Well not for a trombonist! For reasons which occurred way back in history, the trombone plays in concert pitch when playing music written for it in bass clef (like a cello or bassoon does), but when reading music written for it in treble clef the trombone becomes a transposing instrument in Bb (like a trumpet or tenor sax). In practical terms this means that the slide positions are different when playing treble versus bass clef (e.g. a Bb in bass clef is played in first slide position, whilst in treble clef it’s in 3rd position).
So how do you decide which clef to start learning at the beginning? This essentially comes down to what style of music you want to play, or ensemble you would like to join. Whilst treble