Chiavette (plural of Italian: chiavetta, [kjaˈvetta]) is a system of standard combinations of clefs used in polyphonic music of the 16th through 18th centuries. One set of clefs sometimes termed chiavi transportate places each staff line a third lower than the usual set of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs, called chiavi naturali. A second set of clefs places each staff line a third higher.

The phenomenon of music appearing in standard clef combinations was first noted by music theorist Giuseppe Paolucci in 1765.[1] Scholars disagree over the meaning of these groupings, but there are two basic views:

  1. When clefs shift, pitches shift, or
  2. When clefs shift, vocal ranges shift, but pitches remain the same.

The first view implies that when a note such as C appears in chiavette [high clefs], it should be sung or played a third higher than a C appearing in chiavi naturale. If this view is true, many modern performances of Renaissance polyphony may be at pitches differing significantly from those of the Renaissance.

Eighteenth-century theorists saw in these groupings a system of transposition clefs. This indicated the standard groupings could be used to transpose a piece for an ensemble of a different vocal range by reading a work in a different set of clefs. For example, a piece written in high clefs for a choir of men and boys could be performed by a men-only ensemble at a pitch a fifth lower by imagining the contrabasso set of clefs. This requires imagining a change of key signature.


  1. Paolucci, Giuseppe (1765). Arte practica di contrappunto dimostrata con essempj di varj autori e con osservazioni, Tomo primo. Venice.

Further reading

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