Learn viola clef in 5 hours

There are countless violist jokes – and the greatest experts in this profession are, of course, the violists themselves. It certainly doesn’t detract from the whole thing that some of the jokes are quite out of touch with the realities of the musician’s market. "Famous string quartet seeks first violinist, second violinist and cellist, cipher…" – this zote may stick in the throat of one or the other hopeful first violinist who wants to build up an ensemble, as soon as he has to go in search of suitable and willing violists, who, as is well known, are a comparatively rare species (also at our music week in Grunbach or our music week in Benediktbeuern one can regularly convince oneself of this).

Thus, for centuries it has been the very best tradition that violinists, in the absence of better alternatives, also have to lend a hand themselves – and of necessity have to learn the viola clef.

Basic orientation

The viola or alto clef is a so-called C clef (in contrast to the treble clef, in whose curved form the shape of the indicated "G" can still be discovered with a little imagination), d.h he defines the c’ as a reference:

Usually the range "c-g" is notated in the viola clef. The fingerings on the viola – with a few exceptions concerning stretching of the hand or tonal aspects – do not differ physiologically from those on the violin:

The range starting from "g" is usually notated in treble clef on the viola, since otherwise reading would already be difficult from the third position on the A string due to the many auxiliary lines.

Emergency program

When things have to go really fast and there is an unforeseen need for violists, there are two little mnemonic devices that at least save the lateral entrant from the greatest embarrassment:

1. For viola clef: play one third below the note pattern you are used to on the violin or. read third position – finger first position.

2. For the treble clef: play one string level higher

In a few hours

However, it is more effective and sustainable to detach oneself from such emergency programs and to invest at least a few hours in reading and learning the viola clef. With the following method, which reduces the specific reading problem to the most essential, I have successfully taught the treble clef to numerous advanced violinists in a very short time:

1. Putting the bow out of the hand: Everything is played pizzicato
2. Correct meter, rhythm and intonation are secondary matters
3. One tries from the beginning to produce as good as no wrong pitches/grips and takes as much time as necessary for each note in the viola clef
4. Each note line is repeated at most once (we practice note reading and not memorization)

It makes sense to look for passages that can be mastered in the first position, like this one:

Especially the big tone leaps are a little challenge at the beginning – but they are much more beneficial for learning than scalic structures or sequences. The music example is the beginning of the Courante from the cello suite No. 1 from J.S. Bach in the edition for viola, which (as well as the minuet from the same work) is extremely well suited for beginning to learn the viola clef.


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Heinz studied violin and viola in Vienna and works as a violin, viola and chamber music teacher. His special love is chamber music, Franz Schubert and philologically excellent music editions. Currently Heinz lives with his family in Bamberg. Show all posts by Heinz

7 thoughts on "Learn viola clef in 5 hours"

Hi, Heinz! I do understand German only little but this did help me with the viola clef. I appreciate the Idea of starting off with pizzicato.

Hey Heinz, great job, just tested and it worked! Thank you?! Greetings and see you soon, Andi


Heinz says:

Best regards

Hi Heinz,
I don’t really understand the need for a C clef – unless you hate violists. Couldn’t you also use the bass clef? With this, one can also immediately steal all the cellist’s notes, and the C, which is probably played a little less often, would be on the second auxiliary line and can still be read without any problems, while upwards there is one more note of space on the auxiliary lines. Why the alto clef? Even the treble clef would not have made the difference anymore.

Totally confused,

Violists also learn the treble clef, because it is also used in the viola literature. High passages are simply notated in the treble clef and thus violists are tormented with fewer auxiliary lines than the violinists. It is rather the other way around that violinists do not know the treble clef because it is worthless for them due to the lack of correspondingly low notes.

An upward octavated bass clef could have been used for the viola, of course. Or a treble clef ‘quinted’ downwards.

But since violin, viola and cello form a common instrument group, which usually play together, it’s best not to think of the three clefs as three basic things, but as part of a single system.

Take z.B. try a blank sheet of music for piano notes and cut out the bass clef line. Then glue the bass clef under the treble clef so that the c’ auxiliary line of the treble and bass clef exactly overlap. Now draw a note line between treble clef and bass clef along the c’. And then you can just draw in the viola clef: The C is the newly drawn note line and the ‘bracket’ of the viola clef starts on the g’ line of the treble clef and ends on the f line of the bass clef.
Once you get the hang of it, no key is confusing anymore. Tenor or mezzo-soprano clef are then also easy to play.

Because there is not so much solo viola literature, I often play cello notes in bass clef an octave higher at home. This works without any problems.
If you use violin notes, then in many cases you can simply ignore the treble clef and simply finger as read in the viola clef – at least as long as no note is lower than the b and you don’t get finger spaghetti from a technical point of view.
Otherwise you play in treble clef, which every violist can play. Here you have at most problems that some violin literature goes so high, many violists have to play quickly in unfamiliar positions.

Thanks for the answer! I got meanwhile also more frequently to hear that the few auxiliary lines (1) down helps to hold the orchestra literature closely together.

In the meantime I have come to terms with this and since January I have been very happy to play the viola, which I am switching to from the cello.

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