Attention violists : Alto clef to be outlawed

Edited: June 22, 2017, 4:10 AM · Link here:

Alto Clef “Unfit for Purpose” Government Study Concludes

Replies (51)

June 22, 2017, 4:46 AM · Good riddance! I always transposed anyway.
Edited: June 22, 2017, 4:51 AM · LOL!! I've recently received veiled threats to the effect that there might be a viola student for me down the line at one of the schools that I teach at. This ban is coming just in time!
June 22, 2017, 5:36 AM · I hope no one takes this as a "real" news, especially in this age of Gresham's Law.
June 22, 2017, 5:37 AM · The author is an American conductor. Perhaps we should seriously ban conductors first, then the alto clef?
June 22, 2017, 6:53 AM · I was talking to a trumpet player the other day about the way the instrument transposes. I argued that if you started learning trumpet and called C major D major then it would be easier for everyone. However, It seems clear that you had or have players that switch between instruments of different sizes who want the fingers to be in the same place when they read a note. If you play alto sax you can pick up a tenor sax and read like you would on the alto as far as fingering is concerned. The viola is like this for violinists and it would have been much easier for a lot of people if it was a transposing instrument as far as the clef is concerned. This would mean that C would look like G etc. Awkward in another way but easier for a reading violinist to pick up a viola. Anyway, sure why not, ban alto clef!!!
June 22, 2017, 7:31 AM · Jealousy, pure and simple.

The alto clef is too powerful for you trembling treble types.

The alto sits in perfect symmetry. It takes up the entirety of the stave, no more, no less, with an arrow pointing definitively to C right there in the middle of the stave, As It Was Meant To Be, Amen.

The treble clef swirls about the G, with a lazy tail dangling down to C, whilst its head pokes out up above the stave. Like a disheveled man with his shirt untucked. Shameless.

Edited: June 22, 2017, 4:02 PM · The C-clef was there first, and it can be slid up and down at will.
The F & G clefs are just populist upstarts for peasants.
June 22, 2017, 10:16 AM · Whoever it was 500 years ago that decided to use alto clef for the viola made a mistake. The even more rarely seen mezzo-soprano version of the C clef would be better; it puts the middle C on the second line from the bottom. Then the notation-fingering system would be exactly the same as violin. The only real problem of using alto clef for viola is that there are too many ledger lines for the A-string notes. Composers, Arrangers; please use treble clef for viola high notes. On first violin orchestra parts I prefer seeing the 8va notation. Anything with more than 3 ledger lines looks like a forest of pine trees- I can't sight read it. jq
June 22, 2017, 1:54 PM · If alto clef is wrong, I don't wanna be right.
June 22, 2017, 2:02 PM · And then there was Bach who sometimes used French violin clef on occasion.
June 22, 2017, 2:51 PM · That clef makes sense - it is one octave up from the bass clef.
June 22, 2017, 6:02 PM · Alto was developed by renaissance intelligentsia to keep air headed violinists out of the club. The parts were then dumbed down to allow time for deep conversation while basses were chastised for intonation, seconds for their counting and firsts for not being together.
It is a little known fact that most free masons played viola throughout history. Mozart framed the model for democratic government and communicated it to western leaders including Benjamin Franklin and the founding fathers using Masonic codes embedded in their viola parts.
The reasons for the failure of democracy in 20th century Germany and Russia are because the Kaiser was a Wagnerian bassist and Stalin loved Tchaikovsky's violin lines.
Edited: June 22, 2017, 8:01 PM · What will be the penalty for using alto clef once it is finally outlawed?
June 22, 2017, 8:03 PM · @Erin,

Being a violist!

June 22, 2017, 9:32 PM · Bruce, I think French violin clef makes a lot of sense. It certainly helps with the ledger lines.
June 22, 2017, 10:52 PM · Bo, isn't that 2 octaves?
June 23, 2017, 3:07 AM · It's one octave plus allowance for bad intonation.
June 23, 2017, 4:28 AM · Speaking of the cello - which we were not - I never understood why they sometimes use tenor clef. If the piano only needs bass and treble, with middle C as the perfect transitional note, why not cello? I'm afraid to argue with them because their instruments are much bigger and heavier than mine!
Edited: June 24, 2017, 4:37 PM · Raphael - it's all about logistics- a pianist sits only 2 feet from his music, can play with one hand while turning a page. A cellist sits 3 or more feet from the music, cannot continue to play while turning a page. Having to read from a full staff would screw up all the fun of reading chamber music.

