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The alto clef is a type of C clef. It’s a clef which tells you where middle C is located on the stave. (It’s not the only C clef – there is another one called the “tenor clef”. You’ll learn about the tenor clef at grade 5.)

The alto clef looks like this:

alto clef

When you draw one by hand, you can simplify it a bit. Here’s a hand-drawn alto clef:

hand-drawn alto clef

You need to draw one vertical line, then another with two arms. The two arms must go either side of the middle line of the stave, like this:

alto clef on the middle line

And here’s our handwritten one:

hand written alto clef on stave


The two arms go either side of the middle line because that line is where we find the note middle C. (Not “any C”, but this specific C.)

So, the middle line is middle C – that’s quite easy to remember I hope! The next space up will be D, and the space below is B. To work out the other notes, just start at the middle line/middle C and count up or down.

notes in the alto clef


Alto Clef Exam Questions

In your music theory exam you will be tested on the alto clef in a variety of ways. You might have to use it to 

  • name or write out notes,
  • work out or write intervals,
  • name or write out triads,
  • write out key signatures and
  • transpose notes written using other clefs.

Notes, Intervals and Triads

Do these questions in exactly the same way as you would for the treble and bass clef. Most grade 4 students (those who are not viola players) can’t read the alto clef very quickly – it doesn’t matter though. Locate the middle line and then work out the letter names of the notes and pencil them in, and work out your answers in the normal way.

Here’s a triad question, for example:

What key is this tonic triad in?

tonic triad
  • The key signature has 5 flats, so it must be Db major. (Remember you can look at the last but one flat in the key signature to work out the key!)

Key signatures in the Alto Clef

Key signatures need to be written correctly at all times, but especially when you’re using a less familiar clef. Here are the positions of the sharps and flats in each of the key signatures you need to know for this grade:

sharp key signatures alto clef
flat key signatures alto clef


It’s not very difficult to learn these. Just remember these two tips:

  1. The line/space you need to start on is between where it lies in the treble and bass clef 
    key signatures f major treble bass alto
    The Bb is on the middle line in the treble clef, and the 2nd line in the bass clef. In the alto clef it sits in the space between these two.
  2. The pattern of up/down is the same as for the treble and bass clefs: 
    key signatures b major treble bass alto
    Compare the three clefs: the first sharp is written high, the next is low, then high, then low, then lower.  The flats also follow a consistent pattern.

Transposing into a New Clef

In the grade four exam you might be asked to demonstrate your alto clef transposition skills.

The most important thing to remember is the position of middle C in the clefs you are working with. Each note needs to be understood in terms of whether it is above or below middle C (and by how many octaves!)

Compare these two bars. Are they correctly written at the same pitch?

transpose from treble to alto clef
alto clef transposition

The note in the top example is C#, one semitone higher than middle C.

In the alto clef, the first note is also C# one semitone higher than middle C, so that is a good start!

Check all the other notes, and the key signature.

This is a correct transposition.

Here’s another one to check. Is this alto clef music correctly transposed into the bass clef?

Hover your mouse over the image to check!

Why do we have different clefs?

the viola uses the alto clef

The viola uses the alto clef, so that the notes it uses can be written with a minimum of ledger lines.

Instruments (and voices) which are high-pitched use the treble clef. Lower instruments use the bass clef, because the notes they play are difficult to write using the treble clef – we would have to write a huge number of ledger lines in order to show the notes at the right pitch. The viola’s range is midway between the bass and treble clefs.

Using a different clef makes it easier for the player to read the music.

Many years ago, there were lots of different clefs in use – much more than today. Most of these clefs have become obsolete, but one of these, the alto clef, is still used by this one instrument.

Alto Clef Exercises

Hover your mouse over the questions (tap on mobiles) to reveal the answers.

1. Name each of these notes

alto-clef 01alto-clef 02alto-clef 03alto-clef 04alto-clef 05alto-clef 06


2. Write the notes stated as minims (half notes) and use ledger lines if necessary.



p>3. Rewrite the following notes at the same pitch but using the alto clef:



4. Rewrite this melody so that it sounds the same but using the alto clef. Remember to include the clef and key signature.




5. Identify these triads by a) naming the key and b) describing them as tonic (I), subdominant (IV) or dominant (V).



6. Write the key signatures and triads named below.



7. Write the named triads as shown by the key signatures.


8. Write the clefs and key signatures to make the triads named below.