A Complete Guide To Music Clefs

Being able to communicate what pitch a note should be is essential for musicians and composers to be able to read and write music. If we couldn’t explain which note was which we wouldn’t be able to share melodies or songs by writing it down.

In this post, we’ll be looking at music clefs which are ‘the key’ to being able to know which note is which. Let’s get started.

What Is A Clef In Music?

In music, a clef is a musical symbol that indicates what pitch a note should be.

There are a huge range of different pitches available and clefs tell us which note is represented by each space and line of the stave.

Different Types Of Clefs

There are lots of different types of clef but the most common ones are:

  • The treble clef
  • The bass clef
  • The alto clef
  • The tenor clef

The majority of instruments will use one or more of these clefs to read music but there are some others that we’ll look at too.

The Treble Clef

The treble clef

The treble clef is one of the most common and recognisable types of clef used to indicate the pitch of notes.

It’s also known as the G clef as it shows us where the note G is on the stave.

It’s called the G clef because it loops and wraps itself around the note G on the stave.

The note G on the treble clef

How to draw a treble clef

To draw a treble clef you have to find the second line from the bottom of the stave to start.

Here’s a video from Essential Music Theory to explain where to start.

How to draw a treble clef

Treble clef notes

Because we know that the treble clef wraps itself around the note G, we can then work out what all the different notes are on the stave.

Going up from G we have all these notes:

And going down from G we have these notes:

For more information, check out our overview of the treble clef here.

The Bass Clef

Here we have another type of clef called the bass clef.

The bass clef is also known as the F clef because it loops and wraps itself around the note F on the stave.

How to draw a bass clef

Here’s a video explaining how to draw it.

Don’t forget the two little dots either side of the 2nd line of the stave.

What are the notes on the bass clef?

Going up from F we have the following notes:

Bass clef note names

And going down from F we have these notes:

Bass clef note names

Read more in our guide to the bass clef here.

The Alto Clef

The alto clef

Now, we’re going to take a look at another type of clef called the Alto clef.

The alto clef looks like a capital letter B and sits right in the middle of the stave.

Although it looks like an uppercase letter B, it’s actually what we call a C clef because the middle of the arches show us where middle C is on the stave.

Alto clef notes

Here are all the letter names of the notes in the alto clef:

Here’s a video from Music Matters going over how to read notes in the alto clef:

Music Matters – Reading the alto clef

You can read more about the alto clef here.

The Tenor Clef

The Tenor Clef

The last of the four common clefs is called the tenor clef.

Like the alto clef, it’s a type of C clef as it shows us where middle C is on the stave.

Tenor clef notes

Again, now that we know where C is in the tenor clef we can work out the other notes. Going up from C we have these notes:

And going down from middle C we have these notes:

Other Types Of Clef

As well as the four clefs above there are some others that are less common or used for very specific things.

The Baritone Clef

The baritone clef

The baritone clef is another type of F clef.

But, instead of being written like the bass clef – wrapping around the second line of the stave, it sits a bit lower down wrapping around the third line of the stave.

SATB – Open score

SATB

When writing for or singing in a choir you might see a score like above which is SATB.

SATB stands for soprano, alto, tenor, bass – the four voices common in choirs.

The top stave is sung by the soprano, the second by the alto, the third, the tenor and the fourth the bass.

You might notice that the tenor part has a number eight below the treble clef.

This indicates that the actual pitch should sound an octave below.

Summing up clefs

Clefs are an essential part of music theory and while you may not need to know about clefs that your instrument doesn’t use it’s still very useful to know about them, especially if you begin to write for other instruments.

Next, I’ll be adding to this post with some of the other types of clef like the grand staff, reading guitar tab and the percussion clef. Check back soon for an update.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

4 thoughts on “A Complete Guide To Music Clefs”

  1. I have just discovered this site; it is wonderful. So much musical knowledge available in one place.

    Just noticed a typographical error under “SATB – Open Score.” You have “also” where it should be “alto.” If you are a perfectionist like me, you’ll want to fix that.

  2. This is lovely, thank you! Very well explained and illustrated.

    Any idea what time period these developed? I’m curious how medieval music was originally documented. I associate this type of notation strongly with 18th century onwards, and am wondering how music would have been recorded (if at all) during its earlier development when it was more focused on modes rather than the keys we know now. Thanks again!

  3. Hi Lucy, Glad it helped. Actually, I don’t know much about the history of clefs but I’ve always wondered the same. I’ll do some reading and do a post about it soon.

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