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I've noticed that in older scores the tenor parts (and sometimes the alto parts) are notated using C clefs, but nowadays you almost never see C clefs but instead the tenor parts are notated using an octave-shifted treble clef.

I've heard that it's to reduce the number of clefs one needs to learn, but this just seems like an oversimplification. This trips me up every time since I always have to remember to shift the notes down an octave. To me, C clefs are much easier to learn since I can immediately tell which note is which. I wish there was a better way to put it but I HATE the down-shifted treble clef. It reeks of laziness.

Beyond that, why doesn't vocal music nowadays use C clefs? And does anyone else prefer C clefs, or is the octave-shifted treble clef really easier?

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    I'd say you have absolute pitch, otherwise it's really not a problem to look at a note, and sing it an octave lower than written.
    – Tim
    May 28, 2023 at 14:52
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    The answers to the duplicate are equally applicable to vocal music.
    – PiedPiper
    May 28, 2023 at 16:08
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    If you have to remember to shift the notes on the treble clef down an octave, then I very much envy your vocal range. Why don’t you prefer just using bass clef for tenor parts then? May 28, 2023 at 16:18
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    I'm the opposite of you, El Ectric - I find every C clef to require a double take (a la music with 3 or more ledger lines) and the octave-shifted treble clefs to be close to immediate.
    – Dekkadeci
    May 29, 2023 at 5:56
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    @ToddWilcox For tenor parts I prefer if they are written in alto clef or tenor clef if the range is centred around middle C, and bass clef for passages involving mostly lower notes.
    – 000
    May 29, 2023 at 19:06

4 Answers 4

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I think they've simply fallen out of use, to a point where most musicians are unfamiliar with them. The vast majority of music for both voice and instruments are written in treble or bass clef. Back in the day, like in medieval / renaissance times, sometimes an entire piece would be notated with C clefs for tenor, alto, and soprano. That was done to avoid writing ledger lines I believe. Sometimes the C clefs would move around to lines that are even less standardized than the ones we're most familiar with like tenor clef, alto clef, and even the soprano clef. This probably made things easier to write for someone familiar with moving C clefs, but it also might've made some extra mental work for the people actually performing the piece. I'd probably speculate that we've moved to treble and bass clefs because it's a convenient standard, and if someone knows those clefs they'll be able to read like 90% of music. AFAIK, the only thing that uses a C clef by default is the viola, and it's used for high parts in low instruments like cello or bassoon. I'd say that things being mostly in treble or bass clef makes things easier for most people. Definitely for me, reading an old score with C clefs is way harder than something with treble+bass. I guess to sum it up, composers started gravitating to treble+bass as a standard, which means the performers became more familiar with those clefs, and that trend has continued, so now composers and performers both are most familiar with treble+bass and unfamiliar with C clefs for the most part. If it's a big enough problem, you could transcribe your parts into tenor clef if that's easier for you.

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    The practice of using soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs for the corresponding vocal parts was pretty much standard from the late Renaissance through the early 19th century.
    – phoog
    May 29, 2023 at 15:28
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    That makes sense. Thanks for the correction. I was only certain that I've seen C clefs used in pre-baroque vocal music. May 29, 2023 at 15:43
  • Yeah absolutely. And now that I've thought about it a bit more and looked at some examples I remember that practice varied geographically: soprano parts in treble clef were more common in French music (and related styles) even in the baroque. I recall that there are some soprano parts in treble clef in Monteverdi but I haven't had time to confirm it.
    – phoog
    May 29, 2023 at 19:34
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Most singers who can read music will have learned in the course of learning a musical instrument. Piano is the most common, and of other instruments the higher sounding ones are often preferred for students, both because they are cheaper and because there is more solo music written for them. Thus most of these singers will have some familiarity with the treble clef. On the other hand tenor clef will be familiar to relatively few singers - those who have studied cello, trombone or bassoon well past beginning level, and those who have made a point of learning to read tenor clef.

Singers reading music will often need to read from a grand staff. A separate vocal staff is not always provided; some songs are written as piano music on a grand staff, with the singer being expected to pick it out from the rest of the piano part, the words being placed between the treble and bass staves. Hymns and similar vocal works are also written using a grand staff, as this allows the four vocal parts to be written on two staves.

Singers who do not read music need to memorise their parts. This is normally done by repeated practice with the assistance of a pianist or an organist, who reads grand staff music.

Many songs are often sung by several different types of voice. With ranges roughly an octave apart, tenors and sopranos can share a lot of sheet music if the tenors read treble clef and sing it an octave lower.

To have access to all the above music a tenor needs to be able to access treble and bass clefs.

Note that the octave-transposed treble clef covers the notes D3 to G4 without ledger lines, while the tenor clef covers the range C3 to F4 without ledger lines. Either clef fits the tenor range well; there is little inherent difference in readability.

Tenor clef music may be useful in choral music written on separate staves and in music that is specifically for tenor. However, as noted above, knowledge of tenor clef is somewhat restricted. More tenors and more accompanists can read treble clef than can read tenor clef. As there are no particular advantages in using tenor clef, but there are significant advantages in using octave-transposed treble clef, the latter is now almost universally used.

Note that this discussion does not apply to instruments such as the cello, whose players must read bass, tenor, and (untransposed) treble clefs.

