How do YOU read clefs?

Edited: June 27, 2017, 2:56 PM · In an hour I will head out for a morning session of string quartets - I think it's going to be a lot of Dvorak this morning and I'll be playing cello. I think we will be doing Op. 34 and 51 (which are both new to me) and Op. 96 (the American) which we did a couple of weeks ago. There are difficult clef adjustments for the cellist in most Dvorak editions. So to warm up I just read through some of my old violin music (Gluck's Melodie as "Dvorak" treble clef) and also the first movement of the Telemann Viola Concerto (alto clef).- - I'd never actually attempted alto clef on cello before - but I did OK.

The mental gymnastics this required (as well as the current thread here on alto clef) lead me to wonder again (as I long have, but have never asked) how other players read their music. That is, how do you translate the notes on a clef to positions on the strings. Do you go through the name (A-B-C or do-re-me) intermediary steps or do you go directly from clef position to fingerboard position(s)? How about those of you who play multiple instruments as I do - what is your conscious process?

Replies (16)

June 27, 2017, 11:08 AM · I was just doing this last night (reading alto clef) and concluded that I read as note names and use intervals. I have to say that treble to alto isn't so bad, but I do periodically have violin moments when playing viola.
June 27, 2017, 11:18 AM · I have to put in front that I usually dont play any other instrument than violin, piano or c flute. So I usually only read the two keys.
If I play viola for some strange and unusual reason or some very old music I go by intervals only.
Edited: June 27, 2017, 7:24 PM · I learned them like how I learned to read the treble clef when I was 5: practice naming the notes on the lines of the staff. I learned all the clefs by heart by the age of 17 -- all the G clefs, C clefs and the F clefs. They are all very natural to me, because this is how I transpose in my brain.
June 27, 2017, 12:52 PM · I use the memory of where a note is on any given string, and go from there via intervals and leaps (if shifting) to work out where the fingers will be on any note in the new position across and on all the strings.
June 27, 2017, 2:46 PM · After a few years of piano, I just learned the new (alto) clef with the new instrument. But being a lazy fellow, I still like reading the C-clef straight onto the piano, and then play by ear!

For violin students trying viola, I prepare simple music on two parallel staves in both clefs, rather than let them say "oh, it's one note higher" etc.

June 28, 2017, 1:13 AM · Usually with the help of a pair of spectacles ...
Edited: June 28, 2017, 1:28 AM · For Treble clef, up to E6 above the staff on sight, and down to D3 below the staff. This is from guitar. Anything above the E requires a bit of processing because I'm just not used to reading the notes up there.

In that case, I think of E as the baseline and read intervals.

For Alto it is the same - I have looked at the notes so much that I just know them. I am good up until the E5 (viola), but after that it gets shifty and I am not as familiar with the instrument as guitar, so I sometimes need to work it out or put little notes.

For Bass clef I use guide notes. I do not often read bass clef except when singing or some times on viola/guitar. It is not common. When I am singing I use intervals, with the F3 and B3 being my guide notes. When I am playing I am okay to read down to C3 - lowest note on viola - but if I am reading it on guitar, piano, or singing I frequently 'count notes' to name them below G3.

I didn't use any transposing tricks to learn new clefs, I just went at it like I did the first time I learned a clef. I memorized the lines and spaces and went from there. It didn't work so well for bass clef as it never is used, but treble and alto are used nearly daily so I have gained quick enough recall that the info is just there for the common notes.

I would be an amazing sight reader - except for rhythm and my brain being quicker than my fingers! Hahahaha....

June 28, 2017, 3:35 AM · The way I learned the Alto clef was to learn the notes representing 4 strings: C, G, D and A.
Everything else was relational - the intervals are no different. Violin clef on viola took a bit longer, especially when physical placement of the fingers does not correspond with graphical image of music (left-right, and up-down the fingerboard). This, however, passed as soon as was able to orient myself "one string left". Right now, no transposition on the fly, and the clef is associated with the instrument.
June 28, 2017, 4:12 AM · Former trombone player here. Trombonists have to deal with bass, tenor, and alto clefs regularly, as well as the occasional treble clef (usually in British band music).

