I'm just looking over China Gates by John Adams. I can see in the first bar of the lower staff that the first note is played in the bass clef, subsequent notes are in the treble clef. This goes on through bar 15. bar 1

At bar 16, the mode is changed and it looks to me that the same idea is being followed: first note of bar 16 is in the bass clef because there's a bass clef in parenthesis before it, then (I think) the subsequent notes are in the treble clef because there's a treble clef in parenthesis before them. bar 16

I just want to be sure I've got this right. It's confusing because the notation of bar 1 and 16 could have been the same but isn't; the parentheses are used throughout the piece except for bar 1.

5 Answers 5


The first bar establishes that the piece has three voices, one in bass clef and two in treble. As the two treble voices comprise the vast majority of the notation, the piece continues with both staves of the grand staff in treble. When the third voice is sounded again in the 16th bar, the courtesy clefs indicate that it should still be read as bass, and the second voice as treble. As Matthew Read noted elsewhere, the courtesy clefs indicate that, “Yes, you could have assumed this – but just in case, here’s a hint.”

  • 1
    OK, so what I gather is at least I was reading it correctly. The courtesy notation seems most likely to me, too. Just that bar 1 of the lower staff could have been treble clef right off, as it is in the remainder of the piece. But maybe he didn't because he wanted to make clear we were starting in bass clef, like 'usual', and switching to treble right quick. And then, once it's been established we're going to be trebling it almost all the time, began each lower staff with the treble clef to reinforce the notion. Mainly I don't need to figure out the intention, just how to read it. Thanks all.
    – markmarz
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:29

I have very little doubt that you are correct that the first note of m.16 is in the bass: it's the same note as in m.1, but spelled enharmonically.

However, the notation used is just plain bad and confusing. For one, Laurence is quite right that there is no such thing as a courtesy clef: either there is a given clef in use, or there is another altogether, and the only time you'll see a bit of redundancy is when a cautionary clef is used at the end of a system to let you know that the next system will see a clef change.

For another, the vertical placement of clefs matters. The two dots of the F clef tell you that the line between them is F below middle C. If we read that clef as it is usually used, that bass note in m. 16 is C♯ below middle C (and that isn't the case).

  • One thing that occurred to me, based on the unconventional notation, is that the bass note is intended to be the same note as the one struck in bar 1, because of the open-ended ties after the whole notes. It’s just noted here because you need to re-strike and re-pedal the note because of the harmony change. (And it‘s a bit weird because the note is spelled differently in the new mode.) Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 20:29
  • @BraddSzonye, that is my impression as well, but that is certainly not the best notation to make that clear, eh?
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 22:16

The second piece appears to be in G# minor, and the very first note is a pedal G#. As it's so low, it's written in bass clef.And pedalled! However, the rest of the notes are quite high, needing the treble clef to obviate lots of leger lines.

First is in Db/Bbm, with a pedal Ab, with the same idea that the melody notes need treble clef for easy reading.

I'm mystified by the mark before the C in bar 4 of the first, and the E of bar four on the second.(Both l.h.).

  • (I think you mean the C in bar 4 of the first.)
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:17
  • But your answer seems much more correct to me; the obvious emphasis on Af in the first one, matches the G# that's emphasized in the second.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:18
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    I'd like to know what those little vertical bars mean, too! But I'll ask in a separate question. Couldn't find any reference anywhere to tell me.
    – markmarz
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:32
  • 1
    @Richard - of course! Just checking if anyone is paying attention...
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 22:42
  • @markmarz Did you ask that separate question about the small vertical line? I couldn't find it.
    – Arsak
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 15:30

It is a courtesy clef (?). It is trying to tell you that the first note is the G# below the staff and the next note is the G# above the staff on the treble clef.

The editor probably felt it better than having the Bass clef only for one note.

  • This. It's a somewhat clumsy way of indicating that the same pattern of clef changes is occurring, essentially saying "Yes, you could have assumed this -- but just in case, here's a hint".
    – user28
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:09
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    If there's a bass clef, how is that an E below middle C?!
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:16
  • I have made an edit, you are right Richard
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 8:14

As the stave starts with a full-sized treble clef, the small clefs are required, they are not optional. So the brackets are redundant. But you can see what he means. 'Context makes it pretty obvious I'm continuing with this non-standard notation, but I'm just making it clear. And it's not a new thing at this point, I'm just continuing what I did on the line above.'

I'm at a loss to understand how @markmarz could have been confused though. What ELSE could it have meant?

  • 1
    Take the brackets away, and it's not so clear. This answer's too blunt.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 14:25

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