I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • in Western musical notation is designated by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, which repeat in a loop.
  • Different make reading different easier.
  • Each clef indicates how the lines and spaces of the staff correspond to pitch.

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 in 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.

Clefs and Ranges

The Notation of Notes, Clefs, and Ledger Lines chapter introduced four clefs: treble, bass, alto, and tenor. A clef indicates which pitches are assigned to the lines and spaces on a staff. 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).

Each clef indicates how the lines and spaces of the staff correspond to pitch. Memorizing the patterns for each clef will help you read music written for different voices and instruments.

Reading Treble Clef

The is one of the most commonly used clefs today. Example 1 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when a treble clef is employed. 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.”

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.

Example 2 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a treble clef. Remembering that these letter names spell the word “face” may make identifying these spaces easier.

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.

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 mnemonic device for this order of letter names is “Good Bikes Don’t Fall Apart” (G, B, D, F, A). The bass clef is sometimes called the “F clef”; as seen in Example 3, the dot of the bass clef begins on the F line (the second line from the top).

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.

Example 4 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a bass clef. The mnemonic device “All Cows Eat Grass” (A, C, E, G) may make identifying these spaces easier.

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.

Reading Alto Clef

Example 5 shows the letter names used for the lines of the staff with the , which is less commonly used today. The mnemonic device “Fat Alley Cats Eat Garbage” (F, A, C, E, G) may help you remember this order of letter names. 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.”

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.

Example 6 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with an alto clef, which can be remembered with the mnemonic device “Grand Boats Drift Flamboyantly” (G, B, D, F).

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.

Reading Tenor Clef

The , another less commonly used clef, is also sometimes called a “C clef,” but the center of the clef is indented around the second line from the top. Example 7 shows the letter names used for the lines of a staff when a tenor clef is employed, which can be remembered with the mnemonic device “Dodges, Fords, and Chevrolets Everywhere” (D, F, A, C, E):

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.

Example 8 shows the letter names used for the spaces of a staff with a tenor clef. The mnemonic device “Elvis’s Guitar Broke Down” (E, G, B, D) may make identifying these spaces easier.

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.

Ledger Lines

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. The same is true for ledger lines below a staff, as shown in Example 10:

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

  • Treble Clef Line Letters
  • Treble Clef Spaces Letter Names
  • Bass Clef Lines Letter Names
  • Bass Clef Spaces Letter Names
  • Alto Clef Line Letter Names
  • Alto Clef Spaces Letter Names
  • Tenor Clef Lines Letter Names
  • Tenor Clef Spaces Letter Names
  • Ledger Lines Above Treble Clef
  • Ledger Lines Below Bass Clef

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

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