Beginner Music Steps: Clefs and Time Signatures

Tuesday Teaching: Clefs and Time Signatures l

Treble Clef:


A clef is a symbol that sits at the beginning of every staff of music that you look at. A staff contains five lines and four spaces. How do you know where the note A or the note C is? The missing element needed is the clef. The clef defines what notes go where functioning a lot like a map. Placing a treble clef at the start of the staff defines the lines and spaces with note names.

Treble Clef on Staff: LadyDpiano

The treble clef circles around the note G. This is why it's commonly called the G clef. As for the notes, there is an important pattern. Look at the lowest line, which is designated E. Follow the musical alphabet to find where the next note is. The F is in the space just above the E. The staff ascends in this fashion - line, then space, then line - as it cycles through the musical alphabet (A-B-B-D-E-F-G).

Bass Clef:

Even though you may understand the notes on both clefs, the only way to get proficient is to read other clefs as often as you can. Set aside a few minutes a day to look at other clefs so you can easily identify their notes. Since clefs define notes, you can almost think of being able to read in many clefs as a kind of musical literacy.

Bass Clef on Staff:

The bass clef is a different clef than the treble and identifies not only different note names but also notes in different ranges. The bass clef is used for instruments that have a lower pitch, like a bass guitar. Even though the bass clef sits on the same five-line staff, it defines very different note names. Many musicians read treble clef because it is the most common clef. Because of this, too many musicians have a greater difficulty reading bass clef than reading treble clef. In order to progress your understanding of theory, you will need to be adept at reading all clefs.

Alto Clef: LadyDpiano

Moveable "C" Clefs

The last type of clef is called the C clef. Typically, you see this clef associated with the viola because it's the most common instrument that reads in that clef; however, more instruments than just the viola read it. When the C-clef is used with the viola, it is called the alto clef. Thankfully, this clef is very easy to read because the symbol for the C clef has two semicircles that curve into the middle of the staff and basically "point" toward the middle line, which is a C. It's not just any C, it's middle C.

Alto Clef

Alto Clef on Staff:

Since this is a movable clef, you can place the clef anywhere you want, and whatever lines its two semicircles point to become middle C. Some very old choral music uses a different movable C clef for each part (tenor clef, alto clef, and soprano clef). Just as long as you know that the clef always points toward middle C, you will be able to decipher the notes in this clef.

Point to Consider

When notes use ledger lines that are extremely high or extremely low, they can be difficult to read; it's much easier to read notes that sit in the staff you are reading. Using different clefs allows you to move the location of middle C in such a way that the majority of your notes are in and around the staff.


Time is a fundamental aspect of music theory that is often left out of the formal music theory study. Time has more to it than just measures counting beats and bars. Time can dictate the feel and flow of a piece, and even harmony has a rhythm to it, aptly called "harmonic rhythm."

Time Signatures

Music is divided into bars, also called measures, for reading convenience and for musical purposes. Most music adheres to a meter, and that affects the phrasing of the melody. If you don't have a lot of experience with reading, rhythm can be a very difficult concept to grasp.

Common Time:

The most standard time signature is 4/4 time, which is also called "common time" and is abbreviated by this symbol c.
4/4 Time Signature:

Common time looks like a fraction and it signifies two things. First, the top number 4 means that every measure will have four beats in it. The bottom number 4 indicates what note value will receive the beat; in this case, 4 stands for a quarter note. So common time breaks up each measure into four beats, as a quarter note receives one beat. You can, of course, further divide the measure into as many small parts as you feel like, but in the end, it must add up to four beats.

So, I just wanted to introduce you to a few "Beginner Music Steps" for Tuesday Teaching with LadyD!

For more Beginner Music Steps, visit:

Wheels On The Bus

Beginner Piano Lessons

Beginner Steps To Success

Beginner Corner: Ledger Lines

300 Page Course Book

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-- LadyD

 "The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King
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