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The A minor triad a – c′ – e ′ , notated in the five most common keys today

Clef ( Latin clavis , Italian chiave , English / French clef = "key") used in musical notation to the grading system to determine which pitch represent the five staves. Each key has a reference tone for this, from its position, the position of the other sounds derived, the importance of the staves he includes only through the key . The different clefs represent different pitches; One of the keys is particularly suitable for every instrument and every pitch.

Musical keys have been subject to a constant evolution that lasted for centuries. Five clefs have been used since the late 19th century (or four if the octaved treble clef is not included).

The keys in use today and their application

Treble clef (G clef)

Treble clef

The treble clef in common use today is a G clef that defines the g ′ on the second (from the bottom) staff line. It is used for high voices (women, boys), violin , high wind instruments (including clarinet, oboe, English horn, French horn / Wagner tuba, trumpet) or the right hand on keyboard instruments , sometimes also for the notation of high registers on low instruments such as viola or Cello. Furthermore, the treble clef is used transposing on some deep wind instruments that are related to a soprano instrument: the family of saxophones , clarinets and tenor horns , so that the instrument can be changed without rethinking. A tenor horn player reads and plays e.g. B. same as on the flugelhorn in B , the tone only sounds a ninth instead of a second . Voices notated in the treble clef for men are often sung an octave lower than they are notated (see octavating clefs below).

In the so-called Swiss notation for trombone choirs and brass music in Switzerland , the treble clef is used uniformly in B transposing for all instruments , i.e. also for tuba , baritone horn and trombone .

The French treble clef , which is also used in baroque music , assigns the lowest line to the g ′ .

C key

alto clef

alto clef

For the viola (viola), the alto instrument of the viola da gamba family (alto viol) and alto trombone , the alto clef , often also known as the “viola clef”, is prescribed. The c ′ is here on the third line.

Tenor clef

Tenor clef

The tenor clef is used for passages in the higher register of deep string and wind instruments such as the tenor trombone , the cello (which is the tenor bass instrument of the viola da braccio family) and the bassoon . The point of orientation is the c ′ on the fourth line.

Bass clef (F clef)

Bass clef
alternative form of bass clef

The bass clef is an F clef that defines the small f on the fourth line from the bottom (i.e. on the line between the two points). It is used for low male and female voices and low strings (cello, double bass , electric bass and bass instrument of the viola da gamba family), low wind instruments ( bassoon , tenor and bass trombone , tuba , baritone horn , euphonium ) and some percussion instruments (timpani). With keyboard instruments, the left hand is usually notated in the bass clef, with the organ also the pedal.

The bass notation is, so to speak, the continuation of the treble clef downwards. Violin and bass notation are created by dividing a system of eleven staves into two times five lines. The top five lines are noted in the treble clef, the bottom five in the bass clef, and the middle line simultaneously forms the first low auxiliary line ( c ′ ) in the treble clef and the first high auxiliary line in the bass clef (also c ′ ).


When Guido von Arezzo invented the system of lines for the notation of music around 1025 , he used a c or an f to mark the semitone steps , with which he marked the mostly colored line under which the semitone step was located. Depending on the course of the melody, these clefs were later placed in square notation on one of the four designated staves in order to avoid the need for auxiliary lines .

C.Schuessel.square notation.gif
C key
F. Key.square notation.gif
F key

C key

The resulting C-clefs were used later and are still named after the vocal parts for which they are suitable. Only their appearance has changed. On the picture you can see: (a) old C-keys; (b) soprano or treble clef; (c) mezzo-soprano key; (d) Alt key; (e) tenor clef; (f) Baritone key.

old and new C-keys
The same position on the staff in different clefs means different tones.
The line that determines the position of the c 'is marked in orange.
Soprano clef 2. Mezzo- soprano clef
3. Alto clef
4. Tenor clef
5. Baritone clef

F key

For lower voices, the F clef was created almost at the same time as the C clef, which shows the lowercase f and whose form can be traced back to the capital letter F (a) . The first F-keys were still on the center line, so were actually baritone key (b) . The bass clef , which is in use today, later established itself , which defines the fourth line from the bottom as the F-line (c) . In general, the f to be displayed is flanked by the two horizontal lines in the F. In the F-clef, these dashes were reduced to one point each, so the tone f lies between the two points.

old and new F-keys

G key

With the further development of music, especially with the notation of instrumental music, some of which lay outside the human vocal area, a new, higher key was required, the G key (invented around 1200). The term “soprano clef” should be avoided because there is a C clef of the same name and the G clef was primarily used for the notation of violin parts. The shape of this “treble clef” also developed from the handwritten letter G of the indicated tone g ′, to which a hook was attached, which could have emerged from an italic d on the associated line (the d ″ ), or in the tradition of old manuscripts serves as an ornament.