Personally, once I learned to read a clef, I never even thought about it. Asking "How do you read alto clef" is no different from asking "How do you read treble clef?". You just play music written in that clef and it becomes familiar to you. Of course, playing trombone in an orchestra means you're simply counting rests for 347 measures, so you have a lot of time to think about that upcoming clef change...

I do recall there was a trombone etude book by Blazevich called "Clef Studies for Trombone", which consisted of nothing by the most diabolical clef changes in the middle of a phrase of scale. It wouldn't surprise me if this was on IMSLP. Most of it should be in the cello's range (although phrasing will be for brass instruments), if you want to give it a whirl (have your psychiatrist on speed dial first, though).

Edited: June 28, 2017, 5:54 AM · Wow. Trombone etudes for the cello. Now THAT is something I have not seen before on!!! Great idea, Madeye.

I agree with the others about the use of "intervals." You know that two lines on staff paper differ by a third and your mind can make surprisingly prompt and effective use of that information.

Edited: June 28, 2017, 1:05 PM · My preference is CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahey's tenor clef transcriptions of the Bordogni (Rochut) vocalises.
I was raised on the grandest of staves playing keys as well as being a wind player. Tenor is ingrained in my mind from reading Bb wind parts on c instruments. It is, however still a challenge on dbl bass and cello on which I sometimes resort to quick mental slide position or valves to note translations while reading.
Alto on cello is easy for a violist. Bass cleff on viola is still tough for me, but that may change as I'm playing more cello and cgda dbl bass now.
Haven't tried reading bass or tenor on violin.
The hardest thing for me is 3-4+ ledger lines in the c clefs. I sometimes look down or up at the octave to get my bearings on which clef I'm in.
Another thing is octave transposition in which I soetimes have to think of another position as synonymous.
June 29, 2017, 4:52 AM · Violin beginner here (I've had lessons in the trumpet and piano in the past and I'm active as a choir bass). Mentally, I seem to translate positions on the staff directly to finger positions, skipping the note names. I still associate notes with trumpet fingerings and occasionally with piano keyboard "feeling". When my teacher mentions that the "sol" is out of tune and that I need to move my 2nd finger, I have to do a lot of mental gymnastics: sol = g = note on top of the staff = middle finger on E string = 3rd finger in piano counting = 2nd finger in violin counting...

I do consider learning the viola at some point in the future, but I'm not happy with the idea of learning yet another clef. In choir I get a bit confused with tenor parts (octave-transposed G clef, i.e. G3 clef). I believe that cello players also don't like that clef.

June 29, 2017, 6:40 AM · I make the pitch correspond with it's place on the instrument.
I play piano and violin, two very different instruments, so this was tough at first, but I quickly learned bass cleft. Being honest, I cheat with bass cleft and write note names for now- but I do have a system I'm using to learn it with the soprano part also added- I simply look at the note, place it on the treble cleft, make it an octave and one lower, and voila, perfect translation.

This is how I have been transposing on the fly.

June 29, 2017, 10:09 AM · I don't mind reading bass cef on the viola if the notes can be played at original pitch, but my brain jams at octave transpositions.
June 29, 2017, 11:13 AM · Learn new clefs the same way you learned your first (treble?) clef;
--this is middle C, this is open A, etc. If you add a mental transposing step or other trick, you may get into trouble in fast passages and difficult keys. jq.
June 29, 2017, 2:34 PM · I've heard of the various tricks that involve thinking of a new clef in terms of the one you're familiar with. But in the end I found it easier to just think of the new clef as something brand-new, and get to know it on its own terms. (I went from violin to viola.) I found it useful to learn where the open strings are, and in alto clef middle C is a gimme - it's the middle line. After that, it was just a matter of working with it; after a couple of weeks I was finding my way around without too much trouble, and it just got smoother from there. Changing clefs in the middle of a piece was a bit scary at first, but it's not as bad as it looks. (I still wish composers wouldn't do gratuitous clef changes, though.)

Now that I'm comfortable in alto clef, I have the opposite of Krista Moyer's problem: when I pick up my violin I have the occasional viola moment.

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