Music theory > Lessons > Pitch of sounds > Clefs > Relation between clefs

Relation between clefs

If you consider a virtual 11 lines staff united states of america (stave united kingdom), clefs are positioned like this:

Relation between clefs

All notes on the example above are in fact the same note, the same pitch, these notes are sounding the same, they all are a C note.

But why so many clefs? There are three main explanations:

Clefs can be used to avoid ledger lines because music notes with too much ledger lines are difficult to read for the musician:

A note in bass clef and in treble clef

As far as possible, the clefs correspond to the registers of instruments. For example, the viola use the alto clef:

Clef for the viola

Musical notation has often been dedicated to voice, and if there was only one clef, the treble clef for example, it would look like this with a 5 lines staff:

Vocal register

And with an 11 lines staff it wouldn't be much better:

Vocal register

So each voice had a different clef in the past:

Soprano voiceSoprano clefSoprano clef
Mezzo-soprano voiceMezzo-soprano clefMezzo-soprano clef
Alto voiceAlto clefAlto clef
Tenor voiceTenor clefTenor clef
Baritone voiceBaritone clefBaritone clef
Bass voiceBass clefBass clef

Like this:

Vocal register

Nowadays, the use of clefs has been simplified:

Soprano voiceTreble clefTreble clef
Mezzo-soprano voiceTreble clefTreble clef
Alto voiceTreble clefTreble clef
Tenor voiceTreble clef (performed one octave lower)Actual treble clef for tenor voices
Baritone voiceBass clefBass clef
Bass voiceBass clefBass clef

Relation between treble clef and bass clef

The relation between treble clef and bass clef is very simple: The C note below the staff in treble clef is the same music note that the C note above the staff in bass clef.

Relation between the treble clef and the bass clef

A special case about the horn players

There was a time when the bass clef was written an octave too low compared to modern notation, here is an example in Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) by Richard Wagner with a horn solo performed by the eighth horn, specialist in very low pitched sounds:

This musical sample from Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold prelude was recorded in 1959 by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti (source, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 US license).

Here is what the horn player sees on his score, the horn score is in E flat, and he must transpose his score, but it is his job, everybody has problems in his life :

Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, eight horn solo

But the score in bass clef is written an octave too low, with modern notation the hornist should read this:

Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, eight horn solo

Which corresponds in concert pitch to this:

Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, eight horn solo

What an amazing instrument, isn't it?

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