I have a question about practising reading in different clefs.

I know the treble clef well. When I read a note in the bass clef, I mentally add 3 semitones to it, so I get the note name in the treble clef. However, I'm suspecting that this method will hinder my sightreading speed: I'm not reading the note instantly.

My question is: what is a 'right' cognitive process to read sheet music fluently? I wonder how one does not confuse reading notes in different clefs.

  • I think this method is not okay if not absolutely wrong. I used to read the same way and I had to go a long way to find out that both systems belong together (with the ledger line of the middle C between both staves.) Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 20:10
  • If you have a B in bass clef, it looks like a treble clef G; but if you add 3 semitones to G you get A#. I guess you're actually doing something a little different than "add 3 semitones".
    – npostavs
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 14:14
  • @npostavs What I actually do, is going to the letter that is two counts further in the alphabet letters from A to G. For example, when I have an F in bass clef, the note on the sheet looks like a D, and I would mentally "add" 2 letter names, so I get F. If I have a F#, it looks like an D# and I would just do the same "adding" operation. I wasn't sure how to describe this, so I went with "add 3 semitones" in my post.
    – user270124
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 14:33

6 Answers 6


I learned the treble clef first by a long way. I learned it by the mnemonic FACE.

When I eventually came to learn the bass clef I simply used the mnemonic ACEG. After quite a short while it just became natural. I didn't ever do any calculations of any kind.

I knew that middle C was shared. Later I connected the lower ledger lines on the treble clef with the upper notes on the bass clef. This happened automatically.

My recommendation

Don't do any kind of calculation. Just learn the lines and spaces as you did when you learned the treble clef.


Don’t read by adding semitones, this is a wrong way.

You better start reading the bass clef by studying and practicing a piece like this:

enter image description here Mind that the upper ledger lines of the lower system are the corresponding lower lines of the upper system and vice versa.

enter image description here

Study the link In the comment of guidot.

The real cognitive insight is not transposing the names in the system. What you must realize is that the ledger lines c,a,f,d are identical with the lines of the bass system.

When understanding this point you are able to read bass, tenor and alt clefs: you don’T have to transpose 3 semitones, you just move the system up and down.


"My question is: what is a 'right' cognitive process to read sheet music fluently? I wonder how one does not confuse reading notes in different clefs."

I am not sure there is a 'right' process, or method. Some of the methods we are taught as children are, in my opinion, very flawed and create more distraction than actual learning. The best method is repetition. You don't want to have to go through the math every time you change clefs but the more practice you get the sooner the training wheels come off. I think Albrecht Hugli provided a good answer, though it seems to be down voted.

For me what works is the realization that everything is relative. All you really need to do is identify one note on the clef and pair it with your instrument. A good example is middle C. Then all the other lines and spaces just follow the alphabet (A -> G, repeat). It really can't get easier than that. Sight reading and reading for a specific instrument are different skills. On the guitar for example you need to not only read the note but decide which version of it to play since some notes can be found in 3 or 4 places. You can practice reading the notes by letter name out loud independently of finding them on your instrument. That is a good way to eliminate the crutch of "Every Good Boy Does Fine", or "Add three semitones", etc. There are books out there that recommend just this exercise. Once I started doing that after a short while all other methods just dropped out of my mind and I just ID the letter immediately regardless of clef.


It's not really wrong but it's better to learn the bass (and alto and tenor a bit later) clef as a thing in itself. Reading and playing piano and organ music helps. The point is to think of the Grand Staff as the object of interest, (for keyboards) with a bass clef, middle C ledger line, then treble clef. Later you can learn the C-clefs. It just takes practice. Lots of practice.


When you read English (or whatever your native language is, assuming it's alphabetic), do you read the letters individually and sound them out to form words? Of course not; long ago you achieved reading fluency.

Same with music - with enough practice you just look at the score and automatically play what's in front of you. It doesn't matter if one staff is in treble and the other in bass, or if both staffs are in bass, or if the top staff is in bass and the bottom in treble for some hand-crossing passage, or if the composer decided to write in 3 or 4 staffs to make the voicing more clear.

Just as there are debates (see phonics vs whole language) about the best way for children to learn reading English, there are debates about how people should learn to read music, but, just as for English, it probably doesn't matter that much in the long run.

If you start playing chamber music with cellists or violists, you learn to fluently read tenor and alto clef so you can follow what they're doing. Probably you can depend on your tenor clef experience for B-flat instruments (though the few measures Brahms wrote for clarinet in A-sharp are quite annoying).

  • Out of curiosity, which Brahms pieces have passages for A-sharp clarinet? (So I know to avoid them.) :-) Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 14:39
  • @MichaelSeifert: In the first clarinet sonata (op. 120 no. 1), m. 100-135 in the first movement have the piano part in 4 sharps and the clarinet part in 6 flats, and m. 35-48 in the second movement effectively do the same thing without actually changing the key signature in the clarinet part. There are most likely other instances I don't know about. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 15:26
  • That seems extra-ridiculous — you'd think that he could have just spelled the part differently and written it in 6 sharps instead. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 15:40
  • @MichaelSeifert: it's not completely ridiculous - a fair number of notes in the section have flats cancelled by natural accidentals, and if it was all in 6 sharps, there would be many double-sharps. The passages are essentially in C-sharp minor for the piano and E-flat minor for the clarinet, and people generally do not write in D-sharp minor precisely because the harmonic minor will have C-double-sharp. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 19:08

There will be better answers but for in short I believe your method is okay. Because now you are counting them but soon after you will start to memorize them one by one. In short time it looks efficient. Also to memorize them you can draw a staff and write all notes on it once a day. It may help you to memorize them so that you will stop counting.

Also you can try this website

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.