A friend of mine asked me for help on their theory assignment. Number 8 on the worksheet asked the student to write a certain scale with what appeared to be a standard alto clef, except that the point on the clef that usually indicates middle C was slightly shifted so that it pointed to the space below the middle line of the staff. (I knew how to do the actual assignment, but I had never seen this clef before with the 2nd space as middle C).

Details: Though the image attached is fuzzy, here are some details I observed. Most of them seem to support a notation error of some sort, but then again, I'm no clef expert, and there are some weird symbols out there in music (especially throughout history...?):

  • The clef appears to be about one quarter of the way to where a regular tenor clef would be (it's closer to the third line than the second)
  • The top and bottom of the clef are clearly not aligned with the top and bottom lines of the staff
  • Every other C clef I've seen in the assignment puts middle C squarely on a line, not a space
  • If C is on the second space, then it would be like a bass clef, but an octave higher
  • (I may have to edit to add to this if the comment section has questions about things I forgot to address)

What's going on here? I think it's likely that this is a printing error of some kind, but even if it was supposed to be a regular alto clef, is there such a clef out there somewhere in the depths of theory?

  • 2
    The idea of a moveable clef is to keep as many dots as possible within the stave, for easy reading. There seems little point in moving it into a space, where a line (the usual) is at most a tone away.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 6:29
  • 1
    As a procedural note, your friend should write into his assignment why he set the answer as he did, i.e. he has assumed this should be Alto Clef (or he assumed it's that bizarre "C on the space" clef. Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 11:20
  • 4
    It's not even really on the space. It's halfway between the 3rd line and the 2nd space from the bottom. There's no way this isn't a printing error. Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 14:03
  • @Tim What you called 'dots' are actually noteheads.
    – Vighnesh
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 13:45
  • @Vighnesh - yes, most of us in the trade know that. Also a lot of us call them the dots.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 14:14

6 Answers 6


This is definitely bad type setting.

I'm not aware of any conventional C clef that sits between two lines (although you can of course roll your own), but even if this was supposed to be between two lines, the answer would still be: Bad type setting.

  • Occasionally you can find 19th century scores that use a c clef on the third space for tenor voice.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 4:53
  • @phoog Do you have a link to an example?
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 14:19
  • @PiedPiper there are some examples and related discussion in the answers to Where was the D clef used? One of those is (admittedly not 19th century) a 1906 printing of Far Above Cayuga's Waters. I suppose the entire songbook used that clef.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 15:45
  • @phoog Thanks. That's very interesting: that clef is interchangeable with the modern notation (treble clef with an 8 underneath).
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 16:19
  • @PiedPiper the 8 underneath is very rare, actually, just as bass and guitar are usually notated in bass and treble clef, respectively, without an 8 underneath. I don't know why people have ever been resistant to men singing from a treble clef staff with an octave transposition, but both clefs seem to be a reaction to that resistance.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 16:23

Every other C clef I've seen in the assignment puts middle C squarely on a line, not a space

In some old scores, the C clef is used in the third space (not the second) in tenor voice parts. Apart from the clef, the notation is the same as writing tenor parts an octave higher than they are sung using the treble clef. Some scores have the treble and "octave C" clefs superimposed to show this.

I suppose it's possible that somebody once used a bass clef and a C clef in the second space in the same way, but I've never seen an example.

But I don't think the exam question was about was about a C clef a space, since those notations are completely obsolete.

It just looks like bad printing, since the clef isn't really centered on either a line or a space. Maybe somebody tried to make some music notation with general purpose graphics software, and didn't do a very good job.

C clefs were used on every line of the staff, not just the modern "alto" and tenor "clefs", even up to the middle of the 19th century for vocal parts. In 18th century scores these clefs were also used for keyboard music as well as vocal parts to save leger lines. For example in organ music where the bass part was played with the pedals, the left hand part was often a bit too high for bass clef and too low for the treble, but fits nicely on one of the C clefs.

  • Wouldn't it be easier to use a treble clef and put '8vb' for a tenor part?
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 8:54
  • Can you show me an example of this archaic C clef on a space?
    – user45266
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 3:17
  • @Tim perhaps, though (1) 8vb is spurious: it should be 8va, and such notation did not yet exist in the 19th century, (2) it's even easier just to write it in treble clef and leave it to the reader to know that tenor voice is a transposing instrument, just like the string bass, so that's in fact what everyone except for the most pedantic of modern copyists does, and (3) in the 19th century this notation was not yet standard, so weird c clefs were sometimes used as people tried to deal with the decline in singers' ability to read tenor clef. I have no idea what caused that, however.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 5:04
  • @Phoog - Sorry, incorrect again. 8vb on a tenor part is not spurious and can by found in choral music as well as vocal scores for musicals. Also going to amend your 2nd point: "...so that's in fact what [all the laziest people do] except for [capable and careful] copyists..." Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 12:27
  • @jjmusicnotes that something is used commonly does not prevent it from being spurious. Certainly, an Italian would never use "8vb," since the "a" in "8va" does not come from "alta." Inventing redundant and pedantic notation based on incorrect assumptions about the meaning of earlier notation really doesn't help anyone. But on the clef, it's usually just an 8, not 8vb. Regardless, it's unnecessary. I've been singing choral music for decades, and I frankly cannot remember a tenor part that had an 8 on its clef. Nobody was ever confused by that.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 14:32

With regard to an example, which user45266 requested in a comment above, I just came across this situation in a score yesterday, which is what prompted me to investigate, and, ultimately, led me here.

Unless this joint was ghostwritten by Ives, the clef is unambiguously indicating that the third space should be middle-C.

The full score is here.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Once upon a time it was possible to put the C-clef on the third space. This is the only usage of a clef that is not on a line that I have ever heard about. It is utterly obsolete. Note that with the C-clef on the third space the notes means the same as if you write a G-clef with the number 8 below the clef, and that is how the tenor parts are notated today. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 22:39
  • The info provided at the web page you linked to indicates that the score was printed in the USA in 1864. I have certainly not seen the like from any music printed elsewhere. The present convention (G-clef with the number 8 below the clef) replaced the tenor clef (C-clef on 4th lines up) without anyone ever having put the C-clef on a space.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 13:23
  • @LarsPeterSchultz the C clef on the third space is also equivalent to a treble clef without an 8 under it on a staff labeled "tenor." This is analogous to the bass clef without an 8 under it on a staff labeled "contrabassoon" and the treble clef without an 8 above it labeled "piccolo."
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 14:41
  • 1
    That staff's key signature, and the "piano reduction" agreeing with SATB, both agree with the clef indicating C on the third space. So at least this example's clef cannot be a typesetting mistake. Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 21:40

I've a small collection of Barbershop Quartet scores in which perhaps 1/3 put the Lead and Tenor on a staff with a C-clef on the third space (which is if course equivalent to the G-clef 8vo). I suspect this supports the idea that it is an American way of doing things. And not necessary archaic.


You’ giving the correct answers:

Every other C clef I've seen in the assignment puts middle C squarely on a line, not a space

The top and bottom of the clef are clearly not aligned with the top and bottom lines of the staff

This must have been happened printing a not adjusted C-Clef on a template of notelines without clefs.


Beethoven's first symphony, movement 2, page 7, top staves, the cello (bottom staff in image). enter image description here

https://musopen.org/music/2563-symphony-no-1-in-c-major-op-21/ (The 2nd page 7 in the sheet music.)

  • 3
    But isn't this just bad typesetting? The pitches are clearly written in tenor clef, no?
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 23:32

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