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There are a lot of clefs: G, F, and many C clefs. And it is not trivial to read some clef is you are familiar with another one. I think music comprehension would be made easier if we only used one type of clef. To be precise, I propose to teach just one clef (I don't care which one, but I will use the treble clef for examples below) and use only that clef and its octave variants. For treble clef, these would be suboctave (sounding octave lower than written), superoctave (sounding octave higher than written), sub15th, etc. Some of these are already rarely used: enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

I think this usage would help when learning a new instrument (switching from violin to viola, from recorder to piano, etc.). Furthermore, it would ease reading scores with a lot of instruments and picking out the chordal relationships quicker.

From my quick research, I have found the following arguments for the use of many different clefs.

  1. Different clefs reduce the number of ledger lines. Counter: By construction, you will be at most a 4th away from any other clef by using the closest octave clef. This seems quite enough, as most instruments have bigger ranges than the 11th spanned by the 5 staff lines and will often use ledger lines anyway. Incidentally, the alto clef is only a 2nd away from the sub8 treble clef and the tenor clef is a 2nd away from it in the other direction.

  2. Octave clefs are difficult to distinguish from each other (the 8 on top/bottom is easy to miss). Counter: Well, make them distinguishable. For example, instead of the regular treble clef, put an embellished G4. Instead of superoctave treble clef, put G5 etc.

  3. For historical reasons, we have a lot of scores using different clefs. Counter: I think people that can read the other clefs will have little trouble reading octave clefs, so we just need to make the switch and print all new scores using octave clefs. People will get used to octave clefs and forget about the others.

  4. Due to wind instrument fingerings, we have transposing parts, which is close to equivalent to writing in a different clef. I am not a wind player myself, so it is hard for me to judge how hard/impractical it would be to avoid these conventions.

So, am I missing something? I have seen some steps towards this simplification, e.g., alto singers no longer using alto clef (for a long time) and orchestra scores being available in concert pitch (much more recent).

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    Implementing what you propose would be a tremendous effort, and you would end up with a notation that still has a number of issues of historical origin, e.g., why the key of C is easier to read than Gb? Why (in treble clef) E4 lies on the line, but E5 between the lines? Anyway, I don't think this is a right forum to ask such question. Mar 14, 2023 at 2:19
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    I’m not sure what your question is. Is it really just “am I missing something?” I mean, you’re not missing any good reasons to keep using clefs. You might be missing some skills in sight reading and reading orchestral scores that might make you want to keep using the traditional clefs. You can write your music however you want but people are going to keep learning clefs so they can read the existing literature, which is vast and valuable. Mar 14, 2023 at 2:20
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    Also “I think people that can read the other clefs will have little trouble reading octave clefs,” false. Why would you think this? “we just need to make the switch and print all new scores using octave clefs. People will get used to octave clefs and forget about the others”. I don’t think any part of that is going to work out like you think. Mar 14, 2023 at 2:22
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    "Why don't we ___, it would make so much more sense" questions are often answered simply by "because that's the way we've been doing it, and there's inertia to overcome if one wanted to impose a new system." We could notate pitch and duration in millions of other ways, we could notate dynamics more mathematically, etc. It's like the QWERTY keyboard—yes, Dvorak is better, but everybody learns qwerty because... well, because everyone learns qwerty. And at some point, accommodating common practice isn't just obstinate, it's "net efficient." Mar 14, 2023 at 13:03
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    I've voted to reopen this question. It has attracted a number of answers supported by objective facts, belying the observation that it is opinion based.
    – phoog
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:08

3 Answers 3

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Different clefs reduce the number of ledger lines. Counter: By construction, you will be at most a 4th away from any other clef by using the closest octave clef.

It's easy to find an arrangement of clefs (in your case the octave clefs) that can encompass a wide range, but the clef used for an instrument should reduce the number of ledger lines when playing in the normal range for the instrument.

I play cello, so I'll use that as an example. The image below shows the range an average cellist would normally expect to find: the lowest note (C2), middle C (C4 - in blue), and 4th position (G4). If I used a sub15 clef, I end up with more ledger lines.

enter image description here

Using octave clefs would also add a lot of useless lines to instruments such as the piano. There's no point replacing the bass clef with a suboctave clef if all the notes above the suboctave middle C could just be written in the upper stave. The clefs on the piano are arranged in a way that their ranges do not overlap.

Furthermore, it would ease reading scores with a lot of instruments and picking out the chordal relationships quicker.

Once again this depends on the instrument.

Below are the 4 open strings for the cello: C2 (black), G2 (red), D3 (purple), and A3 (blue). Let's say I want to play a section which doesn't use the C string much, but does use a lot more higher notes. This would include notes too high for bass clef, and notes too low for treble clef.

The solution is to use the tenor clef, which replaces C with G, G with D, and D with A. Thus, when I switch from bass clef to tenor clef, I will not have to think about transpositions. Instead, I can use the exact same fingering as the bass clef version, just on a different string. This is why we are able to sight read such clef-changes with no difficulty.

enter image description here

Due to wind instrument fingerings, we have transposing parts, which is close to equivalent to writing in a different clef. I am not a wind player myself, so it is hard for me to judge how hard/impractical it would be to avoid these conventions.

There are limitations to wind instruments in different keys due to fingering, intonation, and timbre. Take the Wikipedia article on Clarinets:

an eighteenth-century clarinet in C could play music in F, C, and G (and their relative minors) with good intonation, but with progressive difficulty and poorer intonation as the key moved away from this range.

The lower-pitched clarinets sound "mellower" (less bright), and the C clarinet—the highest and brightest sounding of these three—fell out of favor as the other two could cover its range and their sound was considered better.

While technical improvements and an equal-tempered scale reduced the need for two clarinets, the technical difficulty of playing in remote keys persisted, and the A has remained a standard orchestral instrument.

Other instruments such as the English horn and the saxophone need to transpose for similar reasons.

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  • In the first exemple you don't have more ledger lines, there is more below on the left and one more up on the right. That's the same number
    – Kaddath
    Mar 15, 2023 at 7:42
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    @Kaddath but the maximum number of ledger lines for a single note is higher (four instead of three) which is what makes it harder to read.
    – phoog
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:00
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The best argument in favour of the current system is that it works.

Over the last several centuries the three clef symbols (F, C, G) have been used in a range of ways. There are names for the C clef when it appears on any line of the staff, and the F and G clefs have also been movable. As harder possibilities have fallen out of use, the current system has survived.

Experience shows that for a keyboard instrument the combined bass and treble clefs work well, and for most other instruments a single bass or treble clef works well most of the time. There are specialised cases where a C clef has become customary; the viola is the best-known example. If you consider the range of a viola a sub-octave treble clef should work as well, but it would not put middle C on a line. Perhaps this was a more important consideration for violists and composers when the standards were becoming settled.

Octave and sub-octave variations of a single clef would not work well for a keyboard because the double sub-octave treble clef has middle C two ledger lines above the staff instead of just one above. This would increase the difficulty of reading music written within half an octave of middle C. As it is, a beginning piano student can place both thumbs on middle C and use the third and fifth fingers for the first and second lines respectively, counting outward from middle C, which is thought of as midway between the two staves.

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I suspect that you are not playing an instrument (yet), so you seem to underestimate inertia. The current system is fully functional (even if intimidating or confusing for beginners), so the motivation to change something here is low.

Note that instrument players have a different problem to solve than just recognizing the intended pitch: they have to translate it into finger movements in real-time. For players of instruments covering several overlapping clefs (like bass clef and tenor clef for bassoon, cello, trombone), it takes noticeable effort to learn the second clef. To suggest that they learn one or two different clefs (why keep the bass clef, when it can be covered by octave-transposing treble-clefs) just for increased regularity or more convenience for future learners will not win many friends.

Additionally "Urtext" editions (looking what the composer wrote originally) are an important resource for any serious player, so a simple "reprint and forget the old stuff" is unrealistic.

The question reminds me of suggestions to simplify natural languages for easier learning. Easy to talk about, but will never happen in a planned way, and future changes will happen in the same random ways as before.

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  • I'd go farther than "Urtext": I often play from facsimile of period sources, whether handwritten or printed. Of course that means being even more flexible about clef practices, like the "French violin clef," "tenor clef" for a higher viola part, or just a general willingness to nudge whatever clef up or down a staff line as needed for a few bars to avoid ledger lines. Mar 14, 2023 at 13:10
  • I am actually playing the violin and learning the viola, and I find nothing helpful about the alto clef. Curiously, my usual thought process is written note(s) -> internalising the pitch(es) -> finger movement; if a lot of people truly end up with doing directly written note(s) -> finger movement, then many things make more sense. For me personally it sounds weird, but maybe my absolute pitch is to blame.
    – Minethlos
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:37
  • @AndyBonner wouldn't tenor clef be used for a lower viola part? (And I would add that most Urtext editions have no qualms about modernizing clefs and even on occasion key signatures. There are many Urtext editions of Bach keyboard works, for example, but I doubt that many of them use the soprano clef, as most of Bach's keyboard manuscripts do.)
    – phoog
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:05
  • @phoog Right, my bad, lower. I guess I'm seeing them more often in some editions that are aiming more at scholarship than performance... a lot of French stuff like Lully and Charpentier, and thinking especially of the piece I did my dissertation on, as reprinted in this book. Mar 15, 2023 at 15:36

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