Music is another language and like any other language, there are specific ways to notate music that have been passed down for generation. This is where clefs come in! We’ll be learning about the four main clefs (treble, bass, alto and tenor) and how to use them .
Notated music is always written on a stave, sometimes referred to as a staff. A stave is simply five horizontal lines stacked on top of each other. We then place different note lengths on different lines and spaces on the stave . However, to make these note lengths on the different parts of the stave make sense, we need to add what we call a clef to understand what the notes on the lines and spaces represent. If you would like to know more about note lengths first, make sure to click here.
The first important thing to know before you can write specific notes on a stave, is the musical alphabet. The musical alphabet has seven letters and will keep repeating itself!
A B C D E F G … A B C D E F G … A B C D E F G
Clefs in music are always written at the start of our piece of music and it helps you to interpret what the notes on the stave are. Remember, these notes will only ever be part of the musical alphabet.
In music theory there are four main common clefs that you should be confident with. These are the Treble clef, Bass clef, Tenor clef and Alto clef! Each of these have different uses and you will see as we move through this blog post!
The first clef and the clef that is the most commonly used, is the treble clef. Read on to find out more!
This is perhaps the most common clef and is usually used to show notes written above middle C. If you are familiar with the piano then this clef is used for your right hand, the top half of the piano. The treble clef is used for the upper ranges of the piano but also for instruments such as the flute, violin and oboe.
The treble clef is sometimes referred to as the G clef. The reason it is called the G clef is because the middle of the clef is where the note G sits. We start drawing the treble clef on the second line up on the stave and on this second line sits the note G.
Then simply using our musical alphabet we can move up and down following this order of letters. In the space above the second line where we had the note G, would be the note with the letter A. The line above this would be B and so on and so forth. If we go down below the G, we get F in the space and then on the bottom line we get an E etc.
A great mnemonic to help remember the notes on the stave in the treble clef is:
For the lines: Every Good Bird Does Fly
For the Spaces: FACE in the Space!
The second most common clef is the bass clef. The bass clef is used for notes below middle C, again if you are familiar with the piano then the bass clef is used for the left hand, bottom of the piano, but also for instruments such as the cello, double bass and bassoon! The piano and the harp use both the treble and bass clefs, this is because both of these instruments play notes both above and below middle C!
The bass clef is sometimes referred to as the F clef, this is because between the two dots on the second line from the top (fourth line up from the bottom) is the note F.
Then simply using our musical alphabet we can move up and down following this order of letters. In the space above the fourth line would be the note with the letter G. The line above this would be A and so on and so forth. If we go down below the F on the fourth line we get E in the space and then on the third line we get a D etc.
A great mnemonic to help remember the notes on the stave in bass clef is:
For the lines: Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart
For the spaces: All cows eat grass
The Grand Stave
Before moving onto the next two clefs it is important to talk about the grand stave. As discussed above, instruments such as the piano and the harp use both the treble and bass clef when playing. Both the treble and bass clefs put together form the grand stave.
The grand stave only has one true ledger line and that is the ledger line for middle C. If you use any other ledger lines this is when you look at either the treble or bass clef on it’s own!
Being aware of the Grand stave makes it easier to understand how to write a note when you have one clef without the other. For example if we would like to write the A below middle C, this is how it would look on the grand stave and in each clef.
Alto and Tenor Clef
The next two clefs we will discuss are the alto and tenor clef! Both of these clefs are in fact examples of the ‘C clef’. This is because middle C always appears in the middle of the clef.
The trick with this clef is that where you place it on the stave effects the notes. You will see more as you read on!
Moving further through our clefs, we get to the alto clef. The alto clef is a type of C clef. We call this a C clef, because directly in the middle of this clef note C! In the alto clef, middle C sits on the third line of the stave.
This clef is most commonly used for one particular instrument, the viola. The viola is a slightly larger violin and it’s notes are slightly lower but not in the bass depths of the cello and so the alto clef is the perfect imbetween clef to use.
A great mnemonic to help remember the notes on the stave when using the alto clef is:
For the lines: Fat Alley Cats Eat Garbage
For the spaces: Giant Birds Don’t Fly.
The tenor clef is also a type of C clef. In tenor clef the middle C sits on the second line down in the stave. The tenor clef is most commonly used for the upper ranges of the cello, bassoon and trombone!
A great mnemonic to remember the lines on the tenor clef stave:
For the lines: Don’t Forget Alligators Can’t Escape
For the spaces: Elephants gobble bananas down
Moving Between Clefs
If you are a music theory student you will often be asked to move or transcribe between the clefs. This simply means writing a note so that it sounds exactly the same in each clef!
This is very easy to do, if you understand the grand stave.
Remember, if either the treble or the bass clef is taken away, we simply replace this with a ledger line. A ledger line is an extra line that provides more stave!
No matter what note you are transcribing you must always use middle C as a reference point.
This is the same for both the alto and tenor clef as well.
Let’s take a look at an example. Below you can see that we have a D above middle C written in the treble clef.
Let’s now write this out in all clefs. Remember the important detail we said D above middle C. So we are looking for this note above middle C!
Here we have the D above middle C in Bass clef! Notice how this sits just on top of that C ledger line.
Here we have the D above middle C written in the alto clef. Notice how this is on the second space down from the top, just above middle C which is on the third line!
Finally, here we have the D above middle C written in the tenor clef. Notice how this is written in the top space of the stave just above the middle C that sits on the second line down from the top!
It really is that simple to write the same note in each clef – as long as you use middle C as a reference point and you ensure that you are confident with ledger lines you will always achieve the correct answer.
What instruments use the treble clef?
The treble clef is used for instruments that play notes above middle C. This includes the violin, flute, oboe, trumpet and the right hand of the piano!
What instruments use the bass clef?
The bass clef is used for instruments that play notes below middle C. This includes the cello, double bass, bassoon, tuba and the left hand of the piano!
What instruments use the alto clef?
The alto clef is not typically used for that many instruments but the most common instrument that it is used for is the viola!
What instruments use the tenor clef?
The tenor clef is most commonly used for the upper octaves of instruments such as the cello and trombone! The most common place that it is used is for the tenor singers in an SATB choir.
What clefs are included in the Grand Stave?
The grand stave has the treble clef at the top and the bass clef at the bottom!