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Diagram of treble, alto and bass clefs with identical-sounding musical notes aligned vertically Clef Diagram.png
Diagram of treble, alto and bass clefs with identical-sounding musical notes aligned vertically
Middle C represented on (from left to right) treble, alto, tenor and bass clefs Middle C in four clefs.svg
Middle C represented on (from left to right) treble, alto, tenor and bass clefs
Three clefs aligned to middle C Mnemonic bass alto treble clefs.svg
Three clefs aligned to middle C

A clef (from French: clef 'key') is a musical symbol used to indicate which notes are represented by the lines and spaces on a musical stave. Placing a clef on a stave assigns a particular pitch to one of the five lines, which defines the pitches on the remaining lines and spaces.


The three clef symbols used in modern music notation are the G-clef, F-clef, and C-clef. Placing these clefs on a line fixes a reference note to that line—an F-clef fixes the F below middle C, a C-clef fixes middle C, and a G-clef fixes the G above middle C. In modern music notation, the G-clef is most frequently seen as treble clef (placing G4 on the second line of the stave), and the F-clef as bass clef (placing F3 on the fourth line). The C-clef is mostly encountered as alto clef (placing middle C on the third line) or tenor clef (middle C on the fourth line). A clef may be placed on a space instead of a line, but this is rare.

The use of different clefs makes it possible to write music for all instruments and voices, regardless of differences in range. Using different clefs for different instruments and voices allows each part to be written comfortably on a stave 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. Transposing instruments can be an exception to this—the same clef is generally used for all instruments in a family, regardless of their sounding pitch. For example, even the low saxophones read in treble clef.

A symmetry exists surrounding middle C regarding the F-, C- and G-clefs. C-clef defines middle C whereas treble clef and bass clef define the note at the interval of a fifth above middle C and below middle C, respectively.

Two common mnemonics for learning the clef lines are:

  • Good Boys Do Fine Always [1] (bass clef)
  • Every Good Boy Does Fine (treble clef)

Placement on the stave

Theoretically, any clef may be placed on any line. With five lines on the stave and three clefs, there are fifteen possibilities for clef placement. Six of these are redundant because they result in an identical assignment of the notes to the lines (and spaces)—for example, a G-clef on the third line yields the same note placement as a C-clef on the bottom line. Thus, there are 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. The C-clef on the topmost line is equivalent to the F-clef on the third line but 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 All clefs.svg
The nine possible clefs

In modern music, only four clefs are used regularly: treble clef, bass clef, alto clef, and tenor clef. Of these, the treble and bass clefs are by far the most common. The tenor clef is used for the upper register of several instruments that usually use bass clef (including cello, bassoon, and trombone), while the alto is mostly only used by the viola. Instruments with ranges too low (such as the double bass) or too high (such as the piccolo) to use a standard clef can be notated with an octave clef, which transposes the entire stave up or down by one or more octaves.

Common clefs Common clefs.svg
Common clefs
ClefNameNoteNote Location
G-clefG4on the line that passes through the curl of the clef
C-clefC4 (Middle C)on the line that passes through the centre of the clef
F-clefF3on the line that passes between the two dots of the clef

Individual clefs

This section shows a complete list of the clefs, along with a list of instruments and voice parts notated with them. A dagger (†) after the name of a clef indicates that the clef is no longer in common use.

G-clef GClef.svg


Treble clef

Treble clef Treble clef with ref.svg
Treble clef
C major scale, treble clef. Play (help*info) C scale treble clef.png
C major scale, treble clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

The only G-clef still in use is the treble clef, with the G-clef placed on the second line. This is the most common clef in use and is generally the first clef learned by music students. [2] For this reason, the terms "G-clef" and "treble clef" are often seen as synonymous. The treble clef was historically used to mark a treble, or pre-pubescent, voice part.

Instruments that use the treble clef include violin, flute, oboe, cor anglais, all clarinets, all saxophones, horn, trumpet, cornet, vibraphone, xylophone, mandolin, recorder, bagpipe and guitar. Euphonium and baritone horn are sometimes treated as transposing instruments, using the treble clef and sounding a major ninth lower, and are sometimes treated as concert-pitch instruments, using bass clef. The treble clef is also the upper stave of the grand stave used for harp and keyboard instruments. Most high parts for bass-clef instruments (e.g. cello, double bass, bassoon, and trombone) are written in the tenor clef, but very high pitches may be notated in the treble clef. The viola also may use the treble clef for very high notes. The treble clef is used for the soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto and tenor voices. Tenor voice parts sound an octave lower and are often written using an octave clef (see below) or a double-treble clef.

