I. Fundamentals

Reading Clefs

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • in western musical notation is designated by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, which repeat in a loop.
  • Different makes reading different easier.
  • The lowest line of a staff with a is E.
  • The lowest line of a staff with a is G.
  • The lowest line of a staff with an is F.
  • The lowest line of a staff with a  is D.

In western musical notation, pitches are designated by the first seven letters of the Latin alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. After G these letter names repeat again, beginning with A, creating a loop: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, etc. This loop of letter names exists because musicians and music theorists today accept what is called , or the assumption that pitches separated by an should have the same letter name. More information about this concept can be found in the next chapter, The Keyboard and the Grand Staff.

This assumption varies with . For example, some ancient Greek music theorists did not accept octave equivalence. These theorists used more than seven letters of the Greek alphabet to name pitches.

Reading Treble Clef

A indicates which pitches are assigned to the lines and spaces on a staff. One of the most commonly used clefs today is the . Example 1 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when a treble clef is employed:

A treble clef is on the left of a staff. The letter names of the lines are labeled. Bottom to top these are: E, G, B, D, and F.
Example 1. The letter names for the lines with a treble clef.

One that may help you remember this order of letter names is: Every Good Bird Does Fly (E, G, B, D, F). As seen in Example 1, the treble clef wraps around the ‘G’ line (the second line from the bottom). For this reason it is sometimes called the “G clef.”

Example 2 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a treble clef:

A treble clef is to the left of a staff. The letter names of the spaces are labeled. From bottom to top these are: F, A, C, and E.
Example 2. The letter names for the spaces with a treble clef.

Remembering that these letter names spell the word “face” may make identifying these spaces easier.

Reading Bass Clef

The other most commonly used clef today is the . Example 3 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when a bass clef is employed:

A staff with a bass clef to its left. The letter names of the lines are labeled. Bottom to top these are: G, B, D, F, A.
Example 3. The letter names for the lines with a bass clef.

One mnemonic device that may help you remember this order of letter names is: Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart (G, B, D, F, A). As seen in Example 3, the dot of the bass clef begins on the ‘F’ line (the second line from the top). For this reason it is sometimes called the “F clef.”

Example 4 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a bass clef:

A staff with a bass clef to the left. The letter names of the spaces are labeled. They are (bottom to top): A, C, E, and G.
Example 4. The letter names for the spaces with a bass clef.

The mnemonic device: All Cows Eat Grass (A, C, E, G) may make identifying these spaces easier.

Reading Alto Clef

A less commonly used clef today is the . Example 5 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when an alto clef is employed:

A staff with an alto clef to the left. The lines are labeled with letter names. These are (bottom to top): F, A, C, E, and G.
Example 5. The letter names for the lines with an alto clef.

One mnemonic device that may help you remember this order of letter names is: Fat Alley Cats Eat Garbage (F, A, C, E, G). As seen in Example 5, the center of the alto clef is indented around the ‘C’ line (the middle line). For this reason it is sometimes called a “C clef.”

Example 6 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with an alto clef:

A staff with an alto clef on the left side. The letter names of the spaces are labeled. These are (bottom to top): G, B, D, F.
Example 6. The letter names for the spaces with an alto clef.

The mnemonic device: Grand Boats Drift Flamboyantly (G, B, D, F) may make identifying these spaces easier.

Reading Tenor Clef

Another less commonly used clef today is the Example 7 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when a tenor clef is employed:

A staff with a tenor clef to the left. Letter names for the lines are labeled. These are (bottom to top): D, F, A, C, E.
Example 7. The letter names for the lines with a tenor clef.

One mnemonic device that may help you remember this order of letter names is: Dodges Fords And Chevrolets Everywhere (D, F, A, C, E). As seen in Example 7, the center of the tenor clef is indented around the ‘C’ line (the second from the top line). For this reason it, along with the alto clef, is also sometimes called a “C clef.”

Example 8 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a tenor clef:

A staff with a tenor clef to the left. The spaces are labeled. These are (bottom to top): E, G, B, D.
Example 8. The letter names for the spaces with a tenor clef.

The mnemonic device: Elvis’s Guitar Broke Down (E, G, B, D) may make identifying these spaces easier.

Why are there Four Different Clefs?

In the next chapter, The Keyboard and the Grand Staff, we will see that having multiple clefs makes reading different easier. The treble clef is typically used for higher voices and instruments, such as a flute, violin, trumpet, or soprano voice. The bass clef is usually utilized for lower voices and instruments, such as a bassoon, cello, trombone, or bass voice. The alto clef is primarily used for the viola, a mid-ranged instrument, while the tenor clef is sometimes employed in cello, bassoon, and trombone music (although the principal clef used for these instruments is the bass clef).

Ledger Lines (…again!)

When notes are too high or low to be written on a staff, small lines are drawn to extend the staff. You may recall from the previous chapter that these extra lines are called . Ledger lines can be used to extend a staff with any clef. Example 9 shows ledger lines above a staff with a treble clef:

A staff with a treble clef. Ledger lines are used to extend the staff, with the letter names G, A, B, and C.
Example 9. Ledger lines extend a staff upwards with a treble clef.

Notice that each space and line above the staff gets a letter name with ledger lines, as if the staff were simply continuing upwards. Example 10 shows ledger lines below a staff with a bass clef:

A staff with a bass clef. Ledger lines extend the staff down with the letter names F, E, D, and C.
Example 10. Ledger lines extend a staff downwards with a bass clef.

Notice that each space and line below the staff gets a letter name with ledger lines, as if the staff were simply continuing downwards.

Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet

Easy

  1. Treble and Bass Clefs (.pdf)
  2. Treble Clef (.pdf)
  3. Bass Clef (.pdf)
  4. Alto Clef (.pdf)
  5. Tenor Clef (.pdf)

Medium

  1. Worksheets in Treble Clef (.pdf)
  2. Treble Clef with Ledger Lines (.pdf)
  3. Worksheets in Bass Clef (.pdf, .pdf)
  4. Bass Clef with Ledger Lines (.pdf)
  5. Worksheets in Alto Clef (.pdf, .pdf)
  6. Worksheets in Tenor Clef (.pdf)

Advanced

  1. All Clefs (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing and Identifying Notes Assignment #1 (.pdf, .mscx)
  2. Writing and Identifying Notes Assignment #2 (.pdf, .mscx)

Media Attributions

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book