Treble Clef: What the heck is it?

Treble Clef

Whenever a student is struggling with reading music I like to start by explaining the treble clef. If a student understands what the treble clef is and why it’s there the mystery of music notation is solved. If reading music is still a mystery to you or you would just like to find out more on music notation and the treble clef’s background read on…

What is the treble clef?

Quite simply the treble clef is the letter G. Or at least it was originally the letter G and people fancied it up over the years. To understand why we have the letter G at the beginning of guitar music, let’s travel back in time…

You are now entering the 6th century.

Music has been a part of mankind’s existence probably since Adam was kicked out of the garden (I think that might have been the first Blues song, but I digress).

Around the 6th century a really smart guy named Boethius decided to name the notes used in music based on the first 15 letters of the alphabet. At that time they only used 15 notes. So they each had a name.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O (They weren’t really in English)

Notes that sound the same

Check out these notes:
Flash Required.

What do you notice about the notes with the same name? Notice how they sound similar? Well a little while after Boethius, other people noticed the same thing! They decided that 15 notes was way too many and that there really were only seven (Pheww!) since notes that sounded similar should be given the same name. Nowadays we call notes with the same name octaves (oct means 8 and given there are 7 notes they repeat every 8). The musical alphabet was now:

A B C D E F G A B C D E F G

Notes between the Notes

Unfortunately, more smart guys came along and decided they like to use notes between the seven existing notes making reading music harder for the rest of us. But rather than use new letter names they stuck with the original seven and added sharps (#) and flats(b). Sharps raise a note and flats lower them. So A# is a note higher than A, but lower than B, kind of like A and 1/2. And D-flat is lower than D but higher than C. But, and this is a big but, not every note has a sharp and a flat, take a look:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
-or-
A B-flat B C D-flat D E-flat E F G-flat G A-flat

Notice there is no note between B and C, or E and F.

What does this have to do with the treble clef?

Back to our friend the treble clef. Rather than writing the names of notes down for every song, musicians draw a picture of how high or low the notes are on a grid called a staff, this is what we call music notation.

The problem with this is knowing exactly which note is which? You can see which notes are higher than others, but which one is A or B or whatever? Enter the treble clef. People began writing down which letter one line was at the beginning of music. After that the staff follows the musical alphabet. So once the treble clef is added at the beginning of the staff we know that the second line is letter G, since that is where the center of the G lies. Take a look at how the music alphabet now fits on the staff.

This is the first step in reading music notation, naming the notes. To learn more about music notation and the guitar check out our free guitar notes course. It will have you reading music in no time!

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