French violin clef

French clef French clef with ref.svg
French clef
C major scale, French violin clef. Play (help*info) C scale French violin clef.png
C major scale, French violin clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A G-clef placed on the first line is called the French clef, or French violin clef. This clef was used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France for violin music and flute music. [3]

F-clef FClef.svg


Baritone clef

Baritone clef Baritone clef with ref.svg
Baritone clef
C major scale, baritone F-clef. Play (help*info) C scale baritone clef.png
C major scale, baritone F-clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  
Baritone clef Baritone C clef with ref.svg
Baritone clef
C major scale, baritone C-clef. Play (help*info) C scale baritone C-clef.png
C major scale, baritone C-clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

When the F-clef is placed on the third line, it is called the baritone clef. Baritone clef was used for the left hand of keyboard music (particularly in France; see Bauyn manuscript) and for baritone parts in vocal music. A C-clef on the fifth line creates a staff with identical notes to the baritone clef but this variant is rare. (see below).

Bass clef

Bass clef Bass clef with ref.svg
Bass clef
C major scale, bass clef. Play (help*info) C scale bass clef.png
C major scale, bass clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

The only F-clef still in use is the bass clef, with the clef placed on the fourth line. Since it is the only F-clef commonly encountered, the terms "F-clef" and "bass clef" are often regarded as synonymous.

Bass clef is used for the cello, double bass and bass guitar, bassoon and contrabassoon, bass recorder, trombone, tuba, and timpani. It is used for baritone horn or euphonium when their parts are written at concert pitch, and sometimes for the lowest notes of the horn. Baritone and bass voices also use bass clef, and the tenor voice is notated in bass clef if the tenor and bass are written on the same stave. Bass clef is the bottom clef in the grand stave for harp and keyboard instruments. Double bass, bass guitar, and contrabassoon sound an octave lower than the written pitch; some scores show an "8" beneath the clef for these instruments to differentiate from instruments that sound at the actual written pitch. (see "Octave clefs" below).

Sub-bass clef

Sub-bass clef Subbass clef with ref.svg
Sub-bass clef

When the F-clef is placed on the fifth line, it is called the sub-bass clef. It was used by Johannes Ockeghem and Heinrich Schütz to write low bass parts, by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe for low notes on the bass viol, and by J. S. Bach in his Musical Offering .

C-clef CClef.svg


Alto clef

Alto clef Alto clef with ref.svg
Alto clef
C major scale, alto clef. Play (help*info) C scale alto clef.png
C major scale, alto clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A C-clef on the third line of the stave is called the alto or viola clef. It is currently used for viola, viola d'amore, alto trombone, viola da gamba, and mandola. It is also associated with the countertenor voice and sometimes called the countertenor clef. [4] A vestige of this survives in Sergei Prokofiev's use of the clef for the cor anglais in his symphonies. It occasionally appears in keyboard music (for example, in Brahms's Organ Chorales and John Cage's Dream for piano).

Tenor clef

Tenor clef Tenor clef with ref.svg
Tenor clef
C major scale, tenor clef. Play (help*info) C scale tenor clef.png
C major scale, tenor clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A C-clef on the fourth line of the stave is called tenor clef. It is used for the viola da gamba and for upper ranges of bass-clef instruments such as the bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass, and tenor trombone. Treble clef may also be used for the upper extremes of these bass-clef instruments. Tenor violin parts were also written in this clef (see e.g. Giovanni Battista Vitali's Op. 11). It was used by the tenor part in vocal music but its use has been largely supplanted[ why? ] either with an octave version of the treble clef or with bass clef when tenor and bass parts are written on a single stave.

