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I wonder why alto clefs are so low that they doesn't seem to match the range of alto(female low voice). Why did J.S. Bach use alto clef so much for the middle part of his fugue? Is it because alto was lower in the past?

I just cannot understand why the clef Bach used for alto was almost one octave lower that the clef used in modern alto, which is treble clef.

  • It might come as a surprise, but Bach indeed wrote more than one fugue, so you'd better be more specific. That being said, a "fugue" without much other qualification could be instrumental, and there are several instruments preferably written in alto clef, like a viola. – user47104 Jan 13 '18 at 15:40
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Actually, the issue is that Bach's altos were male, although whether or not they were pre- or post-pubescent remains an open question. So altos back then would necessarily have had lower tessituras than modern altos: you will only rarely see a Bach alto go above D, whereas by Bruckner and Mahler's time, choral altos are sometimes expected to reach a high A!

As for the placing of the alto clef, that's a different issue: there are only so many positions on the staff you can put the C clef. None of them correspond well to the alto range—although the alto clef probably does the best job overall of minimizing ledger lines. Copying music was generally done by hand, so anything that could save time (by virtue of not having too many leger lines) was "better."

  • I just cannot understand why the clef Bach used for alto was almost one octave lower that the clef used in modern alto, which is treble clef. – Ma Joad Jan 14 '18 at 11:18
  • Probably because scores were copied by hand, so minimizing leger lines was a time-saver. – aeismail Jan 14 '18 at 17:19

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