Clef Symbols

What are clef symbols, and why are they so important?

In the introductory lesson of this section, we learned that a musical staff consists of five lines and four spaces, and that each line or space corresponds to a musical note.

What we didn't discuss yet is which notes they correspond to.  And there is a fantastic reason for that --

We can't determine which note is represented by each line/space unless we have a clef symbol placed at the beginning of the staff.

That, in fact, is the whole purpose of clef symbols -- to let us know which notes are represented by each line or space.

Here’s are some examples of what clef symbols look like (they're the funny-looking things in the shaded areas):

The following approach will help us really understand the point of clef symbols:

The "Infinite Staff"

Imagine a musical staff that, instead of having just five lines, had an infinite number of lines extending upward and downward.  These lines, and the spaces in between them, would represent every musical note in existence.  The higher up the staff, the higher the note; the lower down the staff, the lower the note.

Since in theory musical notes really do go on forever and ever in both directions (high and low), it would kind of make sense to have a musical staff that does the same.

Here's what an "infinite staff" might look like:


We can probably spot the problem right away, though.  If we put some notes on the lines or spaces of this infinite staff, how in the wide world are we going to be able to figure out which note it is, at a glance? 

Infinite staff with notes

There are just way too many lines and spaces! When we're making music, we don't have time to count the number of lines and spaces -- we need to be able to tell what line or space a note is on just by looking.

So instead, our musical staff is limited (thankfully!) to just five lines, and the four spaces in between:

The Staff

But these five lines don't exist on their own --  they are really nothing more than a specific section of the infinite staff.

All the other lines (and spaces) are still there, they're  just invisible, or hidden.  A staff is just sort of highlighting a specific set of five lines, and leaving the other lines to the imagination:

The staff is really just a highlighted 5-line section of an infinite staff

But which five lines are the lucky ones that get focused on, or "highlighted"?  We could move the highlighted region in the picture above higher or lower, anywhere we want on the infinite staff  (It's like the old "Range Game" from the Price is Right.)

Well, that's where clef symbols come in --

Clef symbols determine which five lines from the "infinite staff" are being highlighted or focused on.

Common Clef Symbols

Earlier, we showed a picture of the most common clef symbols. Now let's introduce them by name.

By far, the two most common ones are the treble clef and the bass clef:

Treble Clef and Bass Clef

Not as commonly used, but still very important, are the alto and tenor clefs:

Alto Clef and Tenor Clef

Different Clefs For Different Folks

What is the purpose of having a whole bunch of clefs to choose from?  In other words, what would make us choose one particular clef over another in a given situation?

Let's say we are writing for a specific instrument.  Each instrument has a certain range, as we know.  That obviously means we need to restrict all the notes we write to be within that range.  Otherwise, when the musician tries to read the music, he/she will not be able to play certain note(s), because it's impossible on that instrument!

It makes sense to use a clef that places the musical staff in a similar area to the range of the specific instrument we’re writing for.  That's why there are several clef symbols to choose from; some clefs focus the musical staff on a higher octave register, some place it lower down, some in the middle.  We can choose the one that fits best for what we need in a particular situation.

In fact, sometimes we can guess what instrument is being written for, just by looking at the clef. 

For example, when we see an alto clef on a staff of a musical score (music written for multiple instruments to play all together, like a symphony for example), we can normally assume that the staff is written for an instrument called the viola.

Alto clef fits the range of a viola just right, so that's the "clef of choice" for viola players.  (They also read treble clef when the music gets high, but alto is their main "default" clef.)

Clef Placement

Clef symbols are placed at the beginning of a line of music, on the left side of a staff.  They are usually indented a tiny bit, as we can see below:

Clef indented a bit

Except in certain styles of music, the clef is usually repeated on every single line of the music.  This way, the player never has to think about which clef they're reading from, because it's always right there in front of them.

Clef symbol on every line

Sum It Up

Without clef symbols, we would have absolutely no way of knowing which note was associated with which line or space.

For example, what note is the lowest of the 5 lines on the staff? 

It completely depends on which clef we're using.  In treble clef, it would be the note E4, in bass clef it's G2, in alto clef it's F3, and in tenor clef it's D3: 

So if we don't know which clef we're in, the lines and spaces are meaningless!  That's why we're learning this first.

Once we put a nice clef symbol at the beginning of the staff, immediately each line and space becomes associated with a specific note.  Now, we are in business.

We move on now to learn about ledger lines, those little lines we often see above or below the staff.