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I am a drummer, I do not play any melodic instrument, though I happen to read some piano scores, and I am wondering what was the idea behind using the bass clef for the left hand part. From what I understand, if the left hand part of a piano score was using the treble clef, every note would be below the staff, making it unreadable.

However, why not just simply invent a musical symbol involving a shift ? Like, a treble clef with -2, meaning 2 octaves lower. What was the idea behind using a different clef between the right hand and the left hand ? As first sight, it makes everything unecessarily harder to grasp.

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    Same question is applicable to all clefs - there are at least 4 that I know of. – Stinkfoot Dec 21 '17 at 20:08
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    @Stinkfoot that's true :) – user23227 Dec 21 '17 at 20:15
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    But there is such a thing as a treble clef with 8 on the bottom, indicating that an 8-note (1-octave) shift downwards was done: dictionary.onmusic.org/terms/2392-octave_treble_clef – Dekkadeci Dec 21 '17 at 20:32
  • The different clef is mostly for lower octaves, it may be found for the right hand as well. – guidot Dec 21 '17 at 23:22
  • Historical contingency. Clefs of different shapes to fixate different notes (C, F, G) have been in use for centuries, while the "8" and "15" decorators are much younger. The conventions for all sorts of instruments are so deeply ingrained by long practice that they are very difficult to change. In the long run I suppose it would be slightly easier to read piano scores with two G clefs; but in the short term, every pianist in the world is already used to G+F clef, and nobody is eager to re-learn basic score reading skills. – Kilian Foth Dec 22 '17 at 21:06
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The clef you're referring to already exists: it's written like this How the treble clef-two-octaves-down would be written

The number 15 standing for 15 steps down, i.e. two octaves. (I know, it's ridiculous that two octaves are not 16 steps... the thing is, an octave actually has only seven steps, not eight, and two octaves are actually 14 steps. The terminology of prime being the non-interval, second being the single-step etc. is completely messed up.)

Nobody actually uses this clef, in fact most music notation software doesn't seem to support it. The version only one octave down is very common though – it's the single standard clef for guitar and also often used for male voices.

X:1
L:1/4
M:
K:C
V:2 clef=treble-8
c2
%

Why piano doesn't use a shifted treble clef for the left hand... for that matter, why not all instruments use the same clef with different octaves, I've often wondered too. I doubt there's really a good reason, just history gunk again.

  • As someone that has dealt with treble, bass and alto clef, once even in a single piece of sheet music for the bassoon, man I wish this was used more often! – Mark Ormston Dec 22 '17 at 2:01
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    @MarkOrmston alto clef? I thought basson used tenor clef for moderately high passages, like we do on cello (where it actually makes some sense, being a fifth or one string up from bass clef... but still it would be much easier IMO to only jump in octaves). – leftaroundabout Dec 22 '17 at 12:50
  • You know, it was 20 years ago, it might have been. I had to ask my conductor what it even was when I encountered it and was told it was an alto clef which can move (only later learning that they had different names when it did move), so I'm not sure. – Mark Ormston Dec 22 '17 at 17:43
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    @MarkOrmston : Actually the thing that can move is called just a "C clef", and it has various names for various positions on the staff. If it's just in the middle, it's the alto clef (violas use that), if it's on the 2nd line from the top, it's the tenor clef (bassoons use that). // By the way, in a book ~ 120 years old, I found a choir score that used a bass clef for bass and various C clefs for all the other voices! Total nightmare to read. – Ramillies Dec 22 '17 at 19:26
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    That 2 octaves are indicated with the number 15 actually makes perfect sense. The term "step" is applied with two different meanings.Take a C major scale, the first step is C, the second step is D, so that is two steps which is why the interval from C to D is called a second, but if you go from C to D you are only going a whole step up. Anyway, when C is the first step the next C becomes step number 8 and the next C after that becomes step number 15. – Lars Peter Schultz Oct 24 at 18:49
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A 2-octave distance clef would yield notes with a number of required ledger lines in between. But ledger lines are already needed for indicating the upper range of the left hand and the lower of the right, so it's good not to have too large of a distance here. In addition, the middle C is exactly the center line of the alto clef in use for viola and occasionally a few other instruments. So that makes moving around reasonably straightforward.

Of course, the original reason is "historical", but so was the original reason for soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone clefs, and they have been retired for vocal use as well as most other uses. But the resulting convention for piano using violin/bass clef has turned out to be agreeable enough to stick around. One reason indeed may be sharing the clef with bass singers and generally bass note providing instruments, and the bass clef has the advantage of keeping bass notes mostly within the system. That hasn't helped with the other voice types (which moved to a violin clef, or in case of the tenor, an octavated violin clef), but for better or worse, bass has not followed suit.

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The two clefs work nicely together precisely because they are different. The G-clef and F-clef together as the Grand Staff have middle C exactly in the middle between them. This arrangement gives you a sort of absolute reference point on the pitch spectrum.

When the two hands of piano music are written in the same clef, the effect is sort of like dancing with two left feet.

  • Sure it feels weird to read anything you're not used to, but don't you think it would feel perfect natural to play octave-shifted treble clefs with the left hand if you did that all the time? – leftaroundabout Dec 22 '17 at 17:09
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The following should give you some idea why the existence of different clefs is a great thing:

I play both violin, viola and piano, so I am used to 3 clefs, G-clef, Alto clef (C-clef) and F-clef.

I am very happy about the alto clef for the viola, because if you used either G-clef or F-clef you would need a lot of leger lines, and if you wanted to avoid those leger lines you would need a lot of indications with the number 8 showing that the music is supposed to played in a different octave and that is annoying on a stringed instrument in the violin family, because a different octave means a totally different fingering on the instrument. It is much nicer to read the music in the right octave. That is also why a shift of clefs in a viola part from C-clef to G-clef if the music goes up on higher notes is much better compared with an 8va sign.

If you ever arrange music for strings avoid 8va signs at all costs. Exception is if the music goes above 5 leger lines which can happen in advanced violin music. With more than 5 leger lines in a violin part you need to count the leger lines which can be annoying. With 5 or less leger lines you can see right away how many lines there are without actually counting.

In cello parts use the tenor C-clef and if it goes very high the G-clef.

For the piano: Well, the pattern is the same in any octave, so an octave sign with a dashed line (or just a line) is some times needed and it is easy to play the notes in a different octave. With the line you can always see in which octave you are supposed to play. But do not use a clef with the number 8 or 15 above or below, because then you would constantly need to check whether the music is supposed to be played as written or should be in a different octave. Exception is if the whole part is supposed to be played in a different octave, but in that case you better write an explanation at the start of the score, because piano players might not think of the little number above or belowe the clef since they are not used to look for that.

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