Mezzo-soprano clef

Mezzo-soprano clef Mezzo-soprano clef with ref.svg
Mezzo-soprano clef
C major scale, mezzo-soprano clef. Play (help*info) C scale mezzo soprano clef.png
C major scale, mezzo-soprano clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A C-clef on the second line of the stave is called the mezzo-soprano clef, rarely used in modern Western classical music. It was used in 17th century French orchestral music for the second viola or first tenor part ('taille') by such composers as Lully, and for mezzo-soprano voices in operatic roles, notably by Claudio Monteverdi. [5] Mezzo-soprano clef was also used for certain flute parts during renaissance, especially when doubling vocal lines. [6] In Azerbaijani music, the tar uses this clef.[ citation needed ]

Soprano clef

Soprano clef Soprano Clef - trimmed.png
Soprano clef
C major scale, soprano clef. Play (help*info) C scale soprano clef.png
C major scale, soprano clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A C-clef on the first line of the stave is called the soprano clef. It was used for the right hand of keyboard music (particularly in France – see Bauyn manuscript), in vocal music for sopranos, and sometimes in high viola da gamba[ clarification needed ] parts along with the alto clef.[ citation needed ] It was used for the second violin part ('haute-contre') in 17th century French music.

The same line on the stave in different clefs means different pitches.
The line indicating C (going from the center of a clef) is marked in orange.
soprano clef
mezzo-soprano clef
alto clef
tenor clef
baritone clef C-clefs.png
The same line on the stave in different clefs means different pitches.
The line indicating C (going from the center of a clef) is marked in orange.
  1. soprano clef
  2. mezzo-soprano clef
  3. alto clef
  4. tenor clef
  5. baritone clef

Other clefs

Octave clefs

Three types of suboctave treble clef showing middle C Tenorclefs.png
Three types of suboctave treble clef showing middle C
C major scale, suboctave clef. Play (help*info) C scale treble sub-octave clef.png
C major scale, suboctave clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play  
C major scale, "sopranino" clef. Play (help*info)
(this is one octave higher than the treble clef without an 8) C scale sopranino clef.png
C major scale, "sopranino" clef. Loudspeaker.svg Play   (this is one octave higher than the treble clef without an 8)

Starting in the 18th century, music for some instruments (such as guitar) and for the tenor voice have used treble clef, although they sound an octave lower. To avoid ambiguity, modified clefs are sometimes used, especially in choral writing. Using a C-clef on the third space places the notes identically, but this notation is much less common [7] [8] as it is easily confused with the alto and tenor clefs.

Such a modified treble clef is most often found in tenor parts in SATB settings, using a treble clef with the numeral 8 below it. This indicates that the pitches sound an octave lower. As the true tenor clef has 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 octave mandolin. This can also be indicated with two overlapping G-clefs.

Tenor banjo is commonly notated in treble clef. However, notation varies between the written pitch sounding an octave lower (as in guitar music and called octave pitch in most tenor banjo methods) and music sounding at the written pitch (called actual pitch). An attempt has been made to use a treble clef with a diagonal line through the upper half of the clef to indicate octave pitch, but this is not always used.

To indicate that notes sound an octave higher than written, a treble clef with an 8 positioned above the clef may be used for penny whistle, soprano and sopranino recorder, and other high woodwind parts. A treble clef with a 15 above (sounding two octaves above the standard treble clef) is used for the garklein (sopranissimo) recorder.

An F-clef can also be notated with an octave marker. While the F-clef notated to sound an octave lower can be used for contrabass instruments such as the double bass and contrabassoon, and the F-clef notated to sound an octave higher can be used for the bass recorder, these uses are extremely rare. In Italian scores up to Gioachino Rossini's Overture to William Tell, the cor anglais was written in bass clef an octave lower than sounding. [9] The unmodified bass clef is so common that performers of instruments whose ranges lie below the stave simply learn to read ledger lines.

Neutral clef

Simple quadruple drum pattern on a rock drum kit. Play (help*info) Characteristic rock drum pattern.png
Simple quadruple drum pattern on a rock drum kit. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

The neutral or percussion clef is not a true clef like the F, C, and G clefs. Rather, it assigns different unpitched percussion instruments to the lines and spaces of the stave. With the exception of some common drum-kit and marching percussion layouts, the assignment of lines and spaces to instruments is not standardised, so a legend is required to show which instrument each line or space represents. Pitched percussion instruments do not use this clef — timpani are notated in bass clef and mallet percussion instruments are noted in treble clef or on a grand stave.

