Lesson 3: Do Clef and Fa Clef

You are probably wondering, “How can one know where the half steps and whole steps occur?” The answer is that the “clef” tells you. Clef means “key,” and it truly is the key to discovering the melody. There are two kinds of clefs: a “Do Clef” and a “Fa Clef.” The Do clef tells you where Do is. The Fa Clef tells you where Fa is.

As you can probably guess, the placement of the clef makes a tremendous difference to the way the piece sounds. In the following video demonstration, notice how different a little tune can sound when the clef is moved:

The following is another example which illustrates how the clef really is the key to how Gregorian chant sounds. When the clef is changed, see if you can hear how different the piece sounds. It is all because changing the clef changes the location of the half steps and whole steps:

Finding the clef always works, no matter what ancient MS one is studying. However, sometimes the clefs are not easy to spot. Can you find the clef in this MS? To help, I’ve also included the Vaticana version for reference:

Sometimes the Vaticana pieces move the clef “mid-piece” (i.e. in the middle of the song) to make sure all the notes can fit on the staff. This was also done in the Mediæval MSS, for example at “adesse regum”:

Notice that the custos made this transition seamless. The custos (“guide” or “sentinel”) appears at the end of every line of chant. It is not a note, but a visual cue for the first pitch on the next line: