Do you know how to read music in bass clef? At our music school in NYC, a frequent comment from new piano students is: “I understand how to read the right hand notes but I am really bad at reading the left hand notes.” Why do so many beginning piano students struggle with reading the left hand? Is it because bass clef is tricky to read? Let’s find out . . .
Most musical instruments cannot produce more than one note simultaneously. If they do have this ability, the notes will generally be in the same register or very close together. For example, a violin is only capable of playing in a higher register, while the double bass plays only notes that sound low. Why does this matter? Because most beginning instrumentalists only need to learn to read one line of music, and generally only need one clef!
A clef is a musical symbol which serves as a marker to tell you where specific notes are on a staff. There are actually many different types of clefs, but the four that we use most often in modern times are:
Each line and space on each clef represents a different letter!
If you are taking beginning level music lessons, each instrument has a clef that it plays in which corresponds with how high the pitch is on that instrument. For example, instruments with a high pitch such as violin, flute, piccolo, or clarinet use the treble clef. Instruments with a lower pitch such as cello, bassoon, or tuba, use the bass clef. There are some instruments that fall in the middle, such as the viola or alto clarinet, who use the alto clef. The tenor clef is less often used, but you will see it in cases where the cello needs to play higher in its register.
The piano is a special instrument because it has 88 notes, meaning it spans a large spectrum of high and low notes. Just 5 lines of staff is not enough to express the full capabilities of the range, so two sets of 5 lines are used. This is called a grand staff.
The right hand is generally notated on the upper staff using treble clef and left hand is notated at the bottom using bass clef.
As mentioned earlier, each line and space on a staff represents a letter in the musical alphabet, and a specific note on the instrument. For example, on a Treble clef, the second line from the bottom is a G (That’s why it’s called “G” clef!) On a bass clef, the second line from the bottom is a “B.”
This means that the rules for reading treble and bass notes are different, and that is why a lot of people have trouble learning to read bass clef if they have already learned treble clef. None of the notes with the same vertical position on the five lines of treble and five lines of bass clef are the same note letters.
At first, this may seem confusing and illogical and many even very bright minds struggle with this concept.
There is a common metaphor that “learning to read music is like learning to read in a different language.” This is not exactly true – learning to read the notes is actually at least 10 times easier than reading another language, so have no fear!
The system music notation is based upon is 100% logical and does not have a myriad of exceptions to the rules like all languages have.
Look at the picture below: the notes connected by the line are the SAME note: middle C.
If we follow that middle C up into the treble clef, we go in order of the musical alphabet: C D E F G A B C.
If we follow middle C backwards down into the bass clef, we go backwards in the alphabet: C B A G F E D C
Essentially, it is the same pattern going from low to high where “middle C” is the meeting point between the left and right hand.
When you first begin piano lessons, it’s recommended to take time learning “landmark” notes. Eventually, you will just simply know which note is which (there are not that many total notes. after all). The first step is to memorize the “landmark notes” which are marked in red.
If you are focusing on the bass clef, then just memorize that below the first line is F, 2nd space is C, 4th line is another F, and finally the middle C. Notice how when we describe the vertical position of the note we always think “bottom-to-the-top”. You should always think like that too.
When you see a note that is not the landmark note that you have memorized, simply imagine that closest landmark note and count up or down from it including every line and every space using the C-D-E-F-G-A-B-(C) pattern. That’s it! After a while you will just naturally know all your notes.
If you don’t want to cripple yourself when it comes to note reading, DO NOT use the mnemonics for the music notes. We don’t even want to give you any examples of what these mnemonics are, and if you hear anyone starting to say “every good boy…” just cover your ears and run out of the room!
Remembering some silly phrases where the first letters of the words represent the note letters that go on the lines or in the spaces of the music stuff is a completely backwards way of learning the notes. It may provide a quick solution at first, but then you will get stuck with this highly addictive method and will most likely never transition to the normal way, which is – you simply know your music notes just the same as you know your letters of the alphabet. Imagine reading a book and having to do some strange additional ritual to remember what the letters of the words are. It would be completely silly!
Learn the notes by memorizing the landmark notes, buy the music flash cards for some additional help, stay away from mnemonics. 2-3 weeks of practicing reading bass clef, and you will be well on your way to being better at reading piano sheet music!