Tenor clef is no problem for even beginning cellists - it's just one string over from bass clef. It's treble clef that gets to the ones who do not also play violin (a very small percentage do) --- and then there is their 4th clef, the widely dreaded "Dvorak treble clef," which is played one octave down from the written notes, and for which notes on the staff are written just one below where they are written for tenor clef. (Why is some music still printed in this clef? Because there really is a Devil!)

For me, as a violinist who first played a cello at age 14, I first played from my violin music, and therefore without knowing it I was reading the dreaded "Dvorak treble clef" - just didn't know it. My first lesson, that followed a month later cured me of that with bass and tenor clefs intervening for the next 2 decades until I finally encountered the Dvorak clef when reading Dvorak's American Quartet for the first time in a session. It left me completely at a loss - it was quite a long time before I realized that it was the first clef I had ever read on cello. (ACMP (American Chamber Music Players) now has transcriptions of these troublesome portions of much of the popular chamber music literature on line.) For me, the problem is whether to attempt to learn to cast my mind into the dimension of this 4th cello clef once again - this is not an easy thing for me to do, to basically transpose every note one up (from tenor clef), since we sight read at pretty much performance speed.

Violist's problems are nothing compared to cellists! It only takes a simple act of will to decide to read the alto clef. If the alto clef had been placed just one more line (a third) down it would be so easy for violinists to read it and then switch to treble clef (which would read just one string over) for the higher notes.

June 23, 2017, 6:49 AM · @Adrian: off course it is two octaves. Just checking if you were awake ;-)
June 23, 2017, 12:30 PM · To me it's a bit like the QWERTY keyboard. Not the best setup (originally designed to slow people down so that typewriters did not get jammed) but its too late to change or rather would take a lot to change it. Even if you didn't do a transposing clef as I suggested earlier, you could have the C be two lager lines down and a G clef on the second line down or a C clef on the second line up. So many things make more logical sense but it's not going to change now. Or is it?
June 23, 2017, 1:28 PM · I agree with you, Christopher, about shifting the (middle) C clef down a third or the G clef down a "second" to a space for alto instruments, but my understanding is that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to speed up typing by avoiding intersecting letter arms. I do have to say as a viola player (converted violinist) it is nice to no longer have to count 4 and 5 ledger lines on manuscript scores.

But it is entirely possible that the C clef preceded the others; in spite of my advanced age that was before my time!

June 23, 2017, 5:38 PM · Hmm. I decided to learn viola after many years of being only a violinist. The alto clef was more time-consuming to learn than I expected, after decades of reading only treble clef. It would have been a LOT easier to have the viola written as a transposing instrument.

Now that I have learned it, though, I like it because anything high up can be written with treble clef, cutting down on the ledger lines. I do agree about the cello; it isn't obvious to me what purpose the tenor clef serves that treble clef can't accommodate, especially since cellists have to learn treble clef, anyway.

June 23, 2017, 5:51 PM · Beware, this is the tip of an iceberg of forthcoming repressive legislation. They start with the alto clef. Give them that, they'll be banning the viola next. THEN how will senior citizens be able to keep warm on a cold winter's day?
June 23, 2017, 11:31 PM · Then OSHA will decide that we are all at risk for repetitive motion injury; vibrato and Wagner operas will be outlawed.
--Learning alto clef was not difficult for me. I did not try to adapt violin notation or transpose. It was "this is middle C, this is open A", etc. My first orchestra piece on viola was Firebird.
June 24, 2017, 12:34 AM · I too learned the new clef on the new instrument. But being a lazy so-&-so, I soon learned to read it on the piano, so I could learn the more chromatic bits by ear!
June 24, 2017, 2:07 AM · Joel,
I can one up you on the first viola piece. When I was at Juilliard the conductor asked for volunteers to play viola and I did. When I came back to the rehearsal after spending an inordinate amount of time picking out a viola from their collection I came back and heard the conductor announce the next piece to be rehearsed: Don Juan! I didn't have a clue how to read the clef and was getting lots of dirty looks from the conductor. I spent the next 2 days madly trying to decipher the mysterious clef. Someone told me to think I was playing in 3rd position, but one string over when in 1st position and vise versa when in 3rd. 2nd and 4th positions seemed to come pretty quickly after that and in fact that took care of most of what I had to play. I was very irritated when treble clef suddenly reaappeared.I realized that I had gone to "The Dark Side."
June 24, 2017, 3:05 AM · John Rokos
June 23, 2017, 5:51 PM · Beware, this is the tip of an iceberg of forthcoming repressive legislation. They start with the alto clef. Give them that, they'll be banning the viola next. THEN how will senior citizens be able to keep warm on a cold winter's day?

