposition of instruments in F.

French-violin clef — G-clef 1st line

The French-violin clef fixes the G on the 1st staff line. This is the G4 just above the central C on the piano.

FIGURE 8 - The French-violin clef
g

KEYBOARD 7  - The G of the French-violin clef on the keyboard
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

This is the traditional clef of French-violin ("dessus") in ancient music. It also serves as a transposition clef for instruments in E.

Baritone clef — F-clef 3rd line

The Baritone clef fixes the F on the 3rd staff line. This is the F3 just below the central C of the piano.

FIGURE 9 - The Baritone clef
fa

KEYBOARD 8  - The F of the baritone clef on the keyboard
la sol si si la do la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si do mi mi fa fa mi sol sol fa la la sol si si la do do mi fa sol sol la la si do si

This clef is used for the transposition of instruments in G.

C4 (central C) positions on all clefs

FIGURE 10 - The central C on the 8 existing clefs

This last figure makes it possible to realize the relative position of the notes on the staff. Although drawn on 8 different positions, all the notes in this figure represent the same C, the one located in the center of the keyboard.

The name of the note can only be determined by having knowledge of the clef. It is therefore essential to always pay attention to the clef written at the beginning of the staff and to the clef changes that may occur on certain passages.

Thanks to this figure, we see that the F-clef represents the lower sounds: indeed, the central C being located at the very top of the staff, the notes will all be below the central C. Conversely, at the other end of the staff, the G-clef will represent the higher sounds, the central C being located at the very bottom of the staff. In the middle, we find the four C-clefs, the Tenor clef being close to the F-clef whereas the Soprano clef is close to the G-clef.

In practice, a musician uses only one or two clefs (sometimes three) corresponding to his instrument. Only conductors and composers have to handle all the existing clefs.

Practical advice : the Treble clef and the Bass clef are the two most used clefs (the first 2 clefs of this page). Even if your instrument uses only one of these two clefs, it is important to learn the other clef, otherwise you may be slowed down in your future learning. The learning of the C-clefs is on the other hand discretionary and reserved for particular instruments and disciplines.

Last update on 2018/12/03

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