Development of the treble clef

Γ key

On old sheet music for keyboard instruments , one often finds a system of lines with eight or more lines in which all the keys have been drawn, roughly as shown in the illustration. The lowest character is a Greek gamma , with which the capital G was temporarily marked. In the monochord , Γ denotes the entire length of the string, i.e. the lowest note. This Γ key for particularly deep registers has not held up.

multiline staff

19th century

Over time, the treble clef established itself as a universal clef for high registers and in most cases replaced the C clef. Only for the notation of vocal parts were soprano, alto and tenor clefs the standard until well into the second half of the 19th century, for example with this excerpt from a choral score by Johannes Brahms :

J. Brahms, beginning of the choir song "Rosmarin"


Clefs that are on a different line than usual are called chiavettes . The various C-Keys have developed from this tradition, but the relocation of the other keys was also common in the past. Our modern bass clef actually emerged from a chiavette of the baritone clef.

In French baroque music , the G clef is often found on the lowest line (French treble clef). In addition, there is also the sub-bass clef in very early musical literature, which mainly appeared up to the 15th century. The latter looks like an ordinary bass clef, only this one is shifted up by a major third.

With J. S. Bach you can sometimes find chiavettes as an aid to transpositions , as in the following excerpt from his " Magnificat ", in which an oboe d'amore , whose sound is a third lower, is notated in the French treble clef (b), which means, Apart from the accidentals , the result is the same as with the sounding notation (a):


Octaving Keys

Treble clef octaved downwards Octaved treble clef Double octaved treble clef

Where chiavettes were previously used to avoid auxiliary lines , an italic, lowercase 8 is used above or below the key to indicate an octave in the respective direction. The treble clef, which octaves downwards, for example, is particularly common for the tenor voice . Often, however, the 8, especially when using old music notation programs that do not yet support this, is not specified, since tenor voices that are notated with the treble clef are usually sung an octave lower than notated anyway (countertenor and altus parts excluded) . These clefs are also rarely used for instruments that transpose an octave anyway , e.g. B. guitar (down octave treble clef), piccolo flute and soprano recorder (up octave treble clef) or double bass (down octave bass clef). Sometimes you will also find a 15 (less often a 16 ), which requires shifting by two octaves (the first note counts for the first octave, and seven notes are added for the second octave).


Tablature clef

With guitars and other plucked instruments there is the option of noting tabs instead of conventional notes . In this case a vertical " TAB " is usually written instead of a key. In this case, five staves are not necessarily used, but one line for each string of the instrument (six lines on the guitar). Numbers on the lines indicate in which fret the relevant string is to be picked.

The tablature notation has its origin in the old lute works of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance . To this day, lutenists often do not play according to modern notes, but according to - old or edited - tablatures.

Clef for diatonic accordion

Harmonica key for diatonic harmonica
The key for diatonic hand harmonica in SMuFL / Bravura

The diatonic accordion has a special notation as an alternating- tone instrument. This includes a separate clef, which looks similar to a lowercase h , for example . The clef and the notation for push and pull depend on the type of instrument and the publisher.

Drum key

Rectangular clef Two-note clef

One of the two keys shown is usually used for percussion instruments . There are different conventions as to which row represents which instrument. More on this in the article drum notation .

Representation in Unicode

The Unicode encodings for the clefs can be found in the Unicode block musical notation .

See also


  • Willi Apel : The notation of polyphonic music. 900-1600. 4th edition. Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 3-7651-0180-X .
  • Wieland Ziegenrücker: General music theory with questions and tasks for self-control. German Publishing House for Music, Leipzig 1977; Paperback edition: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, and Musikverlag B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1979, ISBN 3-442-33003-3 , pp. 20-23 ( Die Notenschüssel ).

Web links

Commons : Clef  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ RG Kiesewetter : The system of music keys . In: Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung . Volume 1, No. 135 , November 11, 1841, p. 561 ff., here: p. 562 ( digitized in the Google book search).