Simple - toss violas into the fireplace!

Edited: June 24, 2017, 3:11 AM · Re - reading ocatves up and down, I once did a reading of the Trout Quintet playing the bass part (since there already was a violinist but no bass)! Maybe it was from some piano lessons in the past but bass clef didn't bother me much and I mostly played a couple of octaves higher. It was much easier than the violin part!
Edited: June 24, 2017, 4:52 AM · In my cello days I was once asked in rehearsal by a conductor (who should have known better, but he wasn't a string player so there you go) to play in the viola section which was down on numbers and had some important bits to play. That was when I discovered that the alto clef was far too similar to the cello's tenor clef for comfort. Anyway, the nice people in white coats were very kind to me afterwards.
Edited: June 24, 2017, 6:45 AM · Violinists learn to read ledger lines up into the stratosphere. I don't see why violists can't learn them down to C in treble clef. Long passages can be written 8va or in bass clef.

I've played violin and piano since childhood. When I bought a viola a couple of years ago, with the purpose of playing in a particular local orchestra, I initially transposed mentally into bass clef, not treble. It took me about six months to really get comfortable in alto clef, but I think I'm finally there.

Bruce, my first-orchestra-piece experience was pretty horrifying too. My violin teacher said I was ready to join the community orchestra (of which he was concertmaster), so I showed up to the first rehearsal, where I was handed a folder containing music that I had never seen before. The conductor tapped his baton on his stand and said, "Let's start with the Glinka." (Yes, really, the R&L Overture).
I was 12 years old.

June 24, 2017, 8:43 AM · We should revive the use of all of the clefs, including mezzo soprano and baritone.
June 24, 2017, 9:19 AM · As a student at Mannes I had to ultimately solfege in 7 clefs - including mezzo and baritone. I thought it was a waste of time and effort then and I still do.
June 24, 2017, 9:19 AM · An oddity of the three cello clefs is that in fact there are four of them in post-Baroque usage, depending on the publisher. The bass and tenor clefs are no problem - one just plays on the next string up for the tenor clef.

However, the treble clef exists in two forms - the usual play-it-as-you-see-it, and another one which looks identical but is played an octave lower. Which of the two the player uses depends on the context: if the treble follows immediately from the bass clef then the notes are played an octave lower than printed; if the treble clef follows on from the tenor clef then the notes are played at the indicated pitch. All very confusing in a quartet if no-one is aware of this practice.

As far as I know, this obscure usage of the treble clef is found in some 19th century European editions, but, thankfully, not today. Cellists using editions from that period may therefore need to be aware of the possible pitfalls ahead.

Edited: June 24, 2017, 10:28 AM · Raphael, what violas? Remember, people stopped making them. And violists don't make very good fuel. Neither do violinists.
Edited: June 29, 2017, 8:56 PM · Actually Trevor, there are many more variants of treble offset by thirds and up to an octave up for piccolos and the like. Then you get into transpositions for winds and brass that often have to transpose on sight if they don't have the correct pitched instrument.
Also, tenor and alto aren't the only C clefs.
June 25, 2017, 7:41 AM · I've never understood why violists don't just use a treble clef and lots of lower ledger lines. After violinists have to read all those high ledger lines. And we don't complain...

In this political climate, I doubt that the country can achieve a universal/single-clef system like those used in the Scandinavian countries. Their notation system is cheaper and leads to better outcomes. True, there can be long wait times (at the post-concert buffet), but at least it's fair. But of course in this country, we blame the victims: "well it's your own fault. Can't you get an education and learn to read treble clef instead of hanging out at those bars out by the airport in between rehearsals? You can take theory I at a community college after all." Sure, easy for those fancy conservatory types to say...

