Alto Clef “Unfit for Purpose” Government Study Concludes

Government officials are considering a move to permanently do away with alto clef from 2018, sources have revealed.

It has been known for some time that the widely reviled clef, recently voted “worst clef” for a record-shattering 27th year in a row, has long been considered by many in the cabinet as “unfit for purpose.” A recent government white paper on clefs and transpositions cited many shortcomings with alto clef, including insufficient distinctiveness from other so-called “c clefs,” notably the far more popular tenor clef.

Minister for Transposition, Jacob Wayst-Moog, said of the underperforming clef: “For many years now, the government have been aware that alto clef is saddled with a number of intrinsic shortcomings. Almost nobody can actually read it- even violists, who use it everyday, are often as confused about what pitch they are playing as are those listening to them. Most decent violists are actually violinists anyway, and they’d be far better off under the government’s new plan for viola parts to be written in treble clef transposed in F.”

Alto clef has long raised the ire of leading music critics as well as musicians. “The real problem with alto clef,” said one leading London critic, “is that it’s only useable for a register that nobody particularly wants to hear,” while another noted that “it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for alto clef- all it seems to be good for is the wooly region of the viola and missed notes on the trombone. Where tenor clef tends to create a sense of expectation of the bright heldentenor colorings of the cello and stentorian trombone chorals, alto clef is really only used for fuzzy inner voices and passages requiring the use of a toy trombone.”


Some in government expect the “alto trombone” (bottom)  to be renamed as the “toy trombone” once alto clef is scrapped in 2018. Photo credit- Edward Solomon

It is understood that a final announcement on the future of the troubled clef has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among ministers as to what to replace it with. While some have advocated for an expansion of the role of tenor clef, others have called for the widespread introduction of transposition among violists, a plan recently derided by the Leader of the Opposition as “the worst musical idea since techno-dodecaphony.”

Users of alto clef often resort to desperate measures to figure out what notes to play

Side effects of exposure to alto clef include writing bizarre sentences backwards. Photo credit North Muskegon Elementary Strings

Government ministers were quick to discount rumors that the move to replace alto clef was intended to save conductors from public embarrassment. “Let’s face it, if we did away with all musical notation that conductors struggle with, it wouldn’t mean just doing away with alto clef, bass clarinet in A and Glockenspiel,  we’d have to rely on conducting Mahler symphonies using guitar tablature,” said one source.

Meanwhile Mervyn Purvue of the British Society for the Preservation of Historic Clefs called for caution: “Alto clef may have its obvious shortcomings, but sometimes it’s important to protect the appropriate place of aspects of our heritage, however grotesque and disgusting we may find them. Like Morris dancing, the music of Percy Grainger and TV talent shows, alto clef reminds us that life often has a dark and distasteful side. Just as we must face up to the brutal atrocities committed over the centuries in the name of the British Empire, we must accept that alto clef, awful as it is, is a part of our musical history we can’t just sweep under the carpet.”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

46 comments on “Alto Clef “Unfit for Purpose” Government Study Concludes”

  1. Bob the bassoonist and bad viola.

    At least, I know where to put my fingers in first position. As a Second Bassoonist I HATE TENOR CLEF which is so often down below the stave, simply because copyists couldn’t be arsed to put it in bass clef where it belongs.

  2. Erwin, composer

    What I don”t get is why the government should get involved in music? Haven’t they something more important to do then worrying about the alto clef? Like ruling the country or something like that?

  3. Lawrence Yates

    This should begin in the schools where alto clef simply should not be taught, especially not to trombonists. If we were then to take the next logical step and ban the viola altogether then I feel that the problem would be solved in a way that is both practical and humane.

  4. aldevis

    Considering that the baritone clef is now extinct in most of the world, it is just a matter of time before conductors can finally use the “play by colour” notation systems.

  5. John McClain

    Boy, you try to save a little ink and paper, and people dump all over you. I’ m sure the alto clef was in some scrivner’s suggestion box as a way to avoid all those notes outside of the staff and all that blank space within.

  6. Opus 131

    A violist friend of mine got his wife, who was a violinist, a gig on viola. She was struggling with the clef, of course. Finally he told her, “If the note is on a line, use your first of third finger. If it is on a space, use your second or fourth. If you are off, you will be off by a third, and your note will harmonize with the right note.”

  7. Paul Coats

    Alto Clef is as useless as an Alto Clarinet. The only players of the Alto Clarinet are junior high school girls who couldn’t take a chair in the 3rd soprano clarinet section.

