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

Illustration of clef

Illustration of clef
  • 1 treble clef
  • 2 bass clef

Did you know?

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.

Word History


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

First Known Use

circa 1577, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of clef was circa 1577

Dictionary Entries Near clef

Cite this Entry

“Clef.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 12 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


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

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