A clef is a symbol at the beginning of the staff that specifies the pitch of the notes on the staff. Different clefs are used, each with its own note as a starting point, so you can write low and high notes using the fewest possible ledger lines, thus making the notes easier to read.

1. The treble clef

The treble clef (also called the G clef) indicates that the note G above middle C falls on the second line of the staff. The treble clef curls around the line where G falls:

The treble clef

Below, the notes in the treble clef are compared to the notes on the piano. Notice the positions of the notes C and G on the staff. Remembering the positions of C and G make it easier to read the other notes on the staff:

Notes in the treble clef

The treble clef is useful for writing notes above middle C. The treble clef is used in song books and for high-pitched instruments such as guitar, violin, flute, clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet.

Exercise

Exercises 2

Notes » Treble clef » Naturals 1 and Naturals 2

2. The bass clef

The bass clef (also called the F clef) indicates that the note F below middle C falls on the fourth line of the staff. The bass clef's two dots surround the line where F falls:

The bass clef

Below, the notes in the bass clef are compared to the notes on the piano. Notice the positions of the notes C and F on the staff. Remembering the positions of C and F make it easier to read the other notes on the staff:

Notes in the bass clef

The bass clef is useful for writing notes below middle C. The clef is used for low-pitched instruments such as bass guitar, double bass, cello, bassoon, trombone, and tuba.

Exercise

Exercises 2

Notes » Bass clef » Naturals 1 and Naturals 2

3. The grand staff

The grand staff is a combination of two staves with the treble clef in the upper staff and the bass clef in the lower staff. The staves are connected by a vertical line and a brace at the left side:

The grand staff

Middle C falls between the two staves and written on the first ledger line below the upper staff or the first ledger line of the lowermost staff. Notice the symmetrical position of the different versions of the note C. Remembering their positions make it easier to read the other notes on the staff:

Middle C in the grand staff

Below, the notes of the grand staff are compared to the notes on the piano. The notes located around middle C can be written in both the upper and lower staff using one or more ledger lines:

Notes in the grand staff

The grand staff is useful for instruments that can play both low and high notes. It is commonly used for piano, organ, marimba, and harp. Usually, the notes in the lower staff are played with the left hand and the notes in the upper staff with the right hand.

4. The alto clef

The alto clef is a C clef indicating that middle C falls on the third line of the staff. The center of the alto clef pinpoints the line where middle C falls:

The alto clef

Below, the notes in the alto clef are compared to the notes on the piano. Notice the positions of the different versions of the note C. Remembering the position of C make it easier to read the other notes on the staff:

Notes in the alto clef

The alto clef has a limited scope. It is primarily used for viola. Often, however, either the treble clef or the bass clef is used instead.

Exercise

Exercises 4

Notes » C clef » Alto clef

5. The tenor clef

The tenor clef is a C clef indicating that middle C falls on the fourth line of the staff. The center of the tenor clef pinpoints the line where middle C falls:

The tenor clef

Below, the notes in the tenor clef are compared to the notes on the piano. Notice the position of the different versions of the note C. Remembering the position of C make it easier to read the other notes on the staff:

Notes in the tenor clef

The tenor clef has a limited scope. It is primarily used for cello, bassoon, and trombone. Often, however, either the treble clef or the bass clef is used instead.

Exercise

Exercises 5

Notes » C clef » Tenor clef

6. Octave clefs

Octave clefs are variations of the treble clef and the bass clef that indicate the notes are played in a different pitch. The number 8 above the clef means that the notes are played an octave higher than notated. The number 8 below the clef means that the notes are played an octave lower than notated.

For example, here are six different notations of middle C:

Octave clefs

In very rare cases, the number 8 is replaced by the number 15 indicating that the notes are played two octaves higher or lower than notated.

Octave clefs are used to avoid several ledger lines that are difficult to read. If only a few notes on the staff require several ledger lines, a normal clef is used in combination with one of the following symbols:

Quindicesima alta Quindicesima alta
Indicates that the notes within the dotted line are played two octaves higher than notated. The symbol is placed above the staff.

Ottava alta Ottava alta
Indicates that the notes within the dotted line are played an octave higher than notated. The symbol is placed above the staff.

Ottava bassa Ottava bassa
Indicates that the notes within the dotted line are played an octave lower than notated. The symbol is placed below the staff.

Quindicesima bassa Quindicesima bassa
Indicates that the notes within the dotted line are played two octaves lower than notated. The symbol is placed below the staff.

7. Clef change

Usually, the same clef is used throughout a whole piece of music. However, if one or more notes are far outside the staff, you can change the clef to avoid excess ledger lines, making the notes easier to read:

Clef change

If the clef is changed at the beginning of a new line, the clef is written both at the beginning of the new staff and at the end of the previous staff. Clefs in the middle of the staff are smaller than clefs at the beginning of the staff.