  8. Thomas Higgerson

    Organists rely on both alto and tenor clefs. Without them, we would have to endure countless ledger lines.

  9. Hope

    I play the viola. I started on Viola and can’t stand the violin. I don’t struggle with my clef at all. I’m first chair and heck of a lot better than most of our violins. Calling my clef “grotesque” and “disquesting” is hurtful. It’s music. The government should be more concerned about the next leader of our country than where the notes fall on the staff.

  10. André Cameron

    “Most decent violists are actually violinists anyway,” That line really is disgusting. I like humor but you have resorted to belittling violists and that is just not funny. What could have been a very well written and witty work just became another offensive “violist joke”. I don’t even call them “viola jokes” because most of them are against the violists themselves than the actual instrument. Unfortunately this “umteenth” attack on the low level of talent amongst violists will go viral. You could use your time and literary skills to write something inspiring instead.

    André Cameron, violist
    Gulbenkian Orchestra
    Lisbon, Portugal

  11. Andy

    Loving the comments here from people pretending to be Americans who don’t understand irony – but I think you’re laying it on a trifle thick 😉

  12. John Treherne

    This is obviously the result of many years detailed study, undoubtedly funded by the Arts Council of England. Although it does hold some credibility, I would like to mention the more extensive study by Professor Schnittelbach of Immerschlechter University, who considers that the 11 line stave would meet all purposes. Middle line is middle c.
    With this staff you would not need any clefs.
    Of course, this would be met by dismay by the ABRSM whose Grade 5 theory exam has a major focus on the C clefs.
    But may sanity remain.
    For more information look up http://www.simpleclefstupid.

  13. Emma

    Gawd, massive sense of humour bypass in some of these responses! Do you not realise it’s satire/humour ?

    This made me laugh, thanks 🙂

  14. Geoff

    At least middle C IS middle C.
    It’s the soprano clef that is an abomination.
    The Minister for Transposition should stick to transposing not redefining or abolishing.
    Anyway, organs can replace all orchestral instruments, so get rid of the scratchy wailing cats called the “string” section. Make the players listen to proper music!

  15. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Andre

    It’s a truism that there’s almost never any point in trying to explain a joke, but I’m disappointed you didn’t find it clear that the whole post and that paragraph in particular is really making fun of viola jokes, not violists. It’s the “government” that’s being held up for and it is obviously absurd that a made up government minister would say that sort of thing. Sorry if it upset you.

  16. André Cameron

    It upset me and as a violist I know that I am not alone. There is humor and there is humor. You did not have to belittle violists by suggesting that we are less talented musicians to make your point. Viola jokes have become more and more “violist” jokes in recent times. I find it difficult to understand why you, as a fellow musician AND a conductor, would write something like this. This could have been a very witty and humorous piece without being offensive to fellow musicians that dedicate their lives to the viola. If you want to make fun of viola jokes I am in total agreement. That, unfortunately, is not what comes across in this piece. I may be a “less decent violist” because I am not a violinist, as you have suggested, but I am a proud professional violist and I love of the “wooly” sound of the instrument. I wouldn´t call it a wooly sound though. You have a talent for writing. Please give us something that will be inspirational for young musicians. Humor can be used to inspire as well as to offend. Your article will go viral. I have already seen it re-posted on the American Viola Society page on Facebook. Some like it. Some do not. I wonder if most of the likes come from violinists that play the viola as a second instrument or just as a hobby? Primrose called them “week-end violists”.

    André Cameron – violist

  17. Karl Beckman - 58 year Symphonic Trombonist

    The term “toy trombone” is more correctly applied to the soprano and piccolo trombones, both being concert pitcched in Bb . The alto version, built in Eb is not a toy, just an abomination befitting its parts written in alto clef.

  18. Derek Rawson

    I’m a Percy Grainger scholar who morris dances with my local squad on Tuesday evening twice a month and once met Ant and Dec. Frothing with indignation here. Totally out of control. My jingle bells are fully a-jingle and am listening to Handel in the Strand on repeat at full volume.

  19. pete arnott

    I had no idea that music could be so interesting and contreversial. My sincere thanks to Kenneth Woods for opening this can of worms and taking our minds off the more important topics like the Brexit vote!!!

  20. Bill Spencer

    Delightful proposition. After all, when bass clarinets and trombones use treble clef (albeit, use it wrong), there is clearly no need for any clef but treble.

    (Perhaps with an exception for accompaniests – such as piano and organ.)

    But the article was a trifle long. Perhaps someone could prepare the Clef Notes edition?

