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Analyzing by two parameters, polyphony and range, music written for guitar should use two clefs, G and F. Usually, solo guitar has a polyphonic expression. Writing two melodies in a single stave could seem ambiguous and/or hard to read. More, the basic range of guitar (until fifth fret) adapts easily to the clef F. For analogy, the brass instrument euphonium has a similar range of a spanish guitar and it's really awful, in usual terms, to write music for it in G clef (disregarding taking advantage of the musical education of the person or group).

So, why are guitar pieces written only in G clef? Ok... certainly there are exceptions (I've heard about the existence of composers that have written music for spanish guitar in two clefs, but I've never seen such pieces). Anyway and again, what are the cultural, historical reasons for writing music for guitar using only G clef?

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    Hope I could offer you a better answer, but I'm not an expert. I guess it could be related to the fact that the classical guitar, using standar tuning, defines 5th string in A pitch, and this A, following Stuttgart pitch, is defined as audio frequency of 440 Hz. This pitch corresponds to the staff place between the 2nd and 3rd lines with G clef, so it seems that this could be a reason to use mainly this clef. My apologies if I've missed something. Dec 3, 2021 at 12:42
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    @DaveMiller - The only string in standard tuning that is tuned to A is, in fact, tuned to the A at 110 Hz, not 440 Hz (notated in guitar music as the A below Middle C, actually sounds 1 octave below that). In fact, every single open string in standard tuning sounds below 440 Hz.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 3, 2021 at 13:38
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    I'd bet a lot it has to do with conventions put in place quite early in its history. However, looking at the very earliest name that springs to my mind in guitar history, Gaspar Sanz's 1674 method book, I think what I'm seeing that isn't tab or alfabeto is F clef! But I'm not sure enough about the tuning to say for sure (maybe it's reentrant tuning?). Dec 3, 2021 at 15:30
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    Upvoting because I'd love to hear from someone with either more time or existing knowledge than me about the historical journey, I presume from tab to G clef. Meanwhile, Daniel, the question of "why not multiple staffs" is kind of a separate question. It's almost an accident of evolution that piano wound up with a "grand staff" of two lines at all. I imagine that, while polyphonic, guitar has been less contrapuntal through its history, e.g. more often 2 voices than 4. Dec 3, 2021 at 15:36
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    (By the way, maybe there's a translation issue in the sentence about euphonium: "It's really creep". —hable español? Creep significa algo horripilante, o quisas alguien asqueroso o sinestro. Dec 3, 2021 at 15:44

3 Answers 3

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First point is that the guitar is actually producing sounds one octave lower than the dots on the G (treble) clef show. Using that clef, and standard tuning, there is only the need for three ledger lines ever to be used at the low end.

The majority of 'trebly - type' instruments will use the treble clef, so it's the better known one for most potential players, and obviously started off life in guitar music thus, and there was no great need to change. Otherwise it probably would have!

There is also no necessity to use a C clef, when the treble clef does the job pretty well.

'Writing two melodies...' I don't understand that, but it happens a lot with piano music, and the 'problem' is solve using up/down stems.

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    If I understand the question correctly, I think "writing two melodies" would be better solved with grand staff than one staff with bass clef. (Some lute music is written on grand staff.)
    – Theodore
    Dec 3, 2021 at 16:02
  • My english is too poor to construct clearly this question. Ok, the treble clef is a octave lower for guitars, but yet, there is no need of this. In few words, it's seem better write music in two clefs/stem/staff (sorry for my limited english), than writing the full guitar music (with two, three or more voices) in a single staff (like done for piano!). Such appointment you raise up ("... there is only the need for three ledger lines..."), in my point of view, is only a side effect, not a reason to use single G clef. Dec 4, 2021 at 10:53
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    Writing music in two clefs is basically for instruments with four or more octaves. Guitars use mainly up to three, although a lot of electrics now have four. It's much easier to read (and write) music using just one clef, and the treble does that admirably. There's just no need to havee both clefs - and it saves paper and ink !
    – Tim
    Dec 4, 2021 at 10:58
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    Yes. The bulk of guitar music fits quite nicely on a (octave down) treble clef, which is much more familiar than tenor clef, the next best fit. It's the same reason tenor voices are almost always notated nowadays in octave down treble clef. Whatever works. Dec 4, 2021 at 12:55
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The answer to the question "why" is obviously that it's historical convention. I'm not sure if it can be easily answered. In baroque lute music was still often notated in tabulature. What can be answered is why using G-clef makes sense.

  1. G-clef is the most popular, and thus the easiest to read by most musicians.

  2. As Tim pointed out, guitar transposes an octave down. Low E on the 6th string is below the third line added below the staff, and high E on the 12th fret of the 1st string is on the third line added above the staff. Lot's of classical guitar repertoire fits in this range, which makes G-clef very feasible to use.

typical range used in classical guitar compositions

  1. Two voices can be easily distinguished by the stem direction. In fact, lot's of solo guitar repertoire uses three voices, sometimes even four. With correct use of stems, pauses and other notation elements it's normally straightforward to read. See this example of Tarregá's ¡Marieta! using three voices:

First measure from Tárrega's ¡Marieta!

  1. Guitar differs from piano. It's not a fixed rule, but often each piano staff corresponds to each hand, so they are quite independent. On guitar all notes must be fretted by one hand, and plucked by another. The guitarist must translate all the voices into a single pattern for each hand. Having all voices notated on the same staff gives a good overview of what to play.

A counter example could be notation for a guitarist playing two melody lines with two handed tapping. In such case two hands operate independently and notating music on two staves may make sense, as in this example:

two handed tapping guitar notation

https://magazyngitarzysta.pl/warsztat/lekcje/tapping/3957-tapping-50-manifest-fulary-cz-2

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  • The argument about dependencies of voices in the guitar to write in one clef is really amazing! Thank you too much for this! Of course is legible writing two voices in a single voices in many situations. But a fact is that is harder to read for a general case. Some times could bring unavoidable confusion (in black and write printing, at least). For clarity, a voice/a staff proportion is better. I don't think that arguments 1., 2. and 3. argue in favor G clef for guitars, any way. They are interesting observations, not justifications. In fact, argument 4 was the most amazing I've ever heard!!! Dec 10, 2021 at 19:05
  • @DanielBandeira Point 1. means using a popular standard, that's always convenient. Point 2. means optimal use of the staff space and limited use of ledger lines. In point 3: I agree that writing multiple voices on multiple staves is more clear, but I argue it's not so bad in a single staff. So it's a reasonable compromise. Dec 11, 2021 at 23:39
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Because out of the three octaves a acoustic guitars normal range consists of only six notes are below middle-c. All of the rest of the range is above middle-c. The bass clef does not make sense and the c clefs is also unfit.

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  • It's not true. Four from the six opened notes (standard tuning) fit well in F clef. The G clef of a guitar is a octave lower than normal. Dec 13, 2021 at 1:52

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