Reading Requirements: Bass and Treble Clef?

Q: I can already read treble clef fairly instinctively, having played the clarinet for years. I started playing jazz (on bass) a few months ago, and now can find my way around most lead sheets, but my question is: should I bother to learn bass clef, when treble clef feels more natural to me? I rarely have a need to read bass clef, since lead sheets only notate the melody, in treble clef. As I am only beginning to learn to play the bass from notation, as opposed to TAB, or preferably by ear, trying to learn both at once seems to be causing more confusion than good.

A: I would consider your goals for the instrument and weigh that against the frustration of trying to tackle too many things at once.

If your goal is to become an in-demand bassist for any occasion, you will want to be a strong with your bass clef reading. If you are simply trying to get better and aren’t worried about getting unfamiliar notation on a gig, I wouldn’t worry about it. Or if the reading is just for your own ability to read lead sheets and work on material at home, I wouldn’t add the extra stress of working up your bass clef reading.

Your ability to read treble clef will serve you a little better in some arenas. There are certainly more instructional books available for treble clef instruments, for example.

If you aspire to “go pro” then you probably should get on it and become as proficient as possible with both clefs.

With any question like this, I usually just ask the person to look at the ideal end result, for themselves.

What do you want out of this thing and where do you hope it leads you? The answer is usually clear as to whether or not something is worth spending time on.

Readers, what is your experience?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Phil Smith

    If you can’t read bass clef, there will be a lot of opportunities unavailable to you such as theater gigs be they mainstream or small productions. If you double, meaning play double bass as well, there a many classical gigs that you will not be able to do. If the idea is to do as much playing as possible, you’ll need to get your bass clef reading chops up to speed.

  2. Buddy Hassler

    It really depends on how proficient you desire to be on your instrument. Taking shortcuts (i.e. not learning the bass clef, etc) may hinder your development in the long run. I would advise learning the bass clef as you develop, as well as linking the notes on the page with what you hear. Ear training is very important, as is reading the charts. Church gigs, musicals, studio gigs, etc will usually require you to read music. But, if your goal is to just “play live” with a band and learn the music off audio recordings, then you can probably take the shortcut of just scratching out some lead sheets. But, if you plan to do any arranging I would recommend learning the entire Grand Staff……no shortcuts. Good luck!

  3. Colin Watts

    Just my two cents, but there are some great notation training and quiz apps in the app market or on the iPhone. I have one called Note-a-Lator and it quizzes you in both clefs and all keys. Very handy!

  4. Dean Wise

    Some survive without reading at all, but if you think there’s a possibility that someone, somewhere might plunk an actual bass chart in front of you, wouldn’t you rather know how to read it? Spend the time; practice and study. It pays off in the long run.

    • Lisa Ellisor Pesta

      Or read it like its treble clef and transpose to Eb alto sax key and it puts you up a third. Right where you need to be. :)

  5. Larry Perlstein

    I have the opposite problem — I’ve read bass clef all my life and I”m barely proficient in treble. This is a real pain when trying to learn pretty much any other instrument. I’d suggest learning bass clef unless you only want to be an improvisational jazz bassist. Pretty much everything else demands some reading.

  6. Brian Lanzone

    as a bassist, and more specifically a “jazz” bassist, you should learn bass clef. I too started on clarinet as a kid before switching to bass. (you have a head start by simply knowing how to read music, bass clef will come quickly.) People will be impressed that you know treble clef on bass, but people will not respect you if you are a bassist who can’t read bass clef… DO IT!

  7. Ria Fa

    Since you already have come to grips with reading music in the treble clef, learning the bass clef is not going to take up so much time. I’ve done it myself (moving from the classical guitar to the bass), and it really did not take that long. Being able to read the bass clef makes things much easier – specially since you are used to reading a score in treble clef anyway. It will take just a little exercise, but the benefit is well worth it. You’ll be able to read and play everything – it’s so much easier when you can read a score, or write out a bass line for yourself. A score is always there, even if you haven’t played a specific piece for a long time. Just take the sheet, and you’ll be able te play it any time. Moreover, it makes you a very flexible and useful bassist. I’m doing musical theatre, Big Band, Blues and Rock gigs- all because I can read a bass clef score. It’s definitely well worth the effort!

  8. Ryan Sette

    It really depends on your goal. I play guitar & bass both, and my reading skills on both clefs (together with basic musical ability) make it possible to be hired for just about any gig. I’m playing with a big band on New Year’s, and about 3/4 of the music is only bass clef notation- not treble, no chords symbols, all I have to go on is my reading ability. But if you have no interest in that sort of gig, or musical theater, then being proficient on bass clef isn’t absolutely necessary. Also; when I was teaching lessons on guitar & bass, I always made them learn a little sight reading, but in the end basic music ability is more important.

  9. Tom O'Connor

    Thank you very much Damian for answering my question and posting it, and thank you everyone for giving your opinions :) I think I will definitely learn baas clef, but I’ll give treble clef priority at the moment :) I’d hate to ever have to turn down a gig because of my poor reading skills.

  10. Pablo Plasencia

    Bite the bullet… learn to read bass clef. Not a lot to it since you already read treble. I also suggest (if you are doing any arranging) alto clef (if you are a string person). The more you can write your ideas the more doors open up to you.

  11. The name of the instrument is Bass. Go figure.

  12. If you look at Piano copy you will see the natural transition from Treble to Bass clef as the scales pass through middle C – this helps me visualise. I learned to read treble clef as a trombone player (in the UK brass band tenor trombones read treble ).

  13. I recommend learning bass clef. If you set yourself a schedule and read things that you don’t know 15-20 minutes a day you’ll find yourself becoming more proficient relatively quickly.

    It’s been mentioned earlier and I’ll agree that if you already know treble clef perhaps a good approach would be to start off reading material written in grand staff, i.e. keyboard music, e.g. Bach 2- and 3-part inventions, which would allow you to connect your existing reading chops to the new clef. For strictly bass clef music I like trombone etudes.

  14. Knowing bass clef is useful for tunes with iconic basslines such as Mercy, Mercy, Mercy or Chameleon. You’ll have to know how to read the basslines in bass clef.

  15. Want to be a bass player; learn your trade and its language. Want to be half-ass, stay out of the way.

  16. Learn to read bass clef. Not knowing it will catch up with you sooner than later and you’ll be wishing you knew it already.