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There are several instruments that have music written for them primarily in bass clef, but commonly change to tenor clef for a higher passages. In particular, I am interested in:

  • Bassoon
  • Trombone
  • Euphonium, Tuba
  • Cello, & Contrabass

While changing clefs does reduce leger lines, I don't believe that this is a good reason to use the tenor clef. The tenor clef is better used to indicate a higher register of the instrument is being employed — this is a more functional and meaningful use of notation.

My question goes to when is it appropriate to use the tenor clef:
(For each instrument) What are the functionally useful register boundaries (to change clef), and how are these determined?

Theses boundaries will not be at identical points for each instrument, but there should be some kind of rule. For wind and brass instruments: something to do with which partial is being employed. For string instruments: something to do with the hand position and the strings being used.

I understand that for brass and string instruments there will be some overlap in the registers due to alternative fingerings/positions for many notes.

(Obviously a musical phrase may span across these boundaries — so compromises will be made to avoid changing clef within a phrase. But I wish to consider the ideal placement of a single note/pitch, with a particular fingering/position.)

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    I don't consider it helpful , to establish new rules where tenor clef should be used and where not, because probably nobody will care. A somewhat common strategy I observe is, to avoid tenor clef for beginner/lower intermediate pieces (stage 1) at least below middle line a (stage 2). The term register on its own is too blurry to imply exact boundaries (at least for bassoon) and criticism on an unusual application of tenor clef will likely be considered as lack of training to read it.
    – guidot
    Nov 1, 2021 at 22:31
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    You are looking for rules that don't exist. Tenor clef is used so the player doesn't have to read a lot of ledger lines. The change is made wherever convenient.
    – PiedPiper
    Nov 1, 2021 at 22:51
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    In over 20 years old playing in UK brass bands (across all sections), I have never encountered anything but treble clef for any instrument except, occaisionally, trombone.
    – Neil
    Nov 2, 2021 at 12:16
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    @Neil — British brass bands write their music transposed into treble clef (except for bass trombone), they do this because it is more functional for that context. That's fine, but I am talking about music for orchestra, where bass clef instruments generally don't transpose. Nov 2, 2021 at 16:05
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    orchestrationonline.com/cello-registers-as-defined-by-clefs Here's a post on a websites by a professional orchestrator/composer/orchestration instructor which mentions how tenor clef is supposed to be used in cello parts (in his opinion, at least). Search around in the "Orchestration Tips" section of the site and you may be able to find some more tips on how and when to use tenor clef while writing for other instruments
    – Divide1918
    Nov 3, 2021 at 8:51

6 Answers 6

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Don't over-think this. Go into tenor clef when there's a substantial section of music that would otherwise need an annoying number of ledger lines.

Note that while orchestral trombone players are fine with tenor clef, commercial and jazz parts should stick to bass clef, 'telegraph poles' notwithstanding. Violinists and flautists also prefer ledger lines to 8va lines. In fact, no-one in the orchestra really appreciates 8va lines. The only instrument that really tolerates them is piano. From necessity, I guess. There's the potential for LOTS of ledger lines on a 7-octave piano.

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    @Richard Guessing - a massively ridiculous pile of ledger lines, above or below the stave, such that the player has to stop and count them to figure out the note ?
    – Criggie
    Nov 2, 2021 at 8:57
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    If there's that many ledger lines required, you'd probably want to use an 8va (or even 15va) to improve readability... Nov 2, 2021 at 13:30
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    @DarrelHoffman: IMO, 8va and 15va signs are generally worse than lots of ledger lines when writing parts for wind instruments. Particularly for woodwinds, there's not a lot of commonality between the physical actions required to hit a particular note and the same pitch one (or two) octaves up. Nov 2, 2021 at 14:18
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    But there IS a lot of commonality between the octaves on piano, hence that is one instrument that does appreciate 8va markings
    – nuggethead
    Nov 2, 2021 at 19:56
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    @nuggethead So similarly, vibraphones, celestas, xylophones, marimbas, and harps would appreciate 8va?
    – Divide1918
    Nov 3, 2021 at 8:54
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As you have noted, the use of the tenor clef in a score depends on the conventions for each instrument. Some instrument parts will have more frequent use of the tenor clef; others, almost none at all.

For a more thorough answer to this question, let's reference some passages from Alan Boustead's excellent book Writing Down Music. Boustead, when referring to music for the cello, writes:

The cello uses three clefs, principally the bass clef, though most A string music fits better in the tenor clef. For the extreme upper range the treble clef is used, but it should be avoided if the tenor clef plus a few leger lines can be used instead; constant jumping from one clef to another must be avoided at all costs.

A little further on, when referencing Double Bass music, Boustead notes:

The double bass uses the same three clefs as the cello, though sounding an octave lower than written; the use of the tenor and treble clefs is much rarer.

With regards to Bassoon and Contrabassoon parts, Alan Boustead tells us:

for both bassoon and double bassoon should be written in the bass clef wherever possible (the tenor clef is never really necessary for the double bassoon because of the limit to its upward range). Three leger lines present no trouble to a player, though passages such as the opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring must obviously be written in the tenor clef.

Finally, for trombones, Boustead recommends:

For orchestral purposes parts are written in either the bass or, less often, the tenor clef; [...] The general tessitura of the part will determine which clef is more suitable; a mixture of the two should be avoided if possible—an occasional high B♭ written in the bass clef is easily read, though if the part stays that high for any length of time, of course, the tenor clef should be used.

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    I've seen treble clef used by Ravel for both trombone and bassoon in orchestral scores, but I suspect that was to economise on space for the ledger lines. I've not seen the parts so don't know what clef the player actually sees. Also I've seen treble clef used for double-basses, mostly for high harmonics, and it's not always clear whether they sound at written pitch or an octave lower.
    – Peter
    Nov 2, 2021 at 12:17
  • All good points, but the question specifically references the tenor clef, so I limited my answer to that clef.
    – brettv
    Nov 2, 2021 at 16:24
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    @bretty Fair enough. I though it was worth while mentioning that there are other options (also alto clef for trombone which was very common while alto trombones were in use).
    – Peter
    Nov 3, 2021 at 10:47
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    "an occasional high B♭ written in the bass clef is easily read" more easily read than played, anyhow :)
    – MadHatter
    Nov 3, 2021 at 14:56
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Answer for cello

Use the tenor clef for parts that would require awkwardly many ledger lines in bass clef, but that you don't expect to be played in thumb position. As soon as thumb position is used, treble clef is generally easier to read, because you don't think in terms of what-the-note-would-be-in-bass-clef-and-then-one-string-up anymore, but rather in terms of one octave up, and then the tenor clef isn't helpful.

Note that this means a part that is best played with thumb on the middle harmonic on the G- and D strings should be notated in treble clef, even if it doesn't go higher than G4. Meanwhile, a part that's played mostly in ordinary 4th position should be notated in tenor clef, even if it reaches up to A4 and doesn't go so low that it would be a problem to write it in treble clef.

A clear example of good clefs are the Haydn concertos. The first movement of Concerto 1 contains this passage:

A passage that's written in treble clef despite having low notes

One could think that this would be an obvious fit for tenor clef, as with those down ledger lines it's apparently rather too low for treble. But no: this is precisely an example that lies very naturally in the thumb position on the G- and D strings, and is therefore easiest read in treble clef.

Later in the movement you have this

A passage that's written in tenor clef despite having high notes

That may look like it's too high for tenor clef, yet this is the right choice here because much of it is best played in lower positions on the A-string.

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    A little extra explanation: Note that tenor clef is exactly a fifth up from bass clef. This means a cellist reading a note in tenor clef can just imagine that note in bass clef, figure out where they'd play the imagined note on the D string, and then play it in the same place on the A string instead. Nov 2, 2021 at 0:19
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    You can't expect non-string players to know when you are going to use thumb position, particularly as there seem to be passages that can be played either way.
    – PiedPiper
    Nov 2, 2021 at 9:03
  • There is no rule other than the composer's or typesetter's personal preference. Nov 2, 2021 at 15:14
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    @AlexanderWoo that way lies madness. As a cellist I strongly recommend against doing that. Nov 2, 2021 at 15:15
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    Is there any rule of thumb to identify when thumb positions might be used, for non string players? And why is it that thumb position makes cellists think one octave up?
    – Divide1918
    Nov 3, 2021 at 9:15
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brettv's answer drawing from Alan Boustead's book is a good one. For comparison, here is the advice given by Elaine Gould in Behind Bars. All of the below quotes concern orchestral parts; conventions for wind ensemble and brass band may differ. (Tenor clef is much rarer in wind ensemble parts in my experience, and brass band music puts almost everything in transposed treble clef.)