    Signed, a trumpet player,

  21. Val K

    A government proclamation? And just what would Hillary or Donald know about alto clef? Violists are the bravest of the brave – after all, they play the instrument and endure those horrid jokes that should be reserved for trombones!

  22. Abi

    Absolutely classic. Loving the many and varied responses from people who definitely need a humour transplant

    Abi Johnson – Pianist

  23. Michael Round

    My own mnemonic for the lines of the alto clef (reading downwards – the natural career direction for any musician using it) was; ‘Guy Eats Curry And F*rts’.

  24. Greg

    At an early age, I struggled to overcome a Clef problem.
    Through countless treble, alto, and other exotic scales, in a dark dank and wooden after school ‘practice closet’, I was able to find the answer, deep down inside I identified myself a bass. However, it would take years before my trombone affection was ready for public consideration.

    One day, a tearful understanding swept a concert crowd; and my parents finally accepted and joined the ovation, inspired, if still mistrustful of this bass condition.

    Thank you, Andy

  25. David Lamb

    Years ago as a young composer, I used alto clef for all my piano music where the action lay mostly in that no-man’s-land between the treble and bass clefs. It seemed easy and logical to me, and I could not understand why other pianists would not play it. It was only later in life that I realized that it was not the alto clef they objected to. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that I was right, and everybody ought to read alto clef. It is simply wrong to restrict it to violists, though God knows they deserve whatever perks they can get.

  26. Shirley Drake

    Well when I was at music college in London 60 years ago the jokes were mostly about bass players and singers – and what the poor girl who was the only one doing recorder as first subject had to go through doesn’t bear thinking about these days! As a cello student I had to play in tenor clef which was fine. Serious lack of sense of humour here. Just enjoy a very clever and funny piece of writing and hope to find some more

  27. Elvyn R. Blair

    Absolutely hysterical with laughter! Love it and all the comments! Perhaps I can get my son to put all my alto recorder parts in alto clef! Unfortunately, that would result in lots and lots of ledger lines — and totally mess with my head when I return to playing cello.

  28. Pamela Crummay

    Brilliant!! Thank you: you made my morning……

  29. Greg (kiwi)

    Love the humour. Thanks Kenneth and the humorous responders!

  30. Lathon Jernigan

    The alto clef still serves us well. I would hate to think of the transposition problems if it were adapted to tuned finger cymbals
    and awful clydes!

  31. PJK

    I’ve played viola for 45 years. I love having a secret code! It sets us apart. 🙂

  32. John Sposato

    As a non-musician, I think all clefs and staves should be done away with. Just write the names of the stinking notes in a line across the page. Then those of us who can’t even play a tune on a kazoo could pretend we know what’s going on when some piano player (okay, pianist, you snotty musician you) is sitting at the keyboard pounding out a song and we musical illiterates are standing behind them trying to sing whatever the heck it is they’re playing. If this were so, musicians would have no reason to walk around with that snooty, nose-in-the-air, Gnostic air about them. You know?

  33. Robert

    Dear Andre,

    All joking aside, we all know that violas are worthless. I mean, come on…

    Yours truly,


  34. Andrew Massyn

    I am very trebbled by this article. It lacks base humour.

  35. Jack

    I am getting a slightly worried kick noticing that there some who apparently accept that the government can control aspects of musical notation.

  36. Gregory

    I play violin, viola, and I conduct. Alto clef is incredibly useful in score reading—when there are Trumpet and Horn parts is D, simply put the part in Alto clef, you’ll never have to transpose again. Also, use Tenor clef for B flat instrument transposition, Bass clef for instruments in E/E-flat, and Soprano clef for instruments in A.

  37. David

    Never mind the lack of appreciation/understanding of a witty piece of writing – what DOES annoy me is the American abuse of English and the inability to spell …. how many times have we got humour spelled incorrectly (humor).
    How dare they criticise your well-written irony!

  38. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David

    Thanks for the kind comment.

    When it comes to spelling, as someone who straddles both worlds, I find it kind of quaint that such a generally anti-French country continues to use French-based spellings of so many words, from theatre to colour to…. humour….

  39. Cleftomaniac

    No no NO! We NEED also and tenor. AND soprano and mezzosoprano AND bass!!! Needed for my old,old Mozart Requiem score. But we could trash baritone as even baritones can’t read it. PS — the nickname for alto trombone is, at least with bass trombonists, peashooter.

  40. Dave Reid

    In the words of the great conductor Bramwell Tovey ” the viola is often referred to as a sad and pathetic instrument. But it’s not true. The viola isn’t sad at all”!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *