# Bass Clef

I’m trying to learn to play piano and, as a former trumpet player, my right hand is doing fine but my left hand is struggling just because my brain hasn’t “learned” to read bass clef yet.

So, instead of spending time learning bass clef notes, I’m instead trying to understand why music is written in a staff using a bass clef at all. I understand that the bass clef denotes notes that are lower in pitch, notes that, if you were to put them on a treble clef, would be so far below the five lines of the staff that it would be incredibly inconvenient to play them.

However, why not just write the notes in treble clef with the understanding that they are one octave lower? (Or two octaves, or whatever they are.) If you tell me to play a C with my left hand, I can do it in any octave on a piano.

(I suppose the argument could be made to write everything in treble clef for those that learned bass clef notes first - I guess my question is more about why have different clefs at all.)

You have to be able to show the full range. If your “shifted treble clef” were only one octave lower, then the clefs would overlap, and if it were two octaves lower, it would leave an awkwardly large gap between the clefs.

The simplest explanation is this (and forgive the “be sujre youjr vomputer is plugged in” obviousness at the beginning.

Both clefs, treble and bass, consist of five lines enclosing four spaces. The line at the bottom of the treble clef is E above middle C; the line at the top of the bass clef is A below middle C. In other words, they represent the top five and bottom five lines of an eleven-line “great staff”, with middle C and the B and D in the spaces below and above it respectively written in as appropriate below the treble clef (if the melody or alto line drops to them) or above the bass one (if the tenor line rises to them)…

There actually IS an out-of-use clef notation that means “this but an octave lower”, I think it looks like two clefs next to each other, so two G4-clefs on the second line would make it a G3 clef.

But the answer to your question is what Polycarp described, the bass and Treble clefs line up perfectly about middle C, with only one line in between them, it describes a wide range of notes without weird spacing issues (though one does wonder why they don’t just use an enlarged Alto/C staff).

The great staff that Polycarp describes becomes more obvious when you see pieces where the left and right hands overlap or one of the hands climbs or descends into the other clef. There are invisible lines between the two clefs and the clefs are physically linked if you like. If you were to make the bass clef be the same as the treble clef but lower the two clefs would be too far apart (as Chronos says.)

Probably because the paired staffs work well with the convention that notes on one staff are played with the right hand, while notes on the other are played with the left (most of the time).

The pairing of the clefs must provide a continuum without overlap, as noted above. That is probably the main issue. The thing to remember about clefs is that they come in two bits. There are the five lines, and there is the actual clef symbol that denotes what note one particular line of the five is. And there are a lot more than just well known bass and treble clefs. The treble clef is five lines with a marker telling you where the G is. The bass clef is five lines plus the marker telling you where the F is. You can also use the C clefs. The big point about the C clef is that it gets put all over the place, up and down the five lines, depending upon what instrument is being played. What is critical is the particular line it denote s as C.

The pairing of treble and bass clef is really one single notation across the most important tonal range. So you get eleven lines (ten visible, middle one invisible) with a wide gap between the two pairs of five to make it more readable, and then markers on both sets of five lines to remind you where the notes are placed on the lines. In principle, one of those markers is redundant. There would be no reason not to eliminate the F clef marker on the bass clef lines. Then the logic of the system would be more apparent, but nothing else would change. (Actually as noted above, there are times when notation will do weird things, like slip a bit of the other clef in, so for total consistencies sake you keep it.)

You can also do this with a treble clef with an “8” below it. Like this. An “8” above would mean one octave higher.

I played violin and a few low notes falls on the bass clef. But, our sheet music used only the treble clef and those low notes were below the bottom bar with several lines across them. I forget the exact naming.

If there were more low notes then I guess violin would need both staffs too.

You get this in almost every choral arrangement with four staffs: the sopranos and altos get a treble clef, the tenors get the “lower” treble clef and the basses get the bass clef - simply because this is the best fit for every voice and avoids extra lines as much as possible.

What’s quite interesting is that in music school I had to learn to read not only those but also all the infamous c-clefs. So you get a Bach choral in 4 staffs with 4 different clefs that seem to be designed to confuse the reader/musician as much as possible. They tell you they were used to avoid extra lines, but almost invariably the “modern” notation would result in far less of these. Crazy people in the 1700s…

This is all very helpful. It doesn’t improve my piano-playing, but thanks anyway!

FWIW, the bass clef predates keyboard music (and keyboards, for that matter) by centuries. The clefs Francis Vaughan points out came from medieval music. The idea was to write a vocal line so that you didn’t need many ledger lines, because they are very hard to read in hand-written notation. (This also predates printed music, obviously.)

So the fact as noted above that the bass clef and treble clef, when paired, produce a non-overlapping continuum with middle C between them is a fortunate outcome of historical clefs. Leads you to think that if the bass clef hadn’t existed prior to keyboard music, it would have to be invented for that usage!

Are you referring to ledger lines?

Orchestral trombone parts are split about 20-40-40 between alto, tenor, and bass clefs. Occasionally you’ll see music that switches mid-piece from tenor to bass clef or vice versa, if the piece calls for a wide range. (Thankfully, I’ve never seen a piece that switched from alto to tenor clef; that would definitely cause some grinding noises when I tried to make that particular mental gear-shift.)

Guitar is written on treble clef but is understood to be played an octave lower than written. This is so that the range of the instrument can fall on one staff, albeit with a bunch of ledger lines both above and below. The meat of the range of the instrument falls within the staff. I think the same is true of other instruments that use other clefs, including bass clef for left-hand piano.

You might be interested to know that guitar sheet music is written an octave higher than it actually sounds (so the note that sounds 261.6 Hz, “middle C”, is notated in the second space from the top on the treble clef - this is done for the sake of simplicity/readability, it avoids the need to use the bass clef/grand staff).

Cello and string bass, when playing “as one” in sustained passages in orchestral music, are often notated on one line, with the understanding z(or physical necessity) that the bass sounds are an octave lower.

You will get used to it, in fact, I get very confused when the treble clef is used for the left hand… like in 4-hand music.

Just think of it as one continuous 9 lined superclef, the fifth line being middle C. When you play an instrument that mostly uses notes middle C and above, like the trumpet, the bottom four lines are removed for convenience.

I guess you mean 11 lined cuperclef, sixth line and bottom 5 lines respectively, right? Like so:

Similarly, piccolo is written is Treble an octave LOWER than its actual range (presumably because a lot of parts are shared between piccolo and flute and regardless it’s easier to switch between the two instruments when they’re written exactly the same).