In general:

Stay in one clef for as long as is practicable, using up to at least three ledger lines rather than changing clef frequently. This shows the contour of the pitches, which a change of clef would obscure. (p. 7)

Cello & Double Bass:

Cello and double bass appear in the bass clef primarily, with the tenor clef for a higher range and the treble clef for even higher notes. ... Use the lowest-pitched clef where possible: allow two or three ledger lines above the stave before moving to a higher-pitched clef. In the treble and tenor clefs, notes occurring towards the bottom of the stave, or below it, are difficult to read (the player is unaccustomed to reading them); such notes should move to a lower-pitched clef. (p. 393)

Bassoons:

The bassoon appears in the bass clef and, for high passages, the tenor clef. Some players prefer to read a very high part (e.g. going up to E, a tenth above middle C) in the treble clef, rather than having several ledger lines in the tenor clef. Consult the individual player before using the treble clef. The contrabassoon may move into the tenor clef for high passages. Do not write low notes in the tenor clef (this sometimes occurs when a second bassoon part is copied directly from a score in which the first two player share a stave). (p. 255)

Trombone & Tuba:

The tenor trombone uses the tenor and bass clefs – high notes should not be written in the treble clef. A second trombone part that shares a stave with the first trombone in a score may lie low in the tenor clef; when the part is extracted, it should be transferred to the bass clef to avoid low tenor-clef notes. A part written specifically for the alto trombone should use the alto clef (except for pedal notes, which require the bass clef). Bass trombone and tuba use the bass clef only. In a performance part, the lowest notes of the tuba should use ledger lines rather than an octave sign. (p. 262)

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For the double bass, tenor clef is unnecessary, a bit old fashioned, and should be avoided.

There are two common approaches used in published double bass arrangements:

  1. Use three clefs: bass, tenor and treble.

  2. Use two clefs: bass and treble.

To be clear, both approaches exist in published classical music. There are plenty of arrangements that use tenor clef. There are plenty of classical arrangements that don't use tenor clef and just use bass and treble. For example, I own two copies of Bottesini's Reverie, one uses bass, tenor and treble clefs; the other uses only bass and treble.

Outside of classical music, tenor clef is alien and mustn't be used.

That said, just because both approaches are common, it doesn't mean they are equally as good.

The theoretical advantage of tenor clef is that it reduces the number of ledger lines. In reality, bassists are very comfortable reading ledger lines in bass clef up to an A (3½ ledger lines). At that point you should be using treble clef anyway regardless of if you are using tenor clef or not.

There are two main disadvantages. The first is that the double bass is a true multi-genre instrument. Bassists come to the instrument from many different paths. While all professional classically-trained bassists can read tenor clef fluently, when it comes to amateurs or jazz bassists moonlighting in their local orchestra, they may be uncomfortable reading tenor clef.

The second disadvantage is conceptual and physical. The bass has two registers: normal position and thumb position. When parts use two clefs, the convention is to use bass clef for normal position, and treble clef for thumb position. This communicates useful information to the player because when they see the treble clef they start to think about switching positions. Switching between positions is a large physical arm movement on the double bass!

When tenor clef is used, especially if it's a poor arrangement, the transition between normal position and thumb position may occur within a tenor clef passage. So we have lost that big sign that says "it's time to think about switching". This, for me, is much more important than the ledger lines.

In what ranges should you use bass and treble clefs?

  • E2 to Db4 is bass clef only zone.

  • D4 to G4 is the transition zone. Bassists can play these in either position, depending on context. For example, for slower passages, we would usually prefer to exit thumb position and play on the G string because it sounds clearer and more sonorous - bass strings are much thicker than cello strings. For faster passages, this is not possible so we will stay in thumb position and go across to the D or even A string.

  • G#4 upwards is thumb position zone, and therefore you should use treble clef for this register.

(these are all written pitch, not sounding pitch)

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The bass actually has a "secret" third register, which is playing upper harmonics. While the use of this register is usually only found in solo works, the convention is to use treble clef and an 8va for this register.

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FWIW, Walter Piston's Orchestration has 'clefs' sections for cello and double bass, and for bassoon and trombone ranges are listed in notation using bass and tenor clefs. The only explanation for the use of differing clefs is the avoidance of ledger lines. No mention of strings, position, timbral ranges, etc. explaining the use of clefs. Essentially Piston gives the same explanation as in the two other answers quoting Gould and Boustead.

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