V.com weekend vote: Which clefs do you read fluently?

March 6, 2022, 5:11 PM · I would love to say that my early music education helped me read all musical clefs equally well, but it just wouldn't be true.

First, what is a clef? It's the little symbol on the left that shows us which notes are represented by the lines and spaces on the musical staff.

musical clefs
Image ©Violinist.com.

Since different instruments have different ranges, there are several different clefs, and each one changes which notes are assigned to those five lines and the spaces between. A violinist generally reads from treble clef, viola from alto clef, and cello from bass clef (most of the time). The piano, with its two hands each playing a different range, requires reading both treble and bass clefs simultaneously.

When I started music lessons, I actually did not start on the piano. So my introduction to music-reading was completely focused on reading music on just one staff, in order to play it on the violin. That meant that I started reading music with the treble clef (or "G-clef"), and for a long time, my music-reading world did not grow any larger than that.

Years later, when I wanted to learn to play the piano, I made the uncomfortable discovery that I needed to learn another clef: the bass clef, or "F-clef." Fortunately a lot of the concepts are the same, but it still felt like transposing all the time, and I have yet to feel as fluent and comfortable reading that clef as I am reading treble clef.

Had I decided to take up the viola, I would have been in for another surprise: alto clef, AKA C-clef, or "viola clef." Very often, violinists who decide to also play viola find that reading the viola clef is one of the most difficult parts of the transition.

At this point, I'm very fluent in treble clef, passable in bass clef, and pretty much a disaster in alto clef.

Do you read several different clefs, or mostly one? If you are fluent in reading several clefs, what helped you reach that point? What it because you played several instruments? Sang in choir? Played piano? Took up viola and got really good at it? Please choose the answer in the vote that most closely matches your experience, and then tell us about it in the comments.


March 7, 2022 at 12:05 AM · In your analysis you left out tenor clef.

March 7, 2022 at 12:39 AM · I read all three fluently, and use them all regularly. I have primarily played viola for about 20 years, and I sing bass. I also had 12 years of piano lessons before I started on strings. (I'm passable in tenor clef, but have rarely ever had to read it.)

March 7, 2022 at 01:13 AM · I read the treble, alto and bass clef fluently. I play both violin, viola and piano.

As a kid I started on piano. After a couple of years I started on violin. In my late teenage years I took up the viola and later on became a viola student on the Royal Danish Music Conservatory, so viola became my main instrument.

I also compose music and sometimes write parts in the tenor clef , but I don't read that clef as fluently as the other clefs.

The C-clef can be put on any staff line and in Bach's time it was common to use the C-clef on the other lines apart from the two lines where the alto and tenor clefs are located. But music that was published with those other C-clefs are now published using the clefs which are in use today.

Sometimes the French G-clef was also applied. The French G-clef is the G-clef located on the lowest staff line. You can find the French G-clef in the handwritten copy of Bach's Chaconne for solo violin a couple of places in the score. He probably used that clef because there was not much space for leger lines on the music sheet. That is at least the impression I get when I look at the handwritten score of which I have a photocopy.

Right now I am actually practicing the Chaconne and play from the copy of Bach's handwriting. You might argue that the handwriting is difficult to read, but when you have already practiced this piece for years you know what is written in the score and that helps a lot when you are using the handwritten music as your sheet music.

Oh by the way: Sometimes I had a violin student who wanted to play viola instead of violin. In those cases the students have been able to pick up the alto clef with surprisingly little effort. Of course it takes some work, but it has usually been a minor problem.

March 7, 2022 at 01:39 AM · Tenor?

March 7, 2022 at 02:36 AM · Started on piano and violin as a child. Took up viola several years ago to play in local orchestras that were needing violists but not violinists. Took a good couple of years to really get comfortable with alto clef.

March 7, 2022 at 02:42 AM · I didn’t think there would be a lot of votes for tenor clef…!

March 7, 2022 at 03:55 AM · I learned treble clef first, much as you did Laurie, and it is still my mother tongue. I also sing soprano so singing in choir hasn't helped me with different clefs.

