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11. Clefs & Transposition

Grade 4 Music Theory Lesson 11: Clefs

By now you should already know about two clefs - the treble clef and the bass clef. For grade four theory, you also need to understand the alto clef


What is a clef?

A clef is a symbol we write at the left hand side of every stave, to show you which notes lie on which lines. The clef identifies one line with one note, and then you can work out all the other notes from that starting point.

The treble clef curls around the line where we find G above middle C:

treble clef

It's also known as the G clef for this reason.


The bass clef has two dots either side of the line where we find F below middle C. 

bass clef

It's also known as the F clef.


Why do we have different clefs?

violaInstruments (and voices) which are high-pitched use the treble clef. Lower instruments use the bass clef, because the notes they play are difficult to write using the treble clef - we would have to write a huge number of ledger lines in order to show the notes at the right pitch.

Using a different clef makes it easier for the player to read the music.

Many years ago, there were lots of different clefs in use - much more than today. Most of these clefs have become obsolete, but one of these, the alto clef, is still used by one instrument - the viola.

The range of the viola is between the treble and bass clefs.

The viola uses the alto clef, so that the notes it uses can be written with a minimum of ledger lines.


The alto clef

The alto clef is a type of C clef. It's a clef which tells you where middle C is located on the stave. (It's not the only C clef - there is another one called the "tenor clef". You'll learn about the tenor clef at grade 5.)

The alto clef looks like this:

alto clef

It's quite fancy, isn't it! That's the printed version. When you draw one by hand, you can simplify it a bit. Here's a hand-drawn alto clef:


You need to draw one vertical line, then another with two arms. The two arms must go either side of the middle line of the stave, like this:

alto clef stave

And here's our handwritten one:


The two arms go either side of the middle line because that line is middle C.


So, the middle line is middle C - that's quite easy to remember we hope! The next space up will be D, and the space below is B. To work out the other notes, just start at the middle line/middle C and count up or down.

notes in alto clef


Questions about the alto clef

In the grade four exam you will be tested on the alto clef in a variety of ways. You might have to use it to 

  • name or write out notes,
  • work out or write intervals,
  • name or write out triads,
  • write out key signatures and
  • transpose notes written using other clefs.


Notes, intervals and triads

Do these questions in exactly the same way as you would for the treble and bass clef. Most grade 4 students (those who are not viola players) can't read the alto clef very quickly - it doesn't matter though. Locate the middle line and then work out the letter names of the notes and pencil them in, and work out your answers in the normal way.


Here's a triad question, for example:

Write the named triad as shown by the key signature:

tonic triad alto clef question


  • The key signature has 5 flats, so it must be Db major. (Remember you can look at the last but one flat in the key signature to work out the key!)
  • The tonic triad will have the notes Db, F and Ab.
  • Find the middle line - that's C. Db must be in the next space. Write in the Db:
    tonic triad alto clef root
  • Complete the triad by adding notes in the next two spaces:
    major key tonic triad alto clef
  • Don't forget to raise the third of a dominant chord in a minor key by a semitone (half step)! (E.g. the dominant chord in A minor is E major, E-G#-B).


Key signatures in the alto clef

Key signatures need to be written carefully at all times, but especially when you're using a less familiar clef. Here are the positions of the sharps and flats in each of the key signatures you need to know for this grade:

sharp key signatures alto clef

flat key signatures alto clef


It's not very difficult to learn these. Just remember these two tips:

  1. The line/space you need to start on is between where it lies in the treble and bass clef 
    key signatures f major treble bass alto
    The Bb is on the middle line in the treble clef, and the 2nd line in the bass clef. In the alto clef it sits in the space between these two.

  2. The pattern of up/down is the same as for the treble and bass clefs: 
    key signatures b major treble bass alto
    Compare the three clefs: the first sharp is written high, the next is low, then high, then low, then lower.  The flats also follow a consistent pattern.

Transposing into a new clef

In the grade four exam you might be asked to demonstrate your alto clef skills by transposing a few notes from the treble or bass clefs.


Rewrite these note so that they sound the same but using the alto clef. Remember to include the key signature.

transpose from treble to alto clef

Start by writing in the key signature (see above):

alto clef e major key signature

Next, look at the first note. Identify it by name, and decide whether it's above or below middle C.

  • In our example the first note is middle C#.

Find middle C on the alto clef stave, and then count up/down to locate the position of the note.

  • Our example will start right on the middle line:
    alto transposition first note

Watch out for stem direction - sometimes it will need to change!

Fill in the rest of the notes, and add any accidentals as necessary. Accidentals just need to be copied over - they won't change at all.

alto transposition complete

Notice how we had to change the stem directions of the D# and F# (the third and fourth notes). 

That's it!


 Viola image via "Bratsche" by Just plain Bill - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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