Parts for soprano, alto and tenor voices used to be written with the corresponding variant of movable C clef. When did the transition to treble (G) clef happen, and what drove the change -- composers, publishers or performers?

To clarify what I'm looking for -- an answer to this question When did keyboard partitions start to use the G-clef for the upper staff ? states that "many of the other C-clef placements were phased out over time" and I'm looking for more detail on when/why that transition took place for voice parts.

1 Answer 1


C and F clefs were used for plainsong pretty much from the start of staff notation. On the 4-line staff, the C clef could be on either of the top two lines, and the F clef was equivalent to the C clef one line above the staff.

The earliest known printed music dates from about 1465. G clefs for the top part were certainly in use by 1508 when Petrucci printed this (see page 14 of the PDF): https://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/307180/torat - the Superius part from http://imslp.org/wiki/Motetti_a_cinque_(Petrucci,_Ottaviano).

The basic motivation for selecting clefs was to avoid leger lines. The modern F and G clefs are equivalent to a C clef on the leger line above or below the staff, so they are perhaps not such a big innovation as they might at first appear. In early music notation, the G clef was sometimes used on the bottom line for violin parts, and the F clef on the top line for low bass voice parts - those are equivalent to extending the range of C clef positions to two leger lines either side of the stave.

The F clef was sometimes used on the middle line as an alternative to the C clef on the top line.

A final random thought - I wonder why all known clefs indicate the pitch on a line, and never a space. That fact is enough to "explain" the existence of both F an G clefs - but why?

  • Make that thought into a question!
    – Tim
    Jan 22, 2017 at 8:31
  • interesting stuff, but doesn't actually answer the question
    – Some_Guy
    Jan 22, 2017 at 13:09
  • Clef on a Space: the Final [notational] Frontier :-) Jan 23, 2017 at 12:21
  • Observation: modern tenor voice parts use G clef down an octave, which is equivalent to C clef on the 3rd space. Compare with old tenor clef on 4th line. Feb 26, 2018 at 15:32

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