by Karl Beaudry
There are many aspects of musical notation that are often ignored in beginning music lessons. Unless a student is fortunate enough to have a great teacher (like those available through Candid Brilliance!), some of the most interesting and fun facts about notes and other symbols are passed over and forgotten. In fact, there are many “advanced” musicians today that may not be aware of the reasons for why music looks the way it does on paper. Certainly one of the most interesting symbols in music is the humble clef. Unfortunately, many teachers are satisfied with telling their students that a clef just tells the musician whether the music is “high” or “low” – or whether the right hand or left hand is used on the piano. These teachers are missing all the fun! At the very least, a clef indicates very specific (and decorative) instructions for a musician.
When musical notation was first being developed back in the middle ages, a line or space was simply labeled with the name of the note it represented. For example, the music writer would indicate where the “G” was on the staff simply by writing the letter “G” over a specific line. Over time, this labeling became more and more artistic until it became what we know today as the “G” clef (commonly referred to as the Treble Clef). Did you know its purpose was to indicate where the note “G” was?
While there are many different clefs used for today’s notation, three of them are the most commonly recognized – the G clef, the F clef, and the C clef. Yes, those are the official names, even though many like to call them the treble clef, the bass clef, and the alto clef. It is important to remember that a clef designates where a specific note is on the staff. This means that if someone knows the proper name of a clef, they will always know where the notes are!
There is one other very important purpose for a clef. Not only does it identify a note on a staff, it also provides an easier way to write music for instruments or voices with ranges that go beyond the 5 lines of the staff. One great example of this is with the C clef and the viola. Since the viola’s note range covers notes in both the G (treble) clef range and the F (bass) clef range, it would be quite difficult to write some of its music since it would be constantly using ledger lines or jumping to a different clef. The best answer to this problem? The C clef! (also called the alto clef) Many viola players can brag about the fact that they read music using a clef that most of us piano players hate to read. But the C clef is truly the best answer to the viola’s note range–it is also a "moveable" clef, which allows us to
So the next time you pick up a piece of music, realize that there is a lot more to the symbols on the page than just decoration. These symbols mean something, and in many cases they can be of great benefit to your musical learning!