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Alto clef: the hidden gem of reading

alto clef

Alto clef is a lesser-known clef that we use in music theory and notation. Like its cousins the treble clef and bass clef, the alto clef helps us to orient ourselves on the staff. It is like a compass that we can use to maneuver the realms of pitch and communicate and remember musical ideas with ease.

But what is alto clef? The alto clef is not as commonly studied as the treble and bass clef. So, in this post we will dive into the intricacies and learn exactly what is alto clef!

What is alto clef?

The alto clef is another clef, similar to the treble clef and bass clef. The alto clef looks like this:

alto clef

Two vertical lines on the left side extend from the top line of the staff to the bottom line. Then, a sort of stylized ‘3’ lies adjacent to the lines on the right side. 

The middle of the ‘3’ connects with the two vertical lines, marking the middle line as our reference note.

The C clef

The alto clef marks middle C as the third line of the staff. For this reason, alto clef is sometimes called C clef. 

Why does it exist?

The C clef exists so that we have a way to more clearly notate the pitches in the alto register. With the alto clef, we can easily read the notes a perfect fifth above or below middle C. This means we can easily see F3 up to G4 on the staff.

Why do we need the alto clef

In treble and bass clefs, the notes below and above middle C respectively are drawn on ledger lines. It can be difficult to read excessively in this range with so many ledger lines. 

So, sometimes the alto clef is used as a means of clearing up the music and making it easier to read.

How to read alto clef notes

It can be tricky to learn how to read alto clef if you have not practiced before. We will look at the notes on the lines and spaces of alto clef and then explore a couple tricks to make learning how to read alto clef notes easier.

Notes on the lines of alto clef

The notes on the lines of alto clef are as follows:

the lines of alto clef

The notes on the lines of the alto clef are F – A – C – E – G.

Memorizing the alto clef lines

Like we have done with the treble clef and bass clef, you can use a mnemonic device to memorize the notes of alto clef. For the lines, try using the mnemonic Fat Alley Cats Eat Burgers or get creative and come up with one of your own!

Notes of the spaces of alto clef

Can you use the notes on the lines of C clef to figure out the spaces, just as you had done with the treble clef and bass clef? Which notes are missing from the diagram above? Think about it for a moment and then check out the notes on the spaces of alto clef below:

alto clef notes

The notes on the space of the alto clef are G – B – D – F.

How to memorize the spaces of alto clef

Just as we did with the lines, practice using a mnemonic to memorize the spaces of the alto clef. A common mnemonic students use is Green Boats Drift Freely. You could also just memorize that the lines and spaces of the alto clef spell out major and minor chords

Switch between different clefs

Try taking a simple melody that you know well like “Twinkle Twinkle” and transfer it from treble clef to the alto scale. Here is the melody in treble clef:

 melody in treble clef

Now practice transferring this melody in treble clef to the alto clef. Once you are finished, it should look like this:

treble clef to the alto clef

Notice the relative positions of the notes between the different clefs. The notes in the alto clef are written much higher on the staff than the notes in the treble clef. 

Of course, we will need some practice in switching key signatures between the different clefs. 

Try with bass clef

Let’s now compare it to the bass clef notes just so we get the whole picture between the different clefs:

See how many ledger lines we need to use in order to voice this melody in the bass clef? This is why the alto scale is used for melodies surrounding middle C. Because the middle line in alto clef is middle C on piano, we have an easier time reading these melodies.

Some tricks to practice

Despite its usefulness, alto clef is not commonly used in piano music. The piano is most frequently notated on the grand staff because it adequately covers the range of the piano, with the addition of a few ledger lines of course.

As such, it can be difficult to transition to the alto clef. You may feel like you are back at square one again with your reading. But, it is important to push through that feeling to reach the knowledge!

We can employ a special trick to read alto clef. Compare the notes of the treble clef and alto clef below:

Treble clef:
Alto clef to treble clef

Alto clef:

Alto clef to treble clef

What similarities and differences do you see between the alto clef to treble clef? Do you see any connections between them?

The notes of the alto clef are one octave and one space or line below the notes of the treble clef. For example, in the treble clef C5 is notated on the fourth space of the staff. In alto clef, C4 is notated on the third line of the staff, right below the fourth space where we found C5 in the treble clef.

