In the ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory exam you may be asked to identify the correct clef of a scale. The correct clef might be treble, bass, alto or tenor. Watch the video to see how to do this – transcription below!

Here are some facts about scales which might help you to find the answer quickly:

  • The tonic (keynote) will never be E#, Fb, A#, B# or Cb.
  • Only two scales combine both flats and sharps: they are D minor (harmonic, and ascending melodic) and G minor (harmonic, and ascending melodic).
  • There are no major scales which use both flats and sharps.
  • All scales (major and minor) contain the following intervals above the tonic (keynote):
    • Tonic-supertonic = major 2nd
    • Tonic-subdominant = perfect 4th
    • Tonic-dominant = perfect 5th
  • All minor scales have a minor 3rd above the tonic.
  • All major scales have a major 3rd above the tonic.

Here’s an example question:

Select the correct clef to form a minor scale:

select the correct clef

In this scale, there is one sharp, and one flat. This means we can narrow it down to either D minor or G minor. If you know your scales well, you might quickly see that it must be D minor, because the flat and sharp in the scale are adjacent notes (Bb and C#, 6th and 7th degrees of the scale). In G minor (melodic) the flat and sharp are Bb and F#, which are the 3rd and 7th degrees of the scale.

If you are less confident about spotting scale shapes, you will need to use some trial and error, to check which scale works. Try each clef in turn, using your knowledge of intervals above the tonic:

  • With a treble clef, the tonic would be E, so this can’t be the right clef, because it must be D or G.
  • With a bass clef, the first note would be G, but the third note would be B (natural), so it can’t be a minor scale in the bass clef.
  • With an alto clef, the tonic would be F, so this can’t be the right clef.
  • A process of elimination tells us that it must be tenor clef, but you can also check that in tenor clef the first note is D, the third is F (minor 3rd above tonic), the 4th is G (perfect 4th above tonic) and the 5th is A (perfect 5th above tonic).

Here’s another example. Which clef will make this into a minor scale?

select the correct clef

This time there are only sharps, and it’s a descending scale, so we can’t narrow it down so easily as in the previous example.

The best way to begin is by working out the tonic for each clef, then looking at the intervals above the tonic. As this is a descending scale, we need to work backwards, from the lower tonic.

  • In the treble clef, the lowest note (tonic) is F#.
    • Minor 3rd above tonic ✓ (A)
    • Perfect 4th above tonic X (B#)
    • Cannot be treble clef

  • In the bass clef, the tonic is A#.
    • A# isn’t used as a tonic, so cannot be bass clef

  • In the alto clef, the tonic is G#.
    • Minor 3rd above tonic ✓ (B)
    • Perfect 4th above tonic ✓ (C#)
    • Perfect 5th above tonic ✓ (D#)
    • Seems correct, but let’s check tenor clef too.

  • In the tenor clef, the tonic is E#.
    • E# isn’t used as a tonic, so cannot be tenor clef.