How to Read Alto Clef: Notes & Staff

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

To read music, you first have to be able to recognize your clef. In this lesson, we'll check out the alto clef, and see how it organizes a range of notes into readable fashion.

Alto Clef

Music can feel like its own language. Some people just know how to speak the language of music, but fluency also means that you need to be able to read it. In written form, music takes the appearance of a series of notes, organized onto a staff, or a chart of five horizontal lines.

So, how do you know which note is which? That information starts with the clef, or the symbol on the far left of the staff. This symbol tells you where the various notes fall. We have different clefs because different instruments use different ranges of notes. Clefs let us place the right range of notes on the staff for a specific instrument, and one great example of this is the alto clef. This clef is almost exclusively used for viola, leading some people to also call it the viola clef. It's the key you need to start reading this music.

The viola is the instrument which uses alto clef the most
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The Clef Sign

The clef is identified first and foremost by the symbol placed at the far left of the staff. This is how you know which clef the music is written in. For the alto clef, the symbol contains a thick vertical line, a thin vertical line, and what looks like a very fancy 3. It does need to be noted that the placement of this symbol is also very important. If the entire symbol fits within the 5 lines of the staff, then it represents the alto clef. If the same symbol starts on the second line of the staff and finishes above the top line, then it actually represents the related (but different) tenor clef. So: fancy 3 entirely inside the staff. That's what you're looking for.

The alto clef symbol
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The Notes

Now, what are the notes of the alto clef? The first note for us to identify is what we call middle C. Each clef represents two octaves, that's C to C to C. The center of the alto clef symbol (where the two curves of the fancy 3 meet) is the third line of the staff. That's where we place the middle C. Since the middle C is in the exact center of the staff, many people also refer to this as the C clef.

Middle C in the alto clef
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