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I'm working on a composition that I can't help but to use the C-Clef because it renders neater on paper. This one switched to treble clef twice. But this would be a mess with bass clef and treble clef switching much too often, and I'd still end up with tons of ledger lines.

Hardwritten piano score incorporating C clefs

I know for piano, treble and bass clefs are the standard, but is there a good use case for using the C-Clef? Is it fair to encourage or challenge pianists to learn how to read in other clefs, or is it controversial? Has any composer written piano music with clefs other than treble or bass?

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  • 8
    Tiny point, but C flat in the key signature in the top line needs to be B flat.
    – Tim
    May 13 at 9:16
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    "Has any composer written piano music with clefs other than treble or bass?": It was standard practice in earlier centuries, when keyboard players were expected to be able to read all standard clefs. Most of Bach's harpsichord music has the upper staff in soprano clef, and I suppose the same would be true of most German keyboard music of the period. But modern pianists generally aren't trained to read C clefs, and using them will reduce the number of performances of your music, probably very significantly.
    – phoog
    May 13 at 12:20
  • To add to above comment - in earlier centuries, the clef pointed to the note, but it wasn't always the middle line (alto clef like in your sample) or the tenor clef (same symbol but line above) and the "F"(bass)/"C"/"G"(treble) clef signs could point anywhere.
    – freedomn-m
    May 13 at 16:20
  • @phoog I came here to include that in an answer. I think you should convert it!
    – Richard
    May 13 at 16:34
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    In addition to the suggestion below to split the right hand between staves, you could also use three staves. It's probably not necessary given the simplicity of the middle & lower voices, but it's an option to keep in mind. May 13 at 16:54
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I don't think a C-clef is necessary.

Consider using the treble clef for the top staff, and leaving the upper voice here.
Put the middle voice with the lower, in the bottom staff in bass clef.
If the middle voice gets very high, you can move it from the bottom staff to the top staff.

upper voice: top staff with treble clef, middle and lower voices: bottom staff with bass clef

This gives at most two ledger lines, which is not many at all. If you think you need to indicate the the middle voice is to be played with the right hand, mark it with m.d.

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    'm.d.' = main droit?
    – Tim
    May 13 at 9:18
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    Yes, m.d. = main droite (French), or mano destra (Italian). Or I guess you could use R.H. = right hand (English) May 13 at 9:53
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    Whoops, looks like I missed those D-flats in the first bar ... (why are there D-flats in the upper voice, and a C-sharp in the lower, sounding at the same time anyway?) May 13 at 10:02
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    You can also use those └ ┘symbols around the right-hand part on the lower staff to make it more clear that the m.d. only applies to those notes. May 13 at 15:57
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    Yeah, this version is extremely readable. As a pianist, I'm pretty comfortable reading up to 3.5 ledger lines (eg, an A above middle C in the left hand). Far better than using vb in the treble clef. If I saw a piece with an alto clef, I'd laugh and throw it in the too hard basket. May 13 at 22:05
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Pianists don't read C clefs. A great majority flatly don't know how, and most of the ones that can (because they play an instrument that reads them) are completely unpracticed at it for piano. It's only the rare person who regularly sight-reduces orchestral scores on piano who would be able to play this.

Don't ever use 8va in bass clef or 8vb in treble, as others have suggested. Pianists are comfortable with several ledger lines and don't mind clef changes.

@Elements_in_Space's answer is fine, but you should also favor keeping right hand material in the top staff and left hand material in the bottom staff unless there's a compelling reason not to, and 3 ledger lines is perfectly fine, so I would slightly prefer:

Rendering of mm.1-4

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    In my opinion this is much more readable than the one that splits right hand over the two staves
    – ojs
    May 14 at 10:02
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A C clef is unusual for piano. A C clef is also only one note below treble clef written 8vb or one note above bass clef written 8va. If you want to avoid ledger lines I think choice #2 is better since you don’t want 8ve symbols between the staffs (you learn something new every day @MattPutnam). Having your music played properly and written in a way that is comfortable for pianists is more important than encouraging or challenging players with something unusual in your music.

EDIT: Thanks to @Elements_in_Space for providing notation for my answer. Mickael, on your original score you go to treble clef briefly a few times but I don’t think that is necessary, notice he (or she?) didn’t do it in bars 6-7. There are not many ledger lines and staying 8va maintains the visual shape of the line better.

top staff with bass clef 8va

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    Yes, 8va / 8vb is generally the way to go for piano when the standard clefs don't fit well. For different instruments, the milage may vary. May 13 at 11:21
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    I think your answer would be stronger with an image. I tried it out, and it looks like it might be better than my suggestion. Would you like me to attach an image to your answer of the score with 8vb in the treble clef? May 13 at 14:17
  • @ElementsinSpace You’re welcome to but since your answer was already accepted you can also incorporate it into yours as an edit/option if you like, your choice. May 13 at 16:03
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    Do not ever use 8vb in treble clef or 8va in bass clef. This is incredibly weird. Pianists can easily read 3 or 4 ledger lines, and don't mind frequently switching clefs.
    – MattPutnam
    May 13 at 17:53
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    @RosieF I don't advocate for using the C clef, ever, in piano music. I advocate for using 8vb when it clears up the score, since even when done in an uncommon way there is no plausible reason why this should pose a problem for any disciplined pianist. May 14 at 9:10
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The reason to write in C clef is the one you've come up with: the notes fit better on the staff. That's how clefs came into being — so that the core range of a particular voice (or instrument) fits nicely within five lines and spaces.

