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Master composers used to handwrite their music. Some were complete slobs.

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Being a musical genius doesn't mean you're a visual genius. Especially when it comes to handwriting.

Today, the treble clef appears printed on composers' notepaper or preloaded on computers. It indicates notes' pitch, because it's placed on the second line of the musical staff, showing a G.

The clef on a staff

The clef on a staff. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the past, even the greatest musical geniuses often had to write out the treble clef themselves. The results were varied:

Musical geniuses ... trying to draw a treble clef

Musical geniuses ... trying to draw a treble clef. (Phil Edwards/Vox)

These clefs come from "autograph copies" of each composer's music — versions that they handwrote. Each is just an example, not necessarily how a composer always wrote. And the composers themselves were chosen just for flavor, rather than for any particular scientific or historical reason.

The chart above shows a mix of personal quirk and the evolution of a standardized mark over the course of a few centuries. As Smithsonian notes in its history of the sign, the treble clef evolved as a representation of the letter G (which is why it's also called the G clef, since it indicates that the line it appears on is G1). It probably began to appear in the 17th century, though other sources dispute the exact timing and origin, with some placing it as early as the 13th century).

Some of the treble clef's evolution can be seen in the timeline below, from Charles Villiers Stanford and Cecil Forsyth's 1918 A History of Music:

Evolution of the clef, as charted by a pair of historians

Evolution of the clef, as charted by a pair of historians.

A History of Music

There's also something telling about the most beautiful treble clefs on the chart, which might say something about the artists' perfectionism — or lack thereof. One thing, however, is certain. Beethoven was very, very messy:

The first autograph page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32

The first autograph page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32.

Wikimedia Commons

The best resource for manuscripts like these is probably the Petrucci Music Library, which contributed many of these manuscripts, as well as the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Morgan Library.