October 12, 2014

Clefs, Movable and Otherwise

Recently I've been working on a piece of music composed by early American composer Benjamin Carr. The piece, Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" can be found for free on IMSLP.org, which is good as works by the composer are relatively difficult to come by. The date of publication for this work is unknown although it's estimated in several places to be from the 1830s by Philadelphia publisher R.H. Hobson. The piece itself is unusual and interesting, but what immediately caught my eye was the alluring bass clef used in this particular typeface.

from Benjamin Carr's Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" published RH Hobson 183-
I'm not sure if I've seen a bass clef like this before. My eye may have skimmed over one in the past but it jumped out to me this time. I showed it to a student and her eyes lit up. The bass clef is one of the first non-note musical symbols that most students learn to draw. It's easier to handle than its treble counterpart and its distinguishing characteristic, the two floating dots, seem to capture students' imaginations. This particular bass clef, with its retrograde swirl (the normal bass clef swirls clock-wise from the center), its compact stature, and extra turn looks wholly wholly unfamiliar compared to the "standard" bass clef. It got me curious though. What is a standard bass clef? Is there such a thing?

In this post I'm going to give a little run-down of clefs, what they used to look like, and what they look like now. This will not be a thorough history of the clef. There will be no neumes.
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

In the graphic above, on the far left is the Treble clef, or "G-clef". G-clef refers to the fact that the line that passes through the swirl  (it makes a sort of bulls-eye) is the note G above-middle-C. It is thought that the symbol evolved from the actual letter G, or possibly a G and an S for the note "G" plus the solfege syllable "Sol". Of course, some don't think either is true, and our symbol just evolved as a sort of convention over time.

from The Smithsonian via Harvard Dictionary of Music and Wikipedia

The second clef of the four written above is the bass clef. Our humble Bass Clef is sometimes referred to as the F-clef because those cute little dots surround the F below-middle-C. Whereas the treble clef is appropriate for most melodic instruments, the bass clef is a bit more specialized. Naturally, only low instruments use it keeping it the domain of bassists, cellists, trombones, timpani and piano to name a few. The bass clef is also an F-clef in a different way. It is understood that the bass clef evolved from the written letter F. This can be easily seen by drawing a horizontal line from the dots to the swirl component of the clef.


graphic from Sensimilla blog

The third and fourth clefs are both types of C-clef. They are named this because the line that passes through the center of the clef is Middle-C. This is our only remaining "movable clef" (technically the others can move as well, but they usually don't) in that it can be moved up and down the staff to suit the instrument that's using it. These clefs are also sometimes seen in older choral music, to fit the parts of the choir better than a treble clef can. For example, an alto voice which spends a lot of time between A below-middle-C and B above-middle-C would need to use a whole bunch of ledger lines and wast half of the treble clef staff. With a C-clef (Alto clef above) you can fit more of her notes onto the staff.

We don't use movable clefs nearly as much anymore and even the C-clef is a bit of a rarity. Violists use it all the time, and other instruments that have a low to middle range such as the cello also dabble in its use. Even though the C-clef is the only one that still moves around, it was once common to have the other clefs move as well. By moving your bass clef you can change the line that F is located on. The same is possible with the treble clef.

The graphic below shows the different ways the clefs can be moved around:
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

Other alterations of the clef can be made as well. One of the most common is the use of a treble clef for tenors despite the fact that the notes they sing are an octave below where they are written. Use of a bass clef would make more sense, but because the notes that a tenor sings fit more nicely onto an octave-adjusted treble clef, they are written up there. Often this is just understood and no marking is made in the score, but sometimes the symbol below is used to denote that the notes being sung or played should be happening an octave lower than written.
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

Our clefs have evolved and largely settled where they are now. With a connected society and a couple centuries of printing behind us, it is unlikely that further developments as drastic as the ones in the 1600s will take place. But even though our clefs have settled into position and look largely the same, what about that crazy Benjamin Carr bass clef that started this whole thing?

A shoe is still recognizable as a shoe even if each model looks drastically different. Imagine if there existed a wild-west era of musical fonts. Individual publishers had their own typesets meaning you could pick up two different pieces of music and notice tiny details that vary. In the next post I collected a dozen differently designed bass clefs and analyzed the small, but striking differences between them. If you thought there was only one way to draw a bass clef, you were so wrong.
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