June 26, 2017, 11:10 AM · more about ledger lines; I find it hard to cold- sight-read more than 3 ledger lines. Maybe it's just a visual/mental snag for me. Or maybe it is more universal? I read somewhere, from an anthropologist, that we only instantly recognize numbers up to three. After that we use a counting system. There is a tribe in brazil whose counting system is "1-2-3-a lot". 4 o'clock on older watches was written IIII, then they switched to IV. There was an experiment in the rennaisance (?) with adding another line to the staff, then they went back to 5 lines. For old tech. music publishing there was less labor time for the copiests and engravers to use the C clefs than write ledger lines.
Edited: June 26, 2017, 12:32 PM · I propose that we write all notes on the middle line, and move the C-clef up and down (but not more than 3 ledger-lines above and below, needless to say..)
June 26, 2017, 12:55 PM · To those who suggested that violas should be tossed into a fireplace, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the right technique. There is possibility, however slight, that such an action could cause damage to the fire surround and/or mantle piece. Some care and attention is needed so this potential damage will not occur. May I suggest the careful placement of the viola in the fire is the best course of action.

Cheers Carlo

June 26, 2017, 1:26 PM · Whilst we're on the subject of staves, which cannot of course exist in reality without some form of manuscript paper, may I draw the attention of those who, like me, still prefer to write their music in ink or pencil on real paper, and who would like to print their own mss paper, to this website from which one may download, for free, in PDF format various kinds of stave layouts varying from a whopping big-print 5 staves to a page (for young children) to 24 staves per page for the serious symphonic composer:
June 26, 2017, 4:53 PM · Trevor- Thanks for that connection. Yes, I still use pencil and paper for arranging, transcribing. I used to do real music copying with ink and the italic point pen.
Not Viola jokes, but real: In East Europe, the Viola or third violin is used as a rhythm and chord instrument, with the bridge filed down almost flat. In Cuba, the Viola is used in the percussion section. Take the strings, bridge and tailpiece off, turn it over and it becomes a wood block. jq
June 27, 2017, 12:01 AM · Ouch! Don't give the violinists ideas: the might even comfuse "wood-block" with "chopping block"?
June 27, 2017, 8:30 AM · We could dispense with all clefs by simply having staves with about 40 lines. Really close together.
Anyone with me?
Edited: June 27, 2017, 2:51 PM · A pianist would need 88 lines, and an organist rather more, depending on the organ. An organist already needs to cope with three 5-line staves, and there are complex piano works that sometimes need four staves (Sorabji's "Opus Clavicembalisticum" is an obvious example).

Don't even think about a piano designed for playing quarter-tone music - I heard a recording of one once and it sounded just like a bad pub piano on a busy Saturday night; whereas a quarter-tone string quartet played in a concert by musicians who know what they are doing can be quite acceptable.

June 28, 2017, 4:18 AM · Don't even think about a piano designed for playing quarter-tone music

Doesn't quarter-tone music require two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart? And I've heard Charles Ive's quarter-tone piano duets performed live before; some the best quarter-tone music ever (damning with faint praise).

June 28, 2017, 7:46 AM · Someone (Alois Haba?) once designed a 2-manual quarter-tone piano, a bit like a harpsichord. The two keyboards would have been a quarter tone apart.
June 28, 2017, 8:21 AM · "A pianist would need 88 lines, and an organist rather more, depending on the organ."

You could still do it with only 40 lines. Or less. For example, I could imagine a "circular" stave: once the notes get too high, even higher notes would just go back to the very bottom of the stave. Or the contrary:
If you need to go lower than the last line the music could suddenly jump to the very top.

You're welcome.

June 28, 2017, 12:35 PM · I'm with you only if the lines are color coded like a big crayola assortment. Maybe in a rainbow pattern. Although that might freak out people with synesthesia.
June 28, 2017, 1:14 PM · Or colorblindness.
June 29, 2017, 3:10 AM · Harpists have differently colored strings to help them along. Just as we violinists have colored string windings to help us find the string we're meant to use :)

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