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I hadn't read music for about 20 years, after doing a little classical guitar as a young child, and recently started learning piano. I was pleasantly surprised to find that reading music on the treble clef came back very quickly and feels very instinctive, but I'm struggling with the bass clef. I just don't seem to be gaining any ability to read it in the same natural way, every time the note moves more than 2 tones I have t stop and work out what note it is.

I imagine this is an example of how learning at a young age is so valuable... but are there good ways to force the bass clef into my brain? Is it just something I will learn as time goes on, or can I speed the process up?

  • 1
    I would say a simple way is to mark 2-3 notes you easily find, like the F between the dots of the clef, a low E and a high C and work the notes you have to read around these – Shevliaskovic Mar 30 '15 at 12:11
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    It might work for you to think of it as a mirror image of the treble clef. Middle C being a line above rather than a line below, the "interior" C being the 3rd space from the top rather than the 3rd space from the bottom, etc. Otherwise definitely try flash cards as aparente001 suggests. – Matthew Read Mar 30 '15 at 15:09
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    @MatthewRead - this is a great idea! Why doesn't everybody know about it? Simple, but effective! Symmetry rules! Change this from a comment to an answer - now! Only works for C, but what the heck! – Tim Mar 30 '15 at 17:32
  • The answer here is simple: learn the same way you learned treble clef. LINES: GBDFA (Good Boys Do Fine Always) SPACES: ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass). Draw a staff w/ blank paper; draw circles; label them. Read the clef on your guitar / piano. You won't learn it unless you use it / drill yourself. It doesn't have to be complicated. – jjmusicnotes Apr 1 '15 at 5:47
  • I've been playing and singing Bartok - Mikrokosmos 1. The first melodies are all unison or right/left hand variations. That helped me. – xvan Apr 4 at 19:18

12 Answers 12

10

Make or buy yourself some flash cards for bass clef notes. Begin with a very small subset of cards -- choose several that you can identify reliably, such as middle C. If you have, say, 3 easy cards and 2 slightly harder cards, that's a good combination. On the back of the card, write the name of the note. Now shuffle and quiz yourself. Say the names of the notes out loud in a normal voice -- don't just think it or mumble it. You can use or invent your own memory trick such as "All Cows Eat Grass" (for the spaces), as shown at http://www.piano-lessons-made-simple.com/bass-clef-notes.html. Or you can draw a picture based on the way a certain note looks. Anything that helps you get good results with your quiz will help.

Do this shuffling and quizzing for a short amount of time frequently. I have seen a model of vocabulary memorization that said that a new vocabulary item needed to get loaded into, and retrieved from, the short-term memory seven times before the item would make it into the long-term memory. (As I get older, it seems to be more challenging.)

Also, sit down at the piano and quiz yourself with the shuffled cards by playing the note on the card. For this, you may find it helpful to draw a picture of the white and black keys, and shade in the note in question.

You can also try playing Concentration with notes that match in name between treble clef and bass clef.

When you are very comfortable with this first small set of note cards, add one or two new ones. They don't have to be neighbors. You could start with, for example, the notes of the C major triad.

Buy a cheap mp3 player, such as a Sansa Clip, that has a voice record feature. Record yourself playing the right-hand part of a not-too-challenging piece, nice and slow. Create a click-track by plugging your headphones or earbuds into an electronic metronome, and listening to this metronome while you play and record your right hand.

Now, play back the recording, while playing only the left hand of your piece. You will have the headphones plugged into the mp3 player at this point.

This will only work if you keep a steady beat with your click track when you record the right hand.

Remember, nice and slow. Slow and steady wins the race!

You might enjoy working with a beginner's music theory exercise book. They have all levels -- just browse at your music shop and pick out something that seems doable but not too easy for you.

One more thing -- don't neglect your ear. Try to play some simple tunes with your left hand, entirely by ear, so as to get comfortable with that part of the piano's range, and so as to make the connection between the intention coming from your brain, and the sounds that your ear hears when you strike the keys.

P.S. (because I'm not allowed to comment) I like Reim Time's idea, and I want to reassure you about it because of your comment. Think about what it was like when you were little, and learning to read. It was a dialectical process, with both reading (which is a relatively passive activity) and writing (which is more active) going on. We just need to engage the brain in lots of different ways.

Bottom line, try lots of different activities and approaches. As your confidence grows, the positive effects will snowball, because any anxiety that may have been slowing down your learning process will stop getting in the way.

Happy music making!

5

Shift your perception down by one whole line/space. C below the treble clef is one line below the clef; C below the bass clef is two. High F is the top line of the treble clef; the top F of the bass clef is the second-from-top line. C on the treble clef is the space above the middle line; C on the bass clef is the space below the middle line... and so forth.

