Tenor Clef Uncovered: A Beginner’s Music Theory Guide

By Jade Bultitude
Published on

The tenor clef is a slightly less common clef. This clef is most commonly used for the upper registers of instruments that ordinarily use bass clef.

If you would like to learn how to read alto clef notes then read this blog post carefully as we will teach you how to read the tenor clef note names and more.

A clef is a symbol written at the beginning of staff lines. This symbol helps to determine a pitch for each line and space and therefore helps the performer to know what notes to play. The staff represents the music a composer would like the performer to play and by placing a clef at the start of the staff, each line and space will have an assigned pitch.

What is the Tenor clef?

The tenor clef is a type of C clef. This literally means that in the dip in the middle of the clef is the note middle C. This C clef can then be placed on any line of the staff. Wherever you place the C clef on the stave the line directly in the middle will be middle C.

The Tenor clef is a C clef on a very specific line of the staff. That line being the fourth line up from the bottom.

tenor clef with middle c labelled

The fourth line up from the bottom of the staff is middle C. This clef allows instruments to play notes above and below middle C with ease and is a great clef to use to avoid too many ledger lines.

As with other clefs the tenor clef will have five lines and four spaces.

What Are The 7 Musical Notes on the Tenor Clef Staff?

The notes of the alto staff are, from the bottom line to the top line are as follows:

D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E

Notice how once we get to the D the musical alphabet repeats again.

notes of the tenor clef labelled

Reading Tenor Clef

Lines of the Staff

As you can see above, every note is either on a line or in a space. If you separate these out it is much easier to remember!

Below you can see the line notes:

line notes of tenor clef labelled

Spaces of the staff

Below you can see the space notes:

space notes of the tenor clef lablled

There are some very easy way to help you remember these lines and spaces note names and these are different mnemonic devices.

For the line notes we can use the mnemonic device – Dogs Face A Cat Everyday. This rhyme goes from bottom to top on the five lines and the lines correspond with the mnemonic above. The bottom line will be D ‘dogs’, the second line will be F ‘face’, the third line will be A ‘a’, the fourth line will be C ‘cat’ and the top line will be E ‘everyday’.

alto celf line notes, dogs face a cat everyday

Spaces of the staff

For the space notes we can remember Eat Good Bananas Daily. The rhyme goes from bottom to top just as we saw with the line notes. The bottom space is Eat ‘E’, the second space is Good ‘G’, the third space is Bananas ‘B’ and the fourth space is Daily ‘D’.

alto clef space notes, eat good bananas daily

By using these rhymes you will be able to learn how to quickly read tenor clef notes.

Line Note Reading Practice

Want to do some tenor clef line note reading practice? Take a look at the short piece of sheet music below and see if you can read the alto clef notation.

two measure melody in tenor clef using only line notes

The answers are:

D, F, D, F, C, E, A, F, A, C, F

Space Note Reading Practice

Want to do some tenor clef space note reading practice? Take a look at the short piece below and see if you can read the tenor clef note names.

two measure melody in tenor clef using only space notess

The answers are:

E, G, E, G, D, B, B, D, F, D, G

How To Draw A Tenor Clef Properly

The tenor clef is an interesting one to draw, it is exactly the same as the alto clef. It is made up of two reverse C’s connected by a little V. There are then two vertical lines to the left hand side.

The key thing with the tenor clef is to make sure you have the fourth line up from the bottom going through the middle of the V. This is the difference between alto and tenor clef, for the alto clef the middle line goes through the middle of the V.

how to draw the tenor clef instructions

Grab some staff paper and give it a go!

Which instruments use the tenor clef?

The tenor clef is far less common than the treble and bass clefs (G clef and F clef). The treble and bass clefs are by far the most common clefs. However, the tenor clef is still used!There are some different instruments that use the tenor clef.

The most common instruments that uses the tenor clef are the:

  • Bassoon
  • Cello
  • Double Bass
  • Euphonium
  • Trombone

However, for all of these instruments, the tenor clef is not the main clef that they will use. The clef they use mostly is the bass clef and the use of tenor clef is for upper ranges and is commonly used mostly to avoid ledger lines. If we were to just use bass clef then in order to play the upper ranges of the bassoon, double bass, cello, trombone and euphonium we would have to use many ledger lines.

j.s. bach cello piece extract using tenor clef

The above is an example for the cello from J.S. Bach. you can see how the music switches from using the bass clef to the tenor clef.

As with other clefs it is also possible to use ledger lines to extend the notes available.

Why does the Tenor clef exist?

The tenor clef was historically used to reduce the need for ledger lines in vocal music, specifically the tenor voice. Hence the name of the clef. This is because the tenor voice sits in a very awkward position of singing some notes above middle C but mostly below, exactly in the middle of the treble clef and the bass clef. By using the tenor clef the notes written are exactly in the middle.

Want to Learn More About Music?

If you want to continue learning more about musical notation and the different four clefs in music theory, then make sure to check out our ultimate guide to clefs. Clefs are so fascinating as they allow a lot more flexibility when writing music. As we have seen, moving between the tenor clef, alto clef, bass clef and treble clef allows us to avoid too many ledger lines and move into the upper ranges (upper register) of instruments with ease.

The best place to look next is to learn about the treble clef and bass clef and how to read music notation in these different clefs.

Similar to the tenor clef we also have the alto clef. Both of these clefs are examples of c clefs. The only difference between the alto and tenor clefs is that the middle C shifts to a different line on the staff.

treble clef, bass clef, alto clef, tenor clef, showing middle C
From left to right: treble and bass clef followed by the alto clef and tenor clef. All clefs show middle C
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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.