I have became fluent in alto clef over the past several years since viola has become my primary instrument. It took a couple of years of playing viola repertoire in orchestra and chamber groups before I could read it as easily as I could treble, including all the positions and accidentals. Fortunately I don't seem to have forgotten treble as I'm playing violin in orchestra this concert, for the first time in a while. And I'm still excited when I come upon a viola part written in treble clef. It makes me feel like I have a hidden super power.

I stumble along in bass clef when I have to read some cello music with my son, or transpose a part in school. All cows eat grass. I don't think I'll ever be fluent in bass clef unless I learn to play another instrument.

March 7, 2022 at 03:59 AM · Someone made a mistake 500 years ago. If Viola parts were written in the Mezzo-Soprano C-Clef, Violinists could switch to Viola immediately. Ex.; Middle line for both of those clefs is first finger on the second string.

March 7, 2022 at 11:42 AM · And, Joel, folk wanting to play violin music a fifth down on the viola (like I'm sort of doing with the 2nd Partita) wouldn't have to choose between "transposing" from the violin part (as I'm doing - I have the remnants of a sensitive and accurate absolute pitch, so pretending to myself that I'm playing a violin, etc. doesn't come naturally) and forking out on or otherwise generating an alto clef transposition.

A long time ago now, I was in a string chamber music group playing through the Beethoven Septet. I got a violinist to play the horn part on my viola reading it straight as though she were playing the violin, while I seemed to succeed in transposing from the clarinet part on my violin.

I suppose at some time I might have been able to succeed in transposing on sight from tenor clef, but I don't think I ever had to.

Octave down treble clef (as you get with Dvorak and, perhaps Beethoven) is a nightmare for my cellist brother, whereas reading treble clef at pitch would not present him with too much of a problem (He was a passable solo treble before his voice broke, I remember him performing "Chacun à son goût" somewhere and also "Circa mea pectora" at the Bernard Robinson Music Camp). On the other hand, I think he can cope with singing a tenor part that's written with that double-treble clef.

I had organ lessons at school, making disgracefully slow progress and never getting to the dizzy heights of being able to transpose at sight - but I AM fluent in bass clef. I was also a bass in the school's plebs choir (I don't have that good a voice) though these days if I'm in a choir I take the tenor part as does my brother, amateur choirs being often short on tenors.

Pity a conductor (who has clefs plus transpositions galore to deal with)!

March 7, 2022 at 12:34 PM · I read all three clefs, but only on the "appropriate" instruments. I would fall apart if I had to read alto clef on cello, but I have no trouble reading treble, tenor and bass clefs on cello

I do not play piano, but I can "read" treble and bass clefs on it but not the alto/tenor clef - actually I have never tried to do that.

When I started to play cello at age 14 the only music I had the first two days was my violin music, so I read that an octave down, a skill I seemed to lose sometime after my cello lessons started and I never encountered it again until sight-reading the Dvorak American quartet years later. I started reading bass clef on cello around the 3rd day, when I was given some quartet cello parts that I was to sub on the next week. That worked out OK and my cello lessons began about a month later. Tenor clef came some months later, but that is hardly a translation - just a string shift.

I never touched a viola nor encountered an alto clef until I was 39. After that I played viola so rarely that I had to do the "fake read" violinists do every time I had to play it until I was 80 and started to play viola regularly. Now I read it "fluently."

March 7, 2022 at 02:15 PM · While attending the music camp Point Counterpoint as a kid, one of the counselors, violist Bernard di Gregorio, was helping me with theory and composition. He recommended learning to play in all the clefs--- not just treble, alto, bass, but also baryton, mezzo soprano, French violin etc. Essentially any printed note could become any of the seven notes depending on what clef was in front of it.

It was too much to keep track of individually, so I was learning to read by intervals. I'd figure out the first note and everything after that was seeing the distances (minor 6th higher, perfect fourth lower etc.) Besides the more obvious uses (a better understanding of the music, ability to transpose), it also came in handy with older editions-- until the beginning of the 20th century, many of these clefs were still in use. I had Breitkopf und Haertel scores of Wagner from 1905-1910 in which the sopranos were written in soprano clef, the altos in alto clef etc. Anyway, if you're reading this Bernard, thanks!

March 7, 2022 at 02:50 PM · As a cellist, violinist and pianist I play the cello tenor clef as fluently as I do treble and bass clefs, but the viola alto clef, for an instrument I have never played, being so close to the tenor clef, is a very different matter!

March 7, 2022 at 04:01 PM · I agree, Trevor. The alto and tenor are too close for me. I can play viola in alto clef, but I only play cello music in the bass clef, not tenor. It's funny how easy it is to transition between clefs that are very different, and how difficult it is to transition between clefs that are close!

Violin is my main instrument, but I also play piano, viola, cello and guitar.

March 7, 2022 at 04:54 PM · Another vote for tenor! I can read all three listed easily in addition to tenor clef. I made a point of learning it in my teens. Have I ever needed this skill? Nope.

March 7, 2022 at 10:27 PM · I read all three fluently, and tenor clef pretty well, too. I started piano long before violin, and then viola just a couple of years into violin study. Conducting, and coaching chamber music with cellists, have made me more fluent in tenor.

March 8, 2022 at 09:06 AM · No tenor clef? I’m fluent in all four - it helps when score-reading, making arrangements, etc. In high school and college we had solfège, dictation, score analysis and conducting in all four.

I play violin, viola, cello, piano. Started cello and piano at age 8, violin and viola later. Dabbled into string bass and guitar (too many strings tuned funny).

If you learn properly to think NOTES/PITCH (G3 on D, for example), and NOT fingerings (D3 = third finger on D, the Suzuki way), from the start, it makes A LOT more sense, and it’s a lot easier - that way you can play bass clef on violin, treble on cello, tenor on viola, or alto on cello/violin, if need be (transposed as needed, of course). Method, materials, and teachers count…

March 9, 2022 at 10:57 AM · Playing 2nd trombone in a brass band means I have to play trombone as a Bb instrument, because that's how it is scored; there are occasional tenor clef scores that pop up and I can read them either as tenor clef or as the Bb G clef with a couple of flats struck off. But I can also read the Bass (F) clef on the trombone. On the cello I read both Bass (F) clef and Tenor (C) clef - Bass clef is centered on the G and D strings, Tenor clef is centered on the D and A strings, so I don't worry about that. On the viola and alto trombone I read Alto (C) clef. And of course on the violin I read the Treble (G) clef. Of course, that's not counting the octave transpositions of the G clef I make without thinking about it, when I play the soprano recorder and the guitar.

March 9, 2022 at 05:56 PM · I had to study and solfege ALL!!

2 Bass clefs, all alto tenor clefs,

2 treble clefs. After 6 semesters of solfeggio you have to sight read ALL.

Very intense conservatory studies. Dominican Republic, back in the 60's...

Fix DO...A very good tool for transposing at sight.... especially if you play opera..

March 10, 2022 at 05:00 PM · Treble and alto mainly as I play and perform in both. My bass is not terrible, but it takes me a little while to get back into it as I don't use it often

March 10, 2022 at 10:12 PM · I was strictly a treble clef reader until I took up viola; now I'm fluent in alto clef as well. Now that my wife is coaxing me to take part in the Global Cello Project, I'm starting to pick up bass clef. One shortcut I've found is that the top, middle, and bottom lines of the staff correspond to the top three open strings on the cello.

March 13, 2022 at 10:13 PM · Treble here. Piano was my first instrument, but I soon switched to violin; so, even through I can read bass, I don’t use it for playing anymore. I can read alto a little, to figure out what the viola part sounds like; but, once again, I don't use it for playing. My story is a bit like what happens when you acquire a second language at a young age - and then find that the second language takes over, while the first falls into disuse.

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