Learn to Read Alto Clef
Knowing how to read alto clef is a valuable musical skill. It can help take your music to the next level, whether you’re into performance, composition, or music study. Later in the lesson we’ll take a look at some of these benefits in greater depth.
Right now, however, let’s just jump right in and learn the notes! If you have joined us for the lessons on treble/bass clefs already, you’ll see that the working procedure is going to be very similar. It’s not really hard at all; it simply requires practice to get good at it.
Relating The Notes To The Keyboard
As usual, we’re going to relate the notes to the piano keyboard. This will help us visualize the notes, and also allow us to keep track of which octave register each note is in.
Our main reference point will be middle C. In alto clef (or any other C clef), this is actually the easiest note to find: the staff line that passes through the center of the clef symbol is always middle C.
So in this case, middle C is the center line on the staff; right in the middle, where it belongs:
And shown on the piano keyboard:
Now let’s move upwards — the next space up from middle C is D4:
Here is D4 on the piano:
The next note up is the 2nd line from the top, E4 (and so on):
And here’s the note E4 on the piano:
Similarly, if we move down from middle C, the space below is B3:
And on the piano keyboard:
Continuing downward from there are the notes A3, G3, etc., each line or space corresponding to the next note. Remember that there really is no difference in meaning between lines and spaces; the point of alternating between them is simply so we can visually differentiate one note from the next.
Instead of discussing every single note individually, we’re going to simplify things by organizing all the notes of alto clef into 4 distinct areas (just like we have done with bass and treble clef).
This will help us familiarize ourselves with the clef more quickly, and also give us a way to track our progress as we practice and learn all the notes.
We are going to start in the middle and work our way outwards. Our first section, Area #1, ranges from C4 up to B4.
Here is the range of Area #1 shown on the staff, and on the keyboard:
Here is a reference chart that shows all the notes in Area #1, going upward from C4 to B4 (available for download here):
Next up is Area #2. Again starting from the middle of the alto clef, this area extends from B3 down to C3:
Here is the reference chart for the notes in Area #2 (available for download here):
Let’s take a look now at Area #3. This area covers the ledger lines above the staff, extending from the notes C5 up to F6 (we’re going to learn up to 6 ledger lines, which is about the most you’ll ever see):
Here’s the reference chart for the notes in Area #3 (available for download here):
Finally, on the opposite end of the staff, here’s Area #4. It covers the ledger lines below the staff, from B2 down to G1, all the way down into the lowest octave register:
And here’s the reference chart for the notes in Area #3 (download here):
Instruments and Clefs
Every instrument has certain clefs associated with it. For example, viola players learn alto clef, as well as treble clef (to avoid ledger lines on high notes), but that’s it. So you wouldn’t want to put a viola part in bass clef, for example, unless you’re trying to play an April fools joke on the performer.
Similarly, even though knowing alto clef is extremely beneficial for any serious musician, you cannot assume that most musicians will be familiar with it. When in doubt, stick to more common clefs like treble or bass (and obviously find out which clefs are preferred for the particular musical situation you have in front of you).
Learning Tip: Converting From Treble
A nice trick to help identify a note in alto clef is to convert it, or “translate” it, from treble clef. This isn’t really a long-term solution, but it can sometimes help in the beginning stages, if you’re having trouble identifying a particular note.
Here’s how it works. Pretend the note you’re looking at was written in treble clef (instead of alto). Then simply take the result, add one note, and subtract one octave. Let’s do some examples and you’ll get the idea:
If a note would be D5 in treble, then it’s E4 in alto (E is one note up from D, and we also subtract one octave):
F4 in treble is G3 in alto. One note up, and one octave down:
C6 in treble is D5:
A5 in treble is B4:
With some practice, you can get pretty quick at this “translation”. Obviously, the better you know your treble clef, the easier this will be. But keep in mind that the eventual goal is to know the notes of alto clef just by looking, without any shortcuts or tricks.
In the previous lesson we introduced the C clef and its 5 positions. We noted that although some of those positions are no longer in common use nowadays, the alto and tenor clefs are still used a lot in modern music.
So now that we know how to identify the notes, let’s explore some of the uses of alto clef in music nowadays:
By far, the most common use of alto clef is as the main clef for viola. In fact, it is often referred to as “viola clef” for this reason. The viola, if you’re not familiar, is a stringed instrument in the violin family. It looks very much like a violin, just a bit larger. Its sound is deeper than the violin, and its range is lower. (It is between the violin and the cello in terms of size and range.)
The viola is an extremely common instrument, whether in solo or group settings. It’s used in string quartets, string ensembles, and orchestras. Therefore, there is basically no way to avoid it if you are interested in reading scores, composition, conducting, arranging, musicology, or really any serious study of music.
The range of a viola is from C3 up to about A6. If we take a look for a moment, we can see that this range doesn’t fit so well on either treble or bass clef.
If we used treble clef, we would require 4 ledger lines for the important (and very common) low notes:
In bass clef, we’d need 7 ledger lines to reach the highest notes, and most of the viola’s range would lie in the ledger lines. This is definitely not going to work:
Alto clef, on the other hand, fits beautifully for the notes in the most important part of the viola’s range, and that’s why it’s the perfect choice of clef. The lowest notes of the viola only require 1 ledger line, and the two lowest octaves of its range sit basically within the staff.
In order to reach the high notes in the viola’s range, we simply switch to treble clef, in order to avoid lots of ledger lines.
Here’s a look at a typical score setup for string quartet, with the viola staff 2nd from bottom:
Another instrument that uses alto clef is the alto trombone, though it’s not nearly as common as the viola.
Alto clef is also frequently encountered in texts on the study of music. One of the main places you’ll find it is in counterpoint books. The tradition seems to have become to use alto clef for many of the exercises. This probably has historical reasons, and may have to do with the vocal nature of counterpoint exercises (as we learned before, the C clefs were originally used for vocal music).
Either way, not being familiar with alto clef could hold you back from taking your music further, even if you have no plans of playing viola!
With this lesson in the bag, we should hopefully have a nice head-start on learning alto clef. This could open musical doors for you that otherwise would have remained firmly shut, whether you might be interested in composing, arranging, orchestrating, musicology, counterpoint, or learning to play the viola. (Plus, you’ll have a nice skill advantage over most other musicians!)