Term 1 Theory Lessons & Quiz

1 Alto Clef

Development of the Staff

The staff is the foundation upon which notes are drawn. The modern staff comprises five lines and four spaces. Every line or space on the staff represents a different note.

The development of Western music notation began with church music in around the year 600 AD. At that time, the only people who were literate were monks and nobles. Monks in the churches had the ability to write down their prayers and chants to share with other church members. They used markings called neumes. They would write down the lyrics to a chant and then draw a sketch of the shape of the melody on top. Here you can see the Latin text of the hymn with neumes drawn on top. Could you perform this?

No standard system for notating which specific pitches to use or the length of each note existed. Horizontal lines were then added to this to give a more specific idea of pitches. At first it was just a single horizontal line and then more were added until they got to a 4 line staff. This is still the standard way that plainchant is written.

The 4 line staff is said to have been invented by a Benedictine monk named Guido d'Arezzo who lived in Italy in around the year 1000 AD. He was famous all around Italy for his excellent choirs and his ability to teach music quickly. He wrote a book about music notation and in that book he introduced a standard set of pitches. He named them after the first few syllables in a popular hymn: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. This system was used for a long time and made it easier for monks to pass on their songs from one church to another and be confident that it would be performed correctly. In many countries, the first syllable "Ut" was changed to "Do" because it ended in an open vowel and was easier to sing. In the 1600's, the syllable "Si" or "Ti" was added to complete the major scale and this is the tonic sol-fa system that we use today.

Musical Clefs

Clefs are used to specify which pitches the 5 line staff refers to. Different singers and musical instruments play different sets of notes, or tessitura, so different clefs were used to customize the staff for that musician. This made music easier to read because most of the notes would fall within the staff and you wouldn't need to read so many ledger lines. The image below shows many different musical clefs. Those underlined with a light purple line are the most commonly used.

The coloured lines show you where 3 notes fall on each clef. The blue line is Middle C. The red line is the G above Middle C and the green line is the F below Middle C.

Alto Clef

We have already learned about the treble and bass clef, but alto clef is another commonly used clef that is important to have some familiarity with. Violas play in the alto clef. Singers and other instruments like English horn, trombone, and bassoon may also have to play in alto clef from time to time.The alto clef is called a C clef because the arrows at the centre of the clef point to the note Middle C.

To read notes in the alto clef you can remember that the centre line is Middle C and then count the lines and spaces up or down until you reach your desired note. You can use these sayings to help you remember the notes.

Lines: Fat Alley Cats Eat Garbage

Spaces: Green Birds DFly

Here is an exercise to help you practice reading notes in the alto clef:


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