Piano music doesn't use C clef, and pianists will snarl at you for using it, though some are able to read it — usually pianists who work as professional accompanists or who read orchestral scores.

Pianists are, however, very used to ledger lines above and below the treble and bass clefs. Less experienced pianists might complain a bit; more experienced ones won't give it a second thought. If necessary, to avoid excessive ledger lines or collisions with a staff above or below the current one, the ottava (8va-----) is used.

For your own purposes in writing out a score, using C clef is fine. But before giving it to someone to play, it would be much better to enter it into notation software, which will handle the spacing issues that can come up.

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Richard suggested that I convert my comment to an answer. Most of the key points are well addressed elsewhere, but I will repeat them here for the sake of completeness.

is there a good use case for using the C clef?

Absolutely. The problem is that keyboard culture has evolved to the point that the benefits of using C clefs are seen to be outweighed by the benefits of using only the treble and bass clefs and learning to read ledger lines.

Is it fair to encourage or challenge pianists to learn how to read in other clefs, or is it controversial?

It is both fair and uncontroversial. The problem is that it is also fair for pianists to refuse to accept the challenge, and that is what almost all of them will do. Further, it is uncontroversial because everyone more or less agrees that there's no reason for pianists to learn to play from notation that uses C clefs. As I noted on my comment, writing your piece with a C clef "will reduce the number of performances of your music, probably very significantly."

Has any composer written piano music with clefs other than treble or bass?

Absolutely, and this part of the question is the main reason for adding this answer. Most of Bach's harpsichord music uses the soprano clef for the upper staff. I'm less familiar with the music of his contemporaries, but I imagine that this was standard practice in northern Germany at the time. I don't know whether it was also standard practice elsewhere, or when it changed.

I do know that the use of C clefs for choral parts diminished beginning in the late 18th century, disappearing altogether probably some time in the late 19th century. This probably coincided with a rise in the prevalence of amateur musicianship, meaning that more people with less musical training were reading music, whether in the home or in choral societies. In Bach's day, a professional keyboard player would be expected to be able to read at least five clefs, namely the treble, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. But professional keyboard players wouldn't generally be trained as keyboard players. They were trained as musicians, to sing and to play a variety of other instruments in addition to keyboards, especially strings.

The fact that keyboard music would use any clef in those days brings to mind another point: it's not particularly remarkable these days to see piano music with two bass clefs or two treble clefs.

When I first saw Elements in Space's answer suggesting putting part of the right hand part in the bass clef, I thought it seemed reasonable, and probably the best solution. But then I saw Matt Putnam's answer showing the right hand entirely in the treble clef, and it really does look entirely normal. Using the tenor F and E on the third ledger line below the treble staff is really completely unremarkable. Steve Bennett wrote in a comment that he is "pretty comfortable reading up to 3.5 ledger lines (eg, an A above middle C in the left hand)." This is true of most pianists.

In fact, when I was learning alto clef, doing score reading exercises years ago, I would often visualize the bottom three lines of the alto staff as the first three ledger lines below the treble staff. That is, the three ledger lines were the familiar thing that I related the alto clef to in order to familiarize myself with it.

It's a pain to write music like that by hand, drawing all those ledger lines. But who prepares performance materials by hand these days? Write your working score in alto clef if you like. Do whatever's easiest for you. You can even enter it that way into the computer to reduce the likelihood of errors, and then let the computer convert it to treble clef. But in general, when choosing clefs for a performance score, it's probably best to start by putting the piano part into a normal grand staff with treble and bass clefs, without octave transposition, and then adjusting only if it's difficult to read like that.

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  • Really glad you added this!
    – Richard
    May 16 at 22:59
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Also note that the G-F combo has a nice property: If you draw a line between them, that is the exact same note in both cases, C4, forming a continuum.

Not that it matters for modern piano music, but if you check older renaissance scores, they could have way more than 5 lines and put several clefs on them, making said continuum explicit. This was probably a desired feature at some point.

Here is a beautiful example by Frescobaldi (source), featuring 6 lines on the upper system (G clef) and 8 lines on the lower (what seems to be 2 stacked F and C clefs). The 2 stacked clefs hint at this idea of having a continuum in which the interpreter would benefit from having multiple anchor points.

enter image description here

On a slightly related note, I think there was research showing that humans are only able to instantly count up to 4 items in a bundle without having to think and keep track, while many other primates retain this ability to much higher numbers. To me 8 lines look definitely confusing, but that may be lack of training.

Cheers!
Andres

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There was a bird zoo called something like "Bird Land" or "Bird World". It used signs with the outline of a parrot on it. The standard notation for a Zoo is an outline of an elephant, so some committee wanted to change the signs.

Any standard notation is a simplification and an information loss because they use general symbols to represent specific instances, in the hope they will be understood by others. Some times the standard should be challenged: I think "Bird Land" did the right thing with their parrot signs.

In your case, it may have helped to stick the 'right hand' in the tenor clef when you wrote the thing. I used to play viola, and yet the idea of reading tenor and bass clef does my head in bigtime, which is a sign the notation is not doing its job of conveying the music in your head to me. Your music can be written in the conventional clefs, as others have shown. It still looks like 'left-hand right-hand' music either way - you are not doing a Thalberg and pretending to have more hands then you have coming out of your sleeves. Maybe the right compromise would be to use the tenor clef as a builder uses scaffolding: use it to create, but take it down when you are done.

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