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Clefs and Clef-signs

There are four clef-signs in modern music practice. They are the G, C, F, and the neutral clef-signs. This is what they look like:

G clef sign C clef sign F clef sign neutral clef sign
G clef sign C clef sign F clef sign neutral clef sign

The first three get their names from the fact that they mark in the staff the location of the note bearing the same name. I have illustrated (with the red line) how that works in each of them. The G line passes through the loop of the G clef-sign, as in the picture, the middle C line bisects the C clef-sign, and the F line runs through the two dots on the F clef-sign. In most cases they appear just as illustrated above, in which case they are called the treble clef, the alto clef, and the bass clef, respectively.

1 Drums, hand claps, etc. Tympani, on the other hand, is percussion but has pitch, and is consequently notated on a bass clef.

The neutral clef is used for unpiched1 percussion, so the specific notes are irrelevant. Rather, the note heads are used to specify types of percussion sounds (see the chapter on rhythm for a fuller discussion).

However, there are more than three pitched clefs. Each of these symbols can be relocated on the staff, and in doing so, it relocates which line is associated with the named note. The most common such variation is the tenor clef, which uses the C clef-sign, but slid up one line so that the second line from the top becomes middle C.

The Wikipedia article on Clef has the following illustration:

various clefs

These are often grouped by their sign. The first two are G clefs, the next five C clefs, etc.

But other variations exist. The following is an example of an octave shift, which is reasonably common:

2 In the case of guitar, it allows the instrument to be written on a single staff, even though its range covers two staves. But it also results in what some regard as an inordinate number of ledger lines.
vocal Tenor Clef This is often used for tenor vocals, and is the standard for guitar notation.2 It means that the piece is to be played or sung an octave lower than it would be if this were the regular treble clef (called the 'suboctave' treble clef). You will also see the 8 on top of the clef-sign, which means, predictably, that it is to be played an octave higher (the 'sopranino' clef), which would be used, for example, in a score for piccolo.
2013 Alan Humm