If you’ve been studying music for even a short while you’ll have noticed that all the musical notes are written in five lines. This is called the staff or stave. You will also have come across a symbol at the very start of the musical notation, which is called a clef. By far the most common clefs are the treble clef, which is mostly used to display the right-hand notes on a piano, and the bass clef, which is mainly used for the left-hand notes.
But there are other types of clefs, which are lesser known. These include the alto clef and the tenor clef, and it’s the latter that is the subject of this article.
The purpose of any clef is to make it easier for the musician to know what notes he or she has to play.
What is the tenor clef?
The tenor clef is a lesser-known clef that nonetheless forms an essential part of music theory and notation. For most musicians, the first clef they learn is the treble clef (which on the piano is mainly associated with the right-hand notes) and this is soon followed by the bass clef (used mainly to display the left-hand notes on a piano).
More advanced musicians will start to learn the alto clef, which is most commonly used in viola music. Finally comes the tenor clef, which is even less common than the alto clef. The tenor clef is rarely used in piano music, however, learning how to read tenor clef and understanding how it functions is an important aspect of advanced music theory.
Tenor clef is principally used for the upper registers of instruments that ordinarily use the bass clef. Therefore, being able to transcribe the notes from tenor clef to bass clef is an important skill for many musicians. Common tenor clef instruments include the bassoon, cello, double bass, and tenor trombone. Its purpose is to enable composers to avoid using lots and lots of ledger lines, which can be difficult and confusing to read.
The different clefs are set up on the grand staff as follows, and it’s from this that we’re able to work out what the tenor clef notes are…
What does the tenor clef look like on the piano?
The tenor clef is an example of what we call a C clef. This means that wherever you directly place the middle of the clef will be middle C. The middle of the tenor clef is always placed on the fourth line up from the bottom of the staff.
This means that with the tenor clef the fourth line up from the bottom of the staff is middle C. It gives instruments the flexibility to play notes above and below middle C without having to use lots and lots of ledger lines.
And just like any other clef, the tenor clef notes on the staff use five lines and four spaces.
Reading the tenor clef notes on the piano
The piano notes of the tenor staff are as follows. Notice how once we reach the note ‘C’ the musical alphabet starts again…
As you can see above, every note is either on a line or space. If you separate these out and come up with mnemonics and/or acronyms to help you memorize the patterns you’ll find that your learning process will be greatly enhanced.
Best ways to memorize the tenor clef notes on piano
Here are the notes for the lines of the tenor clef notes on the staff:
One possible mnemonic device to help you remember the notes is:
Dogs Face A Cat Everyday
This phrase goes from bottom to top. So the bottom line will be D for ‘dogs’, the second line will be F for ‘face’, the third/middle line will be A for ‘a’, the fourth line will be C for ‘cat’, and the top line will be E for ‘every day’.
And here are the notes for the spaces of the tenor clef notes on the staff:
A possible mnemonic device here is:
Eat Good Bananas Daily
Of course, you’re welcome to come up with your own mnemonics and acronyms to help you remember the tenor clef notes. I’d actually encourage this as often people find it easier to remember things that they’ve created themselves.
How do I draw a tenor clef properly?
The tenor clef in fact looks exactly the same as an alto clef. It looks a bit like two backwards Cs that are joined together, and then there are two vertical lines on the left-hand side with the farthest one thicker than the other.
The most important thing to bear in mind when drawing the tenor clef is that the fourth line up from the bottom of the staff must go right through the middle of the clef (see any of the above diagrams). This is the main difference between alto and tenor clef – for the alto clef, it’s the middle line that cuts through the clef.
What genres of music do the tenor clef appear in?
You may still be wondering, what is a tenor in music? The word “tenor” can actually refer to different things in music. It is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male chest voice type (the most famous tenor singer was Luciano Pavarotti).
Tenors can also be part of a sub-group of certain musical instruments. For instance, there are tenor trombones, tenor horns, and tenor saxophones.
As we have learned, the treble and bass clefs are the most common clefs used in music, especially piano music. Even the alto clef is more common than the tenor clef. Typically, the tenor clef is used by the following instruments:
- Double bass
For all these instruments, however, the main clef used is the bass clef. Only when the composer wants these instruments to play high pitches would the tenor clef be used. This is mostly to avoid excessive ledger lines.
Below is an example of music by J. S. Bach. You can see how the music switches between the bass clef and the tenor clef. Without doing this, many of the notes would be written on ledger lines which can become confusing and difficult for the musician to read.
You will also see from the above example that the tenor clef key signatures look a little different. The circle of fifths always remains the same no matter what clef you are using, but do bear in mind that the positioning of the sharps and/or flats on the grand staff will be different in the tenor clef compared to the treble or bass clef.
Practical applications of the tenor clef in piano learning
In your online piano lessons you may not be required to use the tenor clef all that often. However, knowing where the tenor clef notes are positioned on the staff can still improve your understanding of key signatures, piano scales, and the basic structure of music theory. It will also be useful should you decide to start learning an instrument like the bassoon or trombone.
Tips and exercises for incorporating the tenor clef in piano practice sessions
As you try out the various lessons on the Skoove app, see if you can work out whereabouts on the staff the notes would be placed if it was written in the tenor clef. Start with a simple song and with a melody written in the bass clef – it is easier and more common to transfer from tenor clef to bass clef and vice versa. This is an easy way of building some tenor clef practice into your piano playing.
The following Skoove lesson would be a great starting point:
Please note that the lesson is also available on the mobile app
You could also try the exercise below, which centers around middle C and shifts between the bass clef and tenor clef every bar. It’s a really great exercise to improve your knowledge of piano notes and piano music theory.
Now you know how to get by if you find yourself in a situation where you need to read music from an unfamiliar clef like the tenor clef. Simply determine the note names using the methods discussed in this article and play them in an octave that is comfortable on the piano (or, indeed, any other instrument).
Learning the tenor clef helps develop your overall skills as a musician and gives you greater insights into concepts such as orchestration, instrument registers, and pitch. Be sure to remember that middle C in the tenor clef is placed on the fourth line of the stave and everything should be simple from there!
There is no better way to learn music theory than to incorporate it into your playing and online piano lessons with Skoove are the perfect place to do this. Sign up for your free trial today!
Author of this blog post:
Sam Girling is a percussion and piano teacher, writer, an researcher based in Münster, Germany and Auckland, New Zealand. He has performed extensively in New Zealand and Europe, lectures on a variety of music history and theory topics, and has published several academic articles and musical scores. Sam has taught music in a variety of contexts, from primary schools through to university level.