Everything is located just one space or line (and two octaves) below where you're used to finding it.

  • This is how I do it. With practice, I expect that I will naturally recognize it without needing to mentally transpose like this. – Bradd Szonye Mar 30 '15 at 20:47
  • With practice, that is exactly what will happen, Bradd. It doesn't take too long before you no longer have to think about it. – user16935 Mar 30 '15 at 21:16
  • @BraddSzonye I now find myself in the same situation of having to always transpose bass clef two spaces up. I am wondering if you can give an update on how it went for you? – Ovi Jul 3 at 15:04
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I've played both piano and bass guitar, and what helps me is a bit of transposition. Find a tune that you can play on your right hand, in treble clef, well. Make sure it's something you could stand to listen to like 100 more times.

Using a blank staff (lines on a piece of notebook paper work fine), transpose that line into bass clef. A G in treble clef becomes a G in bass clef, and you have to find where to put it. This forces you to translate something you already recognize into something new. Once you've transposed it, learn to play it with your left hand. To me this is the fastest way.

Once you've done that, try transposing larger runs that span more of the staff or longer tracts of music.

  • I do this with chords, and can easily transpose on the fly to a different key, but my concern is I don't want to think of treble clef as natural and bass as something that needs to be transposed. Do you internally transpose so fast it doesn't matter, or did it just act as a tool to get the bass clef engrained? – Mr. Boy Mar 30 '15 at 12:24
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    @Mr.Boy With practice it will be fast enough not to matter, and with more practice you will know the notes for what they are. Your brain will not forever forget what the note on the third line is called :) – Matthew Read Mar 30 '15 at 15:07
  • @Mr.Boy I find that once I've done this a few times I end up accidentally reading treble clef as bass clef occasionally. That's sort of how automatic it becomes - bass clef starts to feel more natural than treble when you spend enough time there. – ReimTime Mar 30 '15 at 16:50
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This is something that will improve with time, but you should practice regularly if you want to improve it faster. Even a few minutes a day only spent reading bass clef (not playing the piano) should be enough.

If you’re taking public transportation, this is a great place to practice. The restroom is a good place as well.

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    I think practice at a keyboard is more important than just reading a score. Learning to read the names of the notes is just an intellectual exercise. The important thing is to be able to play the right notes, not name them. – user19146 Mar 31 '15 at 1:26
  • I think the first step is to be comfortable with the clef. If he has to stop and think about the clef, it’s too late already. First, learn the notes; then learn to play them. If you are able to sing them somehow in tune, you’ll know when you screw up on the keyboard. – Édouard Mar 31 '15 at 11:16
  • I agree with @Édouard - I'm able very naturally to play the notes on the treble clef on a piano without having to search for them. Any note I can read without thinking on either clef, I can find on the piano, now that I've learned the piano keyboard (a separate skill). – Mr. Boy Mar 31 '15 at 14:53
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There simply is no easy way about it. You begin at your entry points (as I like to call them) F being on the second line from top and G being on the bottom line on the staff. You may also find it useful to write the letters A-B-C-D-E-F-G out on your answer book. You have notes on lines and in spaces and when you go down on the staff you count backwards and when you go up on the staff you count forward.

You then count the notes wherever they are. You also keep on counting notes. You keep on counting until you know them of by heart. This may take a while but after a while you know your bass clef so well that you can visualise in your minds eye where exactly the notes are. You can also after a while just look at a note and tell it's name.

You have to put some effort and practice into reading your score well enough to get to that point unfortunately. It does not come to you from mercy alone.

  • I disagree completely here; learning to read music is easy; see my comment to the question above. – jjmusicnotes Apr 1 '15 at 5:49
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When I was in college, I helped a few people with learning to read new clefs. One tuba especially really needed help with treble clef.

Know that whatever method works for you to learn it, eventually you become fluent and the method disappears, much like it did with treble clef. As you guessed, what you need is exposure to more bass clef and you'll be able to read it easily.

Eventually you start reading contours rather than notes (you may notice this with treble clef ledger lines). I can "read" alto clef ok, but I only know the locations of key pitches. I can figure out whatever I need to, but most of the time, knowing step-step-step-skip is sufficient for melodies.

I find it easier to learn a new clef without the mechanics of the instrument. My more recent experience with this is C Clefs, but it's applicable to any new notation system. Spend time with:

  1. Flash Cards - you can find some nice ones online. Name the note, and try to keep up a rhythm as you move through them. Play games with yourself - make it fun. Then try to visualize the note from the letter name.

  2. Write - get some blank staff paper and rewrite stuff you're working on between clefs. This will get your brain to recognize patterns between the clefs too. To begin with, you'll be doing counting and transposing, but that's ok. Eventually it will become easier.

  3. Audiate/sight sing - This is portable, and a great skill to have in general. Sing easy passages in different clefs.

  4. Memorize the locations of key notes - use mnemonics (good boys deserve fudge always) or whatever you need, but as mentioned in the comments, just nail a few. That way, when you forget what a note is, you don't have to count from middle C.

  5. When you get to the instrument, find pieces with left-hand melodies. You should artificially increase the frequency of what you're trying to learn, whether it's articulations, techniques, or whatever - same goes with bass clef.

  6. Don't forget ledger lines and clefs!

Don't be afraid that trying transposition or "tricks" will hurt you. As long as they're teaching the right notes, your brain will take the path of least resistance, which will (eventually) be fluent reading.

2

Practice sight-reading a single line on the bass clef on its own. You can find plenty of music for cello, bassoon, songs for bass voice, etc, to download from http://imslp.org/.

I started as a keyboard player, and The way I taught myself to read "less common" clefs, like C clefs on any line of the stave in old vocal scores was to focus on just a few positions and then work relative to them. For eaxmple the bottom line and space of the bass clef are G and A, and the top space and line are also G and A. Practice, practice, practice, and your brain will soon learn the rest.

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I'm a guitar player, so naturally I learned the treble clef first, and only much later did I need to learn the bass clef. I remember what helped me a lot then. It is maybe trivial and all too obvious, but as a pure visual help I imagined that the notes stay where they are (with respect to the treble clef) and that the lines shift up by one. I.e., I tried to see the top line of the bass clef staff as a ledger line, and the bottom line is missing. With that image I could read the notes as if they were written in the treble clef. Of course, in the long run you don't want to shift lines up in your head, but initially it helped me a lot and I could read music in the bass clef immediately with little effort. After a while the image goes away but the ability to read remains.

  • @MeaningfulUsername: Thanks for editing, but please read the first sentence of this wikipedia entry. So I guess both spellings (ledger/leger line) are correct. – Matt L. Mar 31 '15 at 20:46
  • True. Thought about double checking, but the firefox spellchecker didn't recognize it either, so I went for it. Google shows around 16 500 hits for "leger line" and around 65 000 for "ledger line", so the edit is in favor of the majority at least. But please revert it if you like the other one better! – Meaningful Username Mar 31 '15 at 20:50
  • I think this is a very good method in all its simplicity. It's already helped me improve my bass clef reading. – Meaningful Username Apr 5 '15 at 10:18
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It helped me to write notes on an empty stave. Perhaps you could start with scales in different keys up to let's say three sharps, three flats. When you feel comfortable, try to write chord progression, e.g. tonic, subdominant, and dominant (I, IV, V) in those keys and then try different variations. Another popular chord progression is II, V and I. This will help you recognize chords hidden behind notes and your brain will much faster read the notes and harmony.

This is a very good website with empty staves for free.

1

Get a book of songs in whatever style/genre you like, transposed for bass/baritone. Best is if the book contains some songs you know well and some you don't. Every day choose a song and spend some time sight-singing. Sight-singing creates strong connections in your brain; I really think it's the best method.

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I looked up "bass clef quiz" and found a number of good hits. No doubt some of these links will be broken before long, but hopefully that query will find new ones by then :)

Edit: I just created one of my own. http://bassclef.info/

0

I've read all other answers diagonal looking whether I find my answer already there. So here is my experience with reading the bass clef.

I disagree with all advices just transposing the violon clef one line lower. That's how I did too - but I had always problems in the beginning. And I had no concept about the ledger lines above the bass clef. So here is my solution:

Mind that the lower ledger line of c1 in the violon clef is the upper ledger of the bass clef.

Then imagine that the second ledger line below c1 is a and this a is the 5th line of the bass clef. Now you go on writing first the scale downward in the violon clef with ledger lines and then you tie all lines without the line of c1 and you have developed the bass clef. enter image description here

You can imediately start with playing BWV 846.

enter image description here

etc.

Then you do the same with the upper ledger lines of the bass clef and the violon clef, by writing the scale from f to f1

enter image description here

This method will

1. give you insight to the grand staff

2. be easily transferred to all other keys (especially tenor key)

So my advice is: don't try to learn by flashcards, never practice reading bass clef without playing or at least looking at the right hand of the piano regarding the violon clef, except you are playing double bass or bass guitar.

And finally the super best approach is: Start reading bass clef by studying the prelude in C by J.S.Bach.

You will learn there the clef step by step while you are playing.

And then it is not forbidden to notate the left hand of what is playing here

  1. in G-clef
  2. in f-clef

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