When you look at very old sheetmusic (for harpsichord or organ), you see that the upper staff has a C-clef, first line. The lower one is the familiar bass F-clef, fourth line.

Why and when did the habits change?

Can you still find sheetmusic printed like this?

Are there still people using the C-clef, first line position?

  • 1
    You may be interested in reading jstor.org/stable/905327 and jstor.org/stable/905443 Commented May 5, 2011 at 17:48
  • 1
    @Willie Wong: I certainly would, but they are behind a paywall.
    – Eric
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 12:12
  • 1
    drop me an e-mail (my e-mail should be available in my profile; if not, click on "network profile" and look for it on my webpage), and I can send you copies. They are both relatively short. Commented May 12, 2011 at 12:25
  • would someone with access be willing to quote the relevant parts of these articles in an answer?
    – user1078
    Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 16:39
  • JSTOR now allows for individual, free access. There is a per-month article limit.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 7:21

2 Answers 2


Many pieces of music written in the renaissance and baroque periods were governed by rules of counterpoint. Especially in the early forms of counterpoint (Renaissance period) one of the guidelines followed by composers was a limited range, generally not exceeding the distance of a fifth. Avoiding leger lines was a strong rule when possible.

The C-clef is also referred to as the soprano clef. In these early pieces it was most likely employed to avoid leger lines or just to better accommodate the range of notes the instrument would be playing in that particular piece. The Harvard Dictionary of Music gives an explanation (under the definition of clefs) of the very numerous different clefs used in early music, which basically amounts to the idea of avoiding leger lines.

As music history moved forward into the classical, romantic and 20th century musical periods, many things became standardized. While the alto and tenor clefs are still used for certain instruments, many of the other C-clef placements were phased out over time and musical natural selection left us with the repertory of clefs you see in our standard music literature today.

You may be able to find some more avante garde 20th century composers experimenting with things like archaic clefs but other than that i don't believe you'll find many composers today using them.

  • "many of the other C-clef placements were phased out over time" - I had asked a related question to drill more into the details for when exactly soprano/alto/tenor parts were all replaced with a variant of G clef music.stackexchange.com/questions/52537/… Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 15:31

It is convenient to use a treble (G) clef over a bass (F) clef as adding a single leger line in between gives one a pretty good range that is easy to read quickly.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.