Grade Five Music Theory Lesson 4: Clefs
To study this lesson you need to be able to read the treble (or ‘G’) clef and bass (or ‘F’) clef without difficulty.
If you’re not sure about reading the bass clef, you might want to study “Learn the Bass Clef” before you start this lesson.
The Staff or Stave, and the Grand Staff
When we write music on a single group of 5 lines, this group is referred to as a staff or stave. (There is no difference in meaning.) Sometimes we need to use two or more staffs (or staves) because the range of an instrument is particularly wide, (for example, the piano or harp.) The staffs are connected together on the left-hand side by a bracket, like so:
This is also known as the grand staff. The grand staff uses the treble clef and the bass clef.
The Two Main clefs
The most frequently used clefs are treble clef and bass clef.
You probably already know that the treble clef is also called the ‘G’ clef, because it encircles the line of music where we find G (above middle C):
In the same way, the bass clef encircles the line where we find F (below middle C), so it’s also called the ‘F’ clef:
Historically, these symbols started out as the actual letters ‘G’ and ‘F’, but became more stylised over time. Make sure you can draw them correctly!
What does the little “8” on a clef mean, and which instruments use it?
A small “8” directly above or below a clef is used to show that the music is an octave lower or higher than normally indicated. For example, if the “8” is below the clef, the music will sound an octave lower than usual.
1: C above middle C;
2: middle C
3: middle C;
4: C below middle C
This clef is most often seen in a tenor vocal part.
Alto and Tenor Clefs (or "C" clefs)
Smaller instruments, which play notes mainly above middle C, only use the treble clef. These include the violin, flute, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, and guitar.
But some bigger, lower-pitched instruments, like the bassoon, trombone or double bass, have a range which is partly above and partly below middle C. If we only used the treble or bass clefs for these instruments, we would end up using a lot of ledger lines:
Ledger lines are quite difficult to read, so the clef is changed to suit the pitch of the music at any particular point.
These bigger instruments use ‘C’ clefs, (i.e. clefs which tell the player where middle C is), as well as bass clef and treble clef where necessary.
There are two main ‘C’ clefs, both of which you need know for Grade 5 Theory:
Alto clef – third line is middle C
Tenor clef – fourth line from bottom is middle C
As you can see, the alto and tenor clefs have the same shape. This is because they are both ‘C’ clefs- they tell you which line C is found on. The pointed central part of the C clef tells you where middle C lies. If you look carefully, you'll see that the tenor clef sits a little higher up than the alto clef.
When you know where C is, you can work out where the other notes are.
Look at two chromatic scales using alto and tenor clefs:
Which instruments use the alto clef?
These days, the only instrument which uses the alto clef is the viola.
Sometimes it is called the “viola clef” for this reason.
(Historically, it was used in vocal music, by the oboe and other instruments.)
Which instruments use the tenor clef?
The bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass and trombone all use the tenor clef.
Grade 5 Questions
In Grade 5 Theory, you need to be able to transpose music between any of the clefs, at the octave. (See below).
(Transpose means “rewrite” and “at the octave” means that the note names are the same, they are just in the octave above or below. For example, you won’t have to transpose down a fifth, and use a new clef at the same time- phew!)
Usually, you’re only asked to transpose about one bar into a new clef.
You might be asked questions about the clefs which certain instruments use.
Transposing to a New Clef
Usually, you’ll have to transpose from a common clef (treble or bass) to a less common C clef, but you should be prepared for anything.
Follow these steps, and you should succeed every time.
(Click here if you'd like to print some manuscript paper. )
a) Find the first note (FN from now on) you want to transpose, then read back (i.e. from right to left) along the line of music until you come to a clef. (Most extracts don’t include a change a clef mid-stave, but you must check just in case):
In this case, we are going to transpose the section marked with an "X".
Reading back along the stave, the first clef we find is a bass clef, (it's a smaller size because it's not at the start of the new stave).
b) Use the clef you just found to work out the note name of the FN, and how far it is above or below middle C.
In our example, the FN is the second B below middle C.
c) Next, look carefully at the clef you have to transpose into. Remember that C clefs tell you where middle C is.
d) Place your FN (head only, so you can join up the stems neatly) on the new stave, making sure you leave enough space to add the key signature (if necessary) and any rests.
Tip: B in tenor clef looks like C in treble clef!
e) Follow the pattern of the original music and put in the remaining notes, including their accidentals (sharps, flats or naturals).
Accidentals don’t change when you transpose between clefs. Join the stems together in the same groupings as the original.
Tip: you don’t need to work out every note name. Count lines and spaces only, e.g. next space down, two lines up etc.
f) Add the key signature. The number of sharps or flats won’t change, but their position will be different. Check the key signature lesson for details of all the positions.
Here's the finished transposition: