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I recently had a (light-hearted) argument with a violin-playing friend, I play the trombone and we were discussing which instrument is more difficult to play. We talked about the relative difficulty of orchestral parts and made the obligatory trombone jokes about tonguing and lubrication. We then moved on to clefs.

I like to play a wide variety of genres of music (with an aptitude ranging from terrible to OK) and when I was at university I was playing regularly in about 8 ensembles. I was required to read:

  • C Treble clef when playing jazz standards in a small group
  • C Bass clef when playing trombone parts in a big band or wind orchestra
  • Bb Treble clef when playing in a brass band (or drunkenly covering a trumpet part in a big band gig)
  • Tenor clef when playing in a wind band and the part went above the stave
  • Alto clef when playing some orchestral parts designed for alto trombone back when the instrument's range wasn't as good as it is today and it was hard to play that high on a tenor trombone

I understand why each clef is/was selected for each different ensemble's music. My question is: can any other single instrument claim to legitimately need more clefs than this? (For clarification: I also read Eb Treble clef sometimes when covering bass parts in brass bands but I do not count this as legitimate since the part was not written for trombone.)

  • 5
    Organists frequently have to read three different clefs simultaneously... – Kilian Foth Jan 5 '17 at 12:10
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    Performers of early music are confronted (at least occasionally) with all seven possible clefs (discounting octave transpositions). – Scott Wallace Jan 5 '17 at 14:21
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    That wasn't why there were (and are) alto trombones – Laurence Payne May 30 '18 at 22:57
  • @LaurencePayne you caught me, I did no research. – SBaker May 31 '18 at 11:20
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    Can we count the conductor? He/she has to read everything. You wanted an instrument, well theirs is the orchestra. – badjohn Jun 9 at 6:42
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Keyboard players who want to play 16th/17th century music from the original editions and manuscripts may come across C clefs on any of the 6 lines, as well the modern as treble and bass. (Note, the 6 isn't a typo - in the 16th century, staves often had 6 lines, not 5).

And they may also be transposing the music by a semitone if their instrument isn't tuned to the same pitch standard as everybody else.

If you are count transpositions as "different clefs," classical French horn parts in 18th/19th century music may be in C, D, Eb, E, F, G, Ab, A, or Bb (with Bb and C written using two different octave transpositions), and in 19th century editions there may be frequent transposition changes during a single movement of a piece.

  • Not only older music. Any accompanist working with a choir on Mahler's Resurrection symphony - at least in the edition that I have always been given - will have been faced with C clefs in the tenor parts. – JimM Jan 5 '17 at 8:39
  • @JimM - what would be the reason for that? I guess that reading any clef for vocals is easier than reading any clef (as in not the normal one) on an instrument. Reason being most singers can't just sing the pitch written in the same way that an instrumentalist can finger a particular note, unless they have absolute pitch. Does this sound sensible? – Tim Jan 5 '17 at 13:06
  • @Tim I'm inclined to agree with you. However choir members really seem to prefer tenor parts in (transposed) treble clef rather than the tenor clef. It might be to do with familiarity or something. Regarding why the score is written like that: I don't know but it just seems to be the whim of the publisher. Reading 5 parts at the keyboard is pretty tricky in two clefs and it always feels much harder when there are three clefs. Having said that I expect there are a fair few organists out there who would find it pretty straightforward! – JimM Jan 5 '17 at 14:49
  • @JimM - I think organ music is only written in grand staff with an extra bass clef for pedals, though, not any alto, tenor, et al. I struggle with just the two, sometimes! – Tim Jan 5 '17 at 15:43
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    @Tim Yes, but organists are often called on to score read part music and, as has been said above, sometimes that comes with a variety of clefs. Years ago doing exercises at school I would sometimes present the music master, an excellent organist, with a four part arrangement (usually a chorale) written on four staves with four different clefs (soprano, alto, tenor and bass). He wouldn't even blink, just sit at the piano and play it. – JimM Jan 5 '17 at 20:41
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It's a hard one because it depends so much on what you're actually doing with your instrument. I suspect you're at the extreme end for trombonists, for example.

Recorder players find themselves confronted with many clefs, especially if they play multiple sizes of instrument (which might be considered cheating) such as:

  • treble clef octave up (usually on soprano, sopranino or alto recorder)
  • treble clef at pitch (usually on alto or tenor recorder)
  • bass clef octave up (usually on bass recorder)
  • bass clef at pitch (usually on great bass or contrabass recorder)
  • alto clef octave up (usually alto or tenor recorder)
  • alto clef at pitch (usually bass recorder)

Modern editions of early consort music often have inner parts in alto clefs, which are intended for viol players (tenor viols customarily read alto clef, and bass viols use it for higher-lying music, and you can actually play some alto clef parts on the treble viol too). While some of these editions come in dual-format versions (where those alto parts are also provided in treble or treble-down), some don't (and they're more expensive anyway).

Then when playing from facsimile we run into all sorts of other things, but one of the more common I've had to deal with is "French violin clef" - a treble clef shifted down one line, so the G above middle C is the bottom line of the stave. Fortunately this is just the same as bass clef shifted up two octaves, so it's pretty easy to deal with if you already read bass clef and don't pay too much attention to the start of the line!

What I am very, very glad I don't have to cope with in any instrument I play is the transposed parts for things like Bb trumpets. Recorders learn new fingerings for C and F instruments so our music is always at concert pitch - although sometimes recorders in G or D are demanded (rarely, because almost nobody actually owns such instruments), and those parts might be written transposed so we don't have to learn a third and fourth set of fingerings. Or might be in concert pitch. One should check carefully before starting to play...

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You have the answer, I think! Trombonists need to be able to read dots in every conceivable clef. Don't really understand why, as they play the same notes in each - just read them differently.

Most other (single note) instruments have a clef designed for them, like alto, tenor, or transpose, like Bb and Eb instruments, but I bet when Mr. Trombone invented his eponymous instrument, he never realised what chores were waiting in the wings for his players!

It doesn't necessarily make it a more difficult instrument to play, only to sightread for.

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I don't have a reference at hand to back me up, but I know bassoon parts are written in multiple clefs -- bass, tenor, and treble, maybe alto in special circumstances. (The bassoon solo that opens The Rite of Spring really ought to be in treble clef, but isn't).

The common element among bassoon, trombone, and cello (I'd also add euphonium) is that they are all nominal "tenor" instruments with very large ranges. Bass clef lies a bit too low to serve tenor instruments well, because so much of their range is above middle C, so I think it's not surprising that these instruments would use an assortment of different clefs to avoid excessive ledger lines.

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Cello is notated in the following clefs:
bass clef, treble clef, tenor clef and in a few cases alto clef.

All of the named clefs are IN USE and not historical. Look into different orchestral scores and you will find all of them.

So no in terms of notation there is no match for the cello. (Forget about those historic piano scores, see the whole world and music up to this day)

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    Alto? Never come across that in cello music (though I sometimes read it to fit in for a viola part). And unlike with trombone or clarinet, we at least never have to worry about whether a part is in concert pitch, the instrument is in B♭, A, C or whatever... — I could add 8vb-treble, even 8vb-bass to the lst of clefs though, both again mostly relevant when adapting parts written for other instruments (guitar and bass, respectively). – leftaroundabout Apr 9 '17 at 12:27

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