Tenor clef – a crash course

A tenor clef at the beginning of a new piece of music can be a frightening symbol to face if you have never seen one before.  It looks a bit like a schematic of the crossbow that the conductor might use to fire his baton at you if you stuff it up.  Fortunately, learning to confidently sight-read tenor clef does not need to be a daunting task with some preparation and practice.

A pallet of clefs

Most lower brass players learn to play music written in bass clef.  However, there will be situations where the music will be written in other clefs.  An advantage of tenor clef is that the notes are lower on the staff. This avoids using two additional ledger lines for higher notes. 

Alto clef is less common but certain pieces of music use it.  The alto clef and tenor clef share the same symbol but the alto clef is placed a ledger line lower on the staff.  Therefore, all the notes are written a ledger line below where they would appear on the tenor clef staff.  The middle of the alto/tenor clef symbol indicates where middle C is on the staff.

tenor clef vs alto clef

Brass band arrangers write their music in Bb treble clef for all instruments, with one exception. The bass trombone part is in bass clef in C.  This treble clef heritage makes it difficult for brass bands to recruit lower brass players who can only read music written in bass clef.  Learning to read tenor clef can help lower brass players to bridge from bass clef to Bb treble clef.  Let me explain…

Is treble clef really tenor clef in disguise?

As it happens, tenor clef places the notes in the same place on the staff as Bb treble clef. Composers always write trumpet music in Bb treble clef.  The nuance is that the key signature for tenor clef will be the same as the bass clef key signature. Both are in C pitch.  To read Bb treble clef, think tenor clef with 2 flats removed (or 2 sharps added).

Clear as mud? 

This comparison chart shows the same note, a middle C, written on staves with the 3 different clefs:

So, if you can read tenor clef, you will also be able to read trumpet music by mentally adjusting the key signature. 

Bridging from theory to reality

Now that you know the basics, you’ll need to put them into practice before the feeling of terror will completely evaporate.  To help ease the frustration of learning to read tenor clef like a pro, Brendan Collins has written a well thought out set of practice exercises for a very reasonable cost.  Pick up a copy using this link…

Tenor Clef In 30 Days By Brendan Collins – Digital Sheet Music For Individual Part,Score – Download & Print S0.868013 | Sheet Music Plus

“Tenor Clef in 30 Days is designed to help intermediate students of the trombone overcome one of the biggest hurdles they will face in their formative years – reading Tenor Clef. The exercises are short and progressive and can easily be adopted into a student’s daily practise routine. Within a month, students will have a good knowledge of tenor clef and feel confident when reading and performing some of the extensive trombone repertoire that is written in that clef.”  

Brendan Collins

After you’ve mastered Brendan’s exercises, give your local community brass band a call to let them know that you’re finally ready to help out.

Still confused? Leave a comment or post a question.