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  • Writer's pictureTom Glasson

Introduction to Clefs

Welcome to this Music Theory Centre tutorial about clefs. This post is about clefs; how they work, how they are used and importantly, how they all link together.

Video Tutorial:

Clefs Graphic.png
Download ZIP • 1.65MB

The Stave

Before we can look at clefs, we need to make sure we understand the stave. The stave is the 5 lines that you can see when you look at music.

The Stave - Blank (Without Clef)
The Stave - Blank (Without Clef)

It looks like this, and all the music goes on here - the music notes go on the stave, on one of the lines, or in the spaces.

But we don’t know what these notes mean without a clef. As simply as possible, the clef is like the key which tells us which notes the music is showing. 

In this article, I will show you the 4 main clefs, the notes they represent and then how the clefs fit together, so you can really understand what’s going on. 


Why are there clefs in music? Musical instruments use notes within different ranges of pitches, most instruments use a range of notes within this spectrum of available notes. This is a sample of the most common notes although of course, there isn't really a limit of notes going up or down, except what our ears can actually hear.

The Stave without any clefs

This here covers 6 octaves, which is this range on a keyboard.

Keyboard Range as example

These 19 lines wouldn’t work as sheet music as there are far too many lines to read quickly. There is a reason that we use 5 lines in music, and that is to keep things as simple as possible and easy to read, with enough information, but not too much. There are too many lines here, and most instruments will only use a small range of these notes anyway. That is why there are clefs. The clef will take 5 lines from this range and show the notes focused around those notes. The clef tells us which of these lines are being used.

And here is the introduction to the clefs:

Treble Clef:
Treble Clef

This is the treble clef. It sits here within the range of possible notes It is sometimes called the G clef, because the line that the treble clef circles around is a G. 

Treble Clef Range

The C here, below the G is middle C. The treble clef is centred around the G above Middle C specifically.

But, If we only used the treble clef, notes on all the other lines would have to be shown on ledger lines, which very complicated and virtually unreadable - Like this.

Bass Notes on Ledger Lines

So, To help clear this up, we can use different clefs - lets fix this...

Bass Clef:

Notes on Bass Clef

This is showing those same noes, but using the the bass clef.

Bass Clef

The bass clef is sometimes called the F clef, because it centers around this line here, which represents an F. This is the F below middle C.

Bass Clef Range - Compared with Treble Clef

So as you can see, this stave carries on from the treble clef, with the line which would be between them showing Middle C.

One more quick note, on the treble and bass clef before we quickly look at the other 2 clefs.

Clefs can have a little 8 written above or below them, this moves the entire clef down or up one octave.

Octave up/down Clefs

So this treble clef is an octave above the normal one, and this bass clef is an octave down from the normal one. This is particularly helpful for particularly high or low instruments, such as a piccolo or bass.

These 2 clefs (or 6 if you include both the octave up and down ones for each) will cover most of the notes shown earlier.

You can get away with just these, but there are 2 more, these are used for particular instruments and are there to basically centre the music on the stave for instruments which otherwise sit awkwardly between the treble and bass clef, again just to avoid too many ledger lines and make it nice and tidy for musicians - although, these next 2 are not as common.

Alto Clef

The first of these is the Alto clef.

Alto Clef on Stave

Basically, the line it centres around is middle C. Again, this just helps tidy everything up for musicians, it sits neatly between the treble and bass clef, there is some overlap. It’s not too common and used mostly in orchestral music for a viola, which is usually playing in betweettn cellos and violin 2’s so sits right within this range specifically.

Tenor Clef

The other is the tenor clef. It is similar, it just sits one line up on the stave, to allow it to go slightly lower.

Tenor Clef on Stave

It still centres around C. It is sometimes used in orchestral music by trombone or bassoon, but these instruments usually use bass clef. This cleft isn’t entirely necessary most of the time, it just helps tidy up the music for certain passages, the range is just above the bass clef.

All Clefs - How they link together

So here are all the clefs and how they sit together. You can download this graphic at the top of the page.

All Clefs - How they fit together

You can see how each clef focuses on a range of notes. This is useful, as most instruments only play a small range of notes.

The instrument which plays the biggest range is traditionally the piano, and this is the reason piano score typically uses two lines, treble on top and bass below. This is usually split between the left hand and right hand.

Also worth noting that the clef can change within the music, just by placing the new clef on the line which shows the lines and spaces following are now within the range of the new clef. Musicians really need to understand what all the clefs show and how to play within the clef or clefs typically used for their instrument. The best way to gain confidence with reading the notes is by doing it, playing as much as possible in the different clefs.

A Free Gift for you...

Download the Grade 1 Music Theory Workbook - An Introduction to Music Theory for free. The workbook is a written course which teaches you the entire content of Grade 1 music theory from start to finish, it is the full written version of our video course. It contains activities, with answers, to test your knowledge and give you chance to practice what you are learning.

There are 19 sections, covering every topic as well as reference sheets and materials which will come in handy as you study.

Click here to check it out.

Introduction to Music Theory Workbook

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