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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 6-8:
Sat 17th June 2023 [Grades 1-5 now available online on demand]
Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8 & diplomas:
from Sat 4th Nov 2023

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 Stave, and the Grand Staff

When we write music on a single group of 5 lines, this group is referred to as a stave.  

Sometimes we need to use two (or more) staves, because the range of an instrument is particularly wide, (for example, the piano or harp.) The staves are connected together on the left-hand side by a bracket, like so:

Bracket joins the two staves


 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.

The treble clef is also called the ‘G’ clef, because it encircles the line of music where we find G (above middle C):

Treble clef shows where G is= G

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:

Bass clef shows where F is= F

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!


 Octave Clefs

A small “8” hanging below a clef is used to show that the music actually sounds an octave lower than indicated. 

Treble clef


1: C above middle C

2: Middle C

Treble Octave clef


3: Middle C

4: C below middle C

 This clef is most often seen in a tenor voice 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 and trumpet.

But some bigger, lower-pitched instruments, like the bassoon, trombone or cello, 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.

Ledger lines


These bigger instruments use ‘C’ clefs: 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  Alto clefthird line is middle C

Tenor clef  Tenor cleffourth line from bottom is middle C


As you can see, the alto and tenor clefs are 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 middle C is, you can work out where the other notes are.


Look at two chromatic scales using alto and tenor clefs:

Alto clef:

Chromatic scale in Alto clef


Tenor clef:

Chromatic scale in Tenor clef


Which instruments use the alto clef?


The viola is the only instrument which still uses 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 by other instruments.)


Which instruments use the tenor clef?

tromboneThe bassoon, cello and trombone all use the tenor clef.



Grade 5 Questions

In Grade 5 Theory, you need to be able to transpose music between anyof the clefs. Normall you have to keep the pitch exactly the same (but read the question carefully!) 

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. )


In this piece, which is for flute (top stave) and piano (lower two staves), your task is to transpose the left hand piano part in bars 3 and 4 into the tenor clef, without changing the pitch. The bars you need to transpose are marked with a bracket.


First, double check the current clef (1). This is the bass clef. 

Next, look at the first note you have to transpose (2) and work out whether it is above or below middle C

This note is Bb below middle C.

Now look at the new clef and remind yourself where middle C is located (it is the red line here:)


Our first note is one step lower than middle C, so write it in on the space below, then continue with the rest of the notes, including any accidentals if necessary. 

You will probably have to change the stem directions on some notes - be careful! Notes which are above the middle line have stems pointing down, and vice versa. Notes on the middle line are correct in either position. In these two bars, we had to change the stem direction on the third note, F. The last note, A, is on the middle line, so the stem can go either way.


You don’t need to work out every note name. Count lines and spaces only, e.g. next space down, two lines up etc.

Key signatures in the alto and tenor clefs are covered in the next lesson.




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