When I introduce the term, somebody invariably hears me say “trouble clef.”
“I want a purple one of those,” one girl told me recently, after hearing me tell another student what that curly thing was called. “Wanna know why? Because I’m trouble!” I peeled off a sparkly purple sticker and placed it on her forehead, a reward for a completely silent last six minutes of class that day. The way she said it made me think she’s been told that only in the most endearing of ways.
I always try explaining that it’s treble, but students don’t always hear the difference. They don’t have a lot of context for treble.
Clefs are all about context, really. Sitting on the far left of the music staff, they tell you which note names are assigned to each line and space. If all instruments and voices shared a common clef most of them would find their parts written well above or below the staff. Which is difficult to read. So each clef designates a certain set of note names—treble clef, sometimes known as G-clef (its swirls lock down g on the staff,) accommodates the higher pitches.
The idea that pitches aren’t necessarily fixed is difficult. I, for one, live as though they are. Violinists don’t spend a lot of time reading in other clefs. When I look at a note, I hear a particular pitch in my head. Sound and physical location are linked in a way that is hard to break. Learning to read bass clef when I started piano lessons in 5th grade was like learning a new language. I’m fluent now, but it still doesn’t feel like my native tongue.
Besides, a violinist can get by, living as though this were a world of fixed notes, thankful she doesn’t play some other instrument that has to deal with relativity and perspective a little more up-front.
And isn’t it easy, living that way? Thinking you know exactly what fits where? Believing everybody else reads off the same staff?
I say treble clef, and somebody in the room hears trouble clef, and it always makes me smile.
As tempting as it is to behave as if everything is fixed and sure, though, I am just as tempted to be overwhelmed by the complicated definition, the deeper answer, the mystery of it all. In music, in life, wherever. I see generosity in a treble clef. Part question mark, part ampersand: Treble voice, in the vast world of sound you are here. This is your starting point. Play—make it music.
A starting point is a wonderful place to start, wherever you are, whatever the notes.