\ ˈklef How to pronounce clef (audio) \

Definition of clef

: a sign placed at the beginning of a musical staff to determine the pitch of the notes

Illustration of clef

Illustration of clef

clef: 1 treble clef, 2 bass clef

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A musical-notation symbol at the beginning of a music staff, a clef indicates the pitch of the notes on the staff. Clefs were originally letters, identifying letter-named pitches, that were added to one or more of the staff's lines (thus providing a "key" to their identity). Knowing the identity of a single line permitted the musician to identify all the other lines and spaces above and below. Clefs were first regularly used in the 12th century. The Gothic letter forms of G and F evolved into the modern treble and bass clefs, respectively; the letter C evolved into the rarer alto, tenor, baritone, and soprano clefs.

First Known Use of clef

circa 1577, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for clef

French, literally, key, from Old French, from Latin clavis — more at clavicle

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Cite this Entry

“Clef.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.

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More Definitions for clef


\ ˈklef How to pronounce clef (audio) \

Kids Definition of clef

: a sign placed on the staff in writing music to show what pitch is represented by each line and space

More from Merriam-Webster on clef

Nglish: Translation of clef for Spanish Speakers Encyclopedia article about clef


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