Why does the bass clef look like a question mark?

  • 5
    What reasons do you have for considering they are related? One has one dot, the other two. One only gets used in writing script, the other only in writing music.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:24
  • 5
    pareidolia would seem to be the answer here. Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 12:46
  • 7
    What? Why does fermata look like an eye? Why does bar repeat look like percentage mark? Why does repeat barline look like a sad face :|, because musicians become real sad when they see the repeat? Why does Alto Clef...etc. Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 5:54

4 Answers 4


It may look a bit like a question mark, but it's not the same thing, and they aren't related.

To understand the evolution of the clefs, we need to go back a bit in music history. Because of this, I'll actually be showing you some four-line clefs (as opposed to our modern clefs with five lines).

But we begin with the notion of a C clef: this literally puts a little "C" somewhere on the clef to tell you where the C is located:

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Following this logic, we can also have an F clef, which puts an F (or something like it) to show where the F is located. Here are three historical variations (not necessarily in chronological order):

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With this evolution in mind, I think you can see how we ultimately got to the present bass clef, clearly an F clef because the two dots surround the F:

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This F clef is convenient because the first ledger line is the middle C right in the middle of the piano's grand staff. For similar reasons, the treble clef is a G clef, so that its first ledger line below the staff is that same middle C.

  • Is it coincidental that F>C is a fifth and C>G is another fifth? Otherwise why would F in bass and G in treble be any more important than any other note?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:13
  • @Tim I was wondering the same thing as I wrote the answer, but I don't know. It's a great question!
    – Richard
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:15
  • 1
    The middle leggier line between the grand staff is c, build a triad up: CEG - and a triad down: CAF. This explains to me that the clefs are a 5th from C, what changes in all other clefs of course. Another aspect / story is that the clefs came up before the system of 5 lines and the position of the c-clef was changing ad libitum. Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 8:09
  • 1
    @AlbrechtHügli the F G and C clefs came into use centuries before the grand staff. The grand staff has nothing to do with it. (And the F and G clefs also appeared on different lines.)
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 21:56
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    @Tim: The G clef is a later invention and didn't come into common use until the 16th century. JS Bach's manuscripts for keyboard music generally use soprano clef and bass clef, NOT treble clef, on his grand staff. The reason F and C were the original clefs is because those notes are where (the top notes of) semitones are; the clefs indicated to the singer the special places in the scale. Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 22:57

To answer the 1. part of your question: If you think it looks like a question mark this your personal impression and association, and it can't be answered like you were asking: Why looks the letter F like a flag?

The second part is the conclusion of the 1. point: Not at all! They are not related and have nothing to do with each other.

Like Richard has shown the F-clef has been developed and transformed from the letter F which was the root tone of the mixolydian tetrachord.

Willi Apel describes it in his book


as following:

Here, as in many cases of manuscript music, the chief difficulty lies in the obscurity of the handwriting rather than in the intrinsic problems of notation. The clefs are those of modern practice, namely the G-clef in the upper staff, the F-clef in the lower one. The G-clef is a G with, a loop added whereas the F-clef is a sort of C followed by a sign which looks like two minims turned head to head. This shape is explained as a gradual transformation of the letter F. Here follow certain of the main forms of the F-clef, in chrono logical order.

enter image description here :

Riemann shows an even larger row of transformations of the F-Clef in his book:


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The bass clef is a letter F, which points to where the F note lies, i.e. the second line from the top.

In a similar way, the treble clef is a letter G which points to where the G note lies, i.e. the second line from the bottom.

  • The G clef comes from the letter G, not the letter S (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:G-Schluessel.png). When the clefs were invented, F could be fa or ut, and G could be sol, re, or ut.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 22:00
  • @phoog I stand corrected
    – MMazzon
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 7:58
  • I see you've edited the answer, but it's still not correct: "F" is not from "fa" any more than C, D, E, G, or A is from "ut," "re," "mi," "sol," or "la." (And you missed the "S" reference in the last sentence.) Perhaps Wikipedia's article on the Guidonian hand will help to clarify.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 16:24


They are completely different. A bass clef is a music symbol, and a question mark is a punctuation mark.

The bass clef is a symbol that indicates low pitched notes. The bass clef is placed at the beginning of a music staff to indicate that the following notes are written in the bass clef. It is also called the F-clef because it originated from a fancy letter "F", and the 2 dots of the bass clef surround the F line right below middle C in the bass staff.

A question mark is a punctuation mark that is used to end a question sentence.

So no, they are not related at all whatsoever.

  • User names are not case-sensitive, it seems. Commented May 10, 2021 at 11:43

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