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Whats a clef? February 17, 2009

Posted by mumudsokay in Music.
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A clef is a symbol used at the beginning of a musical staff to tell the reader which letter name goes with which line or space. The word clef didn’t show up until around the middle 1500s. Clef is a French word that means key, as in, “Hey man, what key are we in?” In early music, a letter was written at the beginning of the text of a plainchant (remember monophonic music on page 19?). The letter told the singer which note to start on. Around 1000 AD some bright soul thought to draw a line from the letter all the way across the page. Then Guido di Arezzo added more lines and we had our staff. Over time, composers made that beginning letter more and more fancy until it no longer looked like a letter at all. That was probably when somebody in France in the middle of the 1500s decided to call them clefs. There are several different kinds of clefs: C clefs, treble clef, bass clef, and rhythm clef (also called the percussion clef). We’ll only be learning the three most common ones: treble clef, bass clef, and the rhythm clef. Each clef has something which shows the letter name of one line. Because you now know how letter names are used in music (A through G, right?), you can figure out what all the other letters are for that staff once you know the name of one line. I’ll show you how when we look at each clef in its own chapter. For now, just remember a clef points to and names one line of the staff. I’ll show you all the gory details when we go over each clef in its own chapter.

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