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  • The only vocal music I've ever seen published in the 20th century using C clef has placed C on the second space from the top, which is conveniently where middle C falls on a treble clef one octave down, which is a notation I rather like, since it facilitates visual identification of the tenor part and makes obvious the octave in which it should be performed. I don't know why some publishers would have stopped using it while others were still using it, since the idea that the funny clef simply means "treble clef one octave down" is a simple thing people should only need to learn once.
    – supercat
    May 29, 2023 at 14:44
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why doesn't vocal music nowadays use C clefs?

The use of treble clefs for choral scores arose in the 19th century. (Treble clef for soprano parts is common outside of German-speaking Europe even earlier, for example with Rameau and Purcell, but even Brahms used the soprano clef.) I don't have any source for this, but my sense is that it corresponds with the rise in amateur choral societies along with the practice of publishing songs in treble clef for use by amateur singers both female and male. This reinforced familiarity with the treble clef, which had also become the standard clef for the right hand of keyboard scores (in northern Germany, at least, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the soprano clef was more common for keyboard music and was virtually always used for soprano choral parts).

Because composers were writing increasingly for amateur singers who were more likely to know the treble clef than the C clefs, they started writing their choral scores in those clefs as well to reduce the possibility of transcription errors when choral parts or scores were copied from their full scores.

And does anyone else prefer C clefs, or is the octave-shifted treble clef really easier?

I'm sure that some people do, but most people I've spoken with about this decidedly do not.

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I think it's fair to subdivided C clefs into two categories: those which place C on the second space from the top,and those which place it elsewhere. Those which place it on the second space from the top are equivalent to a "treble" (fourth-line G) clef, transposed down an octave, but the transposition and intended vocal role made obvious. Those which place it in other positions may reduce the need for ledger lines, but at the expense of requiring the performer to observe the precise location of the clef. I don't think I've ever observed the non-octave-transposing forms in practical vocal music, and I think they're only used as the common clef for viola music (fourth-line C), which is similar to treble-clef violin music shifted a string lower) and an occasional clef for cello music (third-line C, similar to bass-clef cello music shifted a string higher).

I've seen a few variations on C clefs used for tenor parts that placed middle C on the second space from the top, and I don't really know why the convention would have subsided unless it was easier for publishers to use fewer clefs. Havign a convention "something that isn't treble or bass clef means 'tenor part, treble clef down an octave'" seems like a nice easy way to help altos and tenors consistently identify their parts, especially if some parts split to using multiple staves or unify (if there are three treble and one bass parts, it's obvious that alto is second from the top and bass is second from the bottom, but what if there are three or five clefs? Looking for "part just above the weird looking clef" (alto) or "weird looking clef a little above the bottom" would correctly identify parts in a wide variety of scenarios.

If conventions used when publishing notated music evolve similarly to those used when publishing text, it's likely that a publisher "got lazy" by doing something that publishing professionals would view as sloppy, but the intended audience didn't care, and thus other publishers jumped on the bandwagon. A key principle is that handwritten manuscripts might use the same notation for two things that would have unambiguously different forms when professionally printed, the person producing the printed form would need to either understand the material or risk selecting the wrong form (e.g. using a C clef for tenor material that was supposed to be performed at written pitch). If a publisher can get by just using a treble clef without having to worry about the octave in which the music should be performed, that eliminates the possibility of the publisher making a mistake.

The situation is somewhat analogous to a text publisher handling text like "That afternoon, the three of them went to visit Q.C. Taylor and James said 'Hello'." Using older conventions, if that text was supposed to be read as meaning "Taylor and James said 'hello' after three people visited Q.C.'", there would be extra space before "Taylor". Including the space would improve clarity if that was the intended meaning, but would be disastrous if the intended meaning was "James said 'Hello' after three people visited Q.C. Taylor." A convention that always puts a normal-width space before "Taylor" avoids the possibility of the typesetter getting the meaning wrong, but relies upon the reader figuring out the intended meaning which would usually be clear from context.

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  • No clef ever places its pitch on anything other than a line, with the exception of a short period starting in the late 1800s during which you can see various experiments using the tenor clef in the third space of the staff, which eventually gave way to the standard use of octave-transposed treble clef for the tenor voice. " I don't think I've ever observed the non-octave-transposing forms in practical vocal music": presumably you've never seen performance materials that were prepared in the middle of the 19th century or earlier.
    – phoog
    May 29, 2023 at 18:05
  • "I don't really know why the convention would have subsided unless it was easier for publishers to use fewer clefs": the rise of treble clefs for choral parts coincides with the rise of amateur choral societies and the practice of publishing songs in treble clef for use by male or female singers.
    – phoog
    May 29, 2023 at 18:08
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    @phoog: Is there anything new about the concept of publishing a melofy in treble-clef only form? The concept of "funny clef is treble clef, an octave down" would seem pretty easy to learn and remember, whether or not one remembered all of the particular forms such clefs could take.
    – supercat
    May 29, 2023 at 18:17
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    //presumably you've never seen performance materials that were prepared in the middle of the 19th century or earlier// True; almost all of what I've seen has been printed after 1850. I've seen the third-space C clef written using the "B" shaped thing, and I've seen a couple of other shapes that I figured were intended to serve the same purpose. What disadvantages do you see to that over a treble clef that's visually identical to the soprano and alto ones?
    – supercat
    May 29, 2023 at 18:23
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    @phoog: Also, I just had another thought, given the timing of the disappearance of specialized clefs for vocal ranges: when would singers have started reading music from sheets containing everyone's parts?
    – supercat
    May 29, 2023 at 18:25

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