If the neutral clef is used for a single percussion instrument the stave may only have one line, although other configurations are used.

The neutral clef is sometimes used where non-percussion instruments play non-pitched extended techniques, such as hitting the body of a string instrument, or having a vocal choir clap, stamp, or snap. However, it is more common to write the rhythms using × noteheads on the instrument's normal stave, with a comment to indicate the appropriate rhythmic action.


C major scale, guitar tablature and stave notation (suboctave is assumed). Play (help*info) C scale tablature.png
C major scale, guitar tablature and stave notation (suboctave is assumed). Loudspeaker.svg Play  

For guitars and other fretted instruments, it is possible to notate tablature in place of ordinary notes. This TAB sign is not a clef — it does not indicate the placement of notes on a stave. The lines shown are not a music stave but rather represent the strings of the instrument (six lines would be used for guitar, four lines for the bass guitar, etc.), with numbers on the lines showing which fret should be used.


Before the advent of clefs, the reference line of a stave was simply labeled with the name of the note it was intended to bear: F, C, or sometimes G. These were the most common 'clefs', or litterae clavis (key-letters), in Gregorian chant notation. Over time the shapes of these letters became stylised, leading to their current versions.

Many other clefs were used, particularly in the early period of chant notation, keyed to many different notes, from the low Γ (gamma, the G on the bottom line of the bass clef) to the G above middle C (written with a small letter g). These included two different lowercase b symbols 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 and square b. [10] In later medieval music, the round b was often written in addition to another clef letter to indicate that B rather than B was to be used throughout a piece; this is the origin of the key signature.

Early forms of the G clef--the third combines the G and D clefs vertically G-Schluessel.png
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 occasionally used for parts with extremely high or low tessituras. For very low bass parts, the Γ clef is found on the middle, fourth, or fifth lines of the stave (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. [11]

The practice of using different shapes for the same clef persisted until very recent times. The F-clef was, until as late as the 1980s in some cases (such as hymnals), or in British and French publications, written like this: Oldbassclef.svg

In printed music from the 16th and 17th centuries, the C clef often assumed a ladder-like form, in which the two horizontal rungs surround the stave line indicated as C: Mensural c clef 06.svg ; this form survived in some printed editions (see this example, written in four-part men's harmony and positioned to make it equivalent to an octave G clef) into the 20th century.

The C-clef was formerly written in a more angular way, sometimes still used, or, more often, as a 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 stave) 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. [12]

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

C clefs (along with G, F, Γ, D, and A clefs) were formerly used to notate vocal music. Nominally, the soprano voice parts were written in first- or second-line C clef (soprano clef or mezzo-soprano clef) or second-line G clef (treble clef), the alto or tenor voices in third-line C clef (alto clef), the tenor voice in fourth-line C clef (tenor clef) and the bass voice in third-, fourth- or fifth-line F clef (baritone, bass, or sub-bass clef).

Until the 19th century, the most common arrangement for vocal music used the following clefs:

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

This may be reduced to two staves, the soprano and alto sharing a stave with a treble clef, and the tenor and bass sharing a stave 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, [13] [14] but the precise implications have been the subject of much scholarly debate. [15] [16] [17] [18]

Reading music as if it were in a different clef from the one indicated can be an aid in transposing music at sight since it will move the pitches roughly in parallel to the written part. Key signatures and accidentals need to be accounted for when this is done.


  1. Every Good Boy Does Fine – What does EGBDF stand for?
  2. Greer, Amy (2003). "In Praise of Those Grass-Eating Cows". American Music Teacher . 53 (1): 22–25. JSTOR   43547681.
  3. "Dolmetsch Online – Music Theory Online – Other Clefs". Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  4. Moore 1876, 176; Dolmetsch Organisation 2011.
  5. Curtis, Alan (1989-04-01). "La Poppea Impasticciata or, Who Wrote the Music to La Poppea Impasticciata (1643)?". Journal of the American Musicological Society . 42 (1): 23–54. doi:10.2307/831417. ISSN   0003-0139. JSTOR   831417.
  6. Thomas, Bernard (1975). "The Renaissance Flute". Early Music . 3 (1): 2–10. doi:10.1093/earlyj/3.1.2. JSTOR   3125300.
  7. There was a vogue in 20th-century Oliver Ditson Co. editions, for example Master Choruses selected by Smallman & Matthews (Boston 1933)
  8. This notation is also used in the 1985 Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for many of the men's arrangements, i.e. Hymns 323 and 325–337
  9. Del Mar 1981, 143.
  10. Smits van Wasberghe 1951, 33.
  11. Hiley 2001; P. and B. Hessen 1555.
  12. Kidson 1908, 443-44.
  13. Powers, Harold S. (1981). "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony". Journal of the American Musicological Society . 34 (3): 428–470. doi:10.1525/jams.1981.34.3.03a00030.
  14. Kurtzman, J. G. (1994). "Tones, Modes, Clefs, and Pitch in Roman Cyclic Magnificats of the 16th Century". Early Music . 22 (4): 641–664. doi:10.1093/earlyj/xxii.4.641.
  15. Hermelink, S. (1956). "Zur Chiavettenfrage". Musikwissenschaftlicher Kongress. Vienna: 264–271.
  16. Smith, A. (1982). "Über modus und Transposition um 1600". Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis: 9–43.
  17. Parrott, Andrew (1984). "Transposition in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610: an "Aberration" Defended". Early Music . 7 (4): 490–516. doi:10.1093/earlyj/12.4.490.
  18. Wiering, F. (1992). "The Waning of the Modal Ages: Polyphonic Modality in Italy, 1542–1619". Ruggiero Giovannelli: Palestrina and Velletri: 389–419.

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SATB is an initialism that describes the scoring of compositions for choirs, and also choirs of instruments. The initials are for the voice types: S for soprano, A for alto, T for tenor and B for bass.

The bass oboe or baritone oboe is a double reed instrument in the woodwind family. It is essentially twice the size of a regular (soprano) oboe so it sounds an octave lower; it has a deep, full tone somewhat akin to that of its higher-pitched cousin, the English horn. The bass oboe is notated in the treble clef, sounding one octave lower than written. Its lowest sounding note is B2 (in scientific pitch notation), one octave and a semitone below middle C, although an extension with an additional key may be inserted between the lower joint and bell of the instrument in order to produce a low B2. The instrument's bocal or crook first curves away from and then toward the player (unlike the bocal/crook of the English horn and oboe d'amore), looking rather like a flattened metal question mark; another crook design resembles the shape of a bass clarinet neckpiece. The bass oboe uses its own double reed, similar to but larger than that of the English horn.

The alto clarinet is a woodwind instrument of the clarinet family. It is a transposing instrument pitched in the key of E, though instruments in F have been made. In size it lies between the soprano clarinet and the bass clarinet. It bears a greater resemblance to the bass clarinet in that it typically has a straight body, but a curved neck and bell made of metal. All-metal alto clarinets also exist. In appearance it strongly resembles the basset horn, but usually differs in three respects: it is pitched a whole step lower, it lacks an extended lower range, and it has a wider bore than many basset horns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Violone</span>

The term violone can refer to several distinct large, bowed musical instruments which belong to either the viol or violin family. The violone is sometimes a fretted instrument, and may have six, five, four, or even only three strings. The violone is also not always a contrabass instrument. In modern parlance, one usually tries to clarify the 'type' of violone by adding a qualifier based on the tuning or on geography, or by using other terms that have a more precise connotation. The term violone may be used correctly to describe many different instruments, yet distinguishing among these types can be difficult, especially for those not familiar with the historical instruments of the viol and violin families and their respective variations in tuning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tenor cornett</span>

The tenor cornett or lizard was a common musical instrument in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This instrument was normally built in C and the pedal (lowest) note of the majority of tenor cornetts was the C below middle C. A number of surviving instruments feature a key to secure the lowest note. The instrument has a useful range of approximately two and a half octaves, however, an experienced player with a strong embouchure may be able to push the instrument higher.

Advanced Placement (AP) Music Theory is a course and examination offered in the United States by the College Board as part of the Advanced Placement Program to high school students who wish to earn credit for a college level music theory course.

Percussion notation is a type of musical notation indicating notes to be played by percussion instruments. As with other forms of musical notation, sounds are represented by symbols which are usually written onto a musical staff.


Further reading