C Clef Symbol Meaning and History

An Explanation of the C Clef


The C clef is one of the lesser known clefs used by musician. Seldom seen in modern music this clef actually has several different names indicating how the clef is used. This clef has also been known as the Alto clef, Tenor Clef, Baritone Clef, Mezzo-soprano clef, and Soprano clef. The determination on what name this particular clef takes all depends on where on the staff it is located.

Like the Treble (G) and Bass (F) clef this clef indicates the position of a particular note, in this case C, on the staff. This clef, which looks as though to backwards C’s are connected by an arrow head, indicates where middle C is placed on the staff. The line in which middle C falls passes through the center of the arrow. As with the other clefs the rest of the lines and spaces can be easily named once C is established.

The difference with C clef that the other clefs don’t do is it moves. This is why it has so many different names. Dependent on where the arrow lies, the C moves making all the other notes adjust too. For the Alto clef the c resides on the third line (from top or bottom) of the staff. Based on the position of C for the Treble clef the C is moved a step down from where it would normally reside. For the Tenor clef the C is moved a whole step up from its position on the Treble clef.

With the Baritone clef the C resides on the top line of the bar staff. The Mezzo-soprano clef has the C on the next to bottom line (or second line) of the staff. Soprano clef has middle C as the bottom (or first) line of the staff.

The C clef actually predates the more commonly used Treble clef, being used as far back as the 10th century when musical notation began being popularized. During this time, as music was first being written down, singers would often use a starter pitch to begin a song. The note used, usually C, was often dependent upon the singer’s range. Once symbols were used to mark these sounds on paper, the C clef became the movable clef that designated many different ranges.

The C clef is all but extinct now with few musicians having seen or used the clef during their performances. Because the clef can be moved on the staff to indicate a different position for C it can be a confusing clef for a new musician. Today, this clef is seen on occasion for instruments such as the viola, alto trombone, and mandola (Alto clef) and for the trombone, euphonium, cello, bassoon, and double bass (Tenor clef).

Normally though instruments that would use the Alto clef are transposed to the Treble clef and those that would use the Tenor clef are transposed to the Bass clef. The Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Baritone clefs are rarely seen in modern music and when used they are used for vocal music only.