You could also say that the notes in the alto scale spell out the Phrygian mode, one of the musical modes in music.

A quick practice

Practice using this trick to read the alto clef to treble clef. For example, if we find E5 on the fourth space of the treble clef, we will find E4 on the fourth line of the alto clef. If we find F4 on the first space of the treble clef, we will find F3 on the first line of the alto clef. If we find B4 on the third line of the treble clef, we will find B3 on the second space of the alto clef. Simple, right?

What about with the bass clef?

Does the same trick work with the bass clef? Let’s investigate. Here are the notes of the bass clef from the bottom of the staff to the top:

Bass clef:

Alto clef:

What similarities and differences do you see between these two clefs? Are there any connections like we saw between the treble clef and the alto clef? Take a moment to look deeply at these two clefs.

The connection

The notes of the alto clef are a diatonic seventh away from the notes on the bass clef. To make things even more simple, you can say that the notes on the alto clef are one space or line above the bass clef (plus one octave).

Some practice

So, if we find C3 on the second space of the bass clef, we will find C4 on the third line of the alto clef. If we find G3 on the fourth space of the bass clef, we will find G4 on the fifth line of the alto clef. If we find E3 on the third space of the bass clef we will find E4 on the fourth line of the alto clef.

A quick recap

If you feel more comfortable comparing the alto clef to the bass clef, remember that the alto clef notes are up one space of line plus one octave from the bass clef. If you feel more comfortable comparing the alto clef to the treble clef, remember that the alto clef notes are down one space or line plus one octave from the bass clef. 

Ledger Lines

Here is a quick rundown of the notes on the ledger lines of alto clef. You may see some music switch between alto, treble, and bass clefs to avoid reading all these ledger lines. Nevertheless, it is useful to know and practice these notes on the ledger lines of alto clef. Check them out below:

ledger lines of alto clef

The higher ledger lines in the alto clef are B – C – D – E – F and the lower ledger lines are D – C – B – A – G. Again, you can use the same comparison trick to the treble and bass clefs. 

What instruments use alto clef?

Now after all that music theory and reading practice you may be wondering what instruments use alto clef? Great question!

One of the instruments most commonly used with alto clef is the viola. The viola is a four string instrument in the violin family of instruments. It commonly plays the alto notes in string ensembles and orchestras.

The viola is tuned in perfect fifths, starting with C3, followed by G3, D4, and A4 (think circle of fifths). This means the lowest open string on the viola sits right under the first ledger line below the staff and the highest open string sits on the space right above the staff. The viola is practically made for the alto notes! Alto clef is sometimes called viola clef for this reason.

Another of the most common instruments is the cello. The cello also will read alto notes when the range is correct. The strings of the cello are tuned to the same pitches as the viola, just one octave lower. For this reason, melodies in the higher register of the cello are sometimes notated in the viola clef. Now you have an overview of what instruments use alto clef.

Alto vs tenor clef

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more complicated, we discover there are in fact two C clefs. The alto clef has a close relative called the tenor clef. The differences between alto vs tenor clef are not that crazy. 

Alto and tenor clefs are both C clefs which means that they both tell us where the middle C is on the staff. The difference between alto vs tenor clef is that the alto clef places middle C on the third line while tenor clef places middle C on the fourth line like this:

alto clef

 

The notes of alto and tenor clef are closely related. Just shift all the notes from alto clef up one step and you have all the notes of tenor clef. It requires some practice, but if you give it some time you can master both alto and tenor clef.

Conclusion

The alto clef is a wonderful, but often misunderstood tool in music theory. Learning to read in C clef can help you access a whole world of music you most likely did not know about before. 

It will help develop your overall skills as a musician and give you greater insight into concepts like orchestration, or the particular register that instruments are written in an ensemble. Just remember that the alto clef marks the middle line of the staff as middle C and you will be ready to go!

Practice jumping back and forth between your treble and bass clef studies and alto clef. You can transfer all the music you practice with Skoove into alto clef as well for additional practice. Who knows, maybe you will even pick up the viola along the way!

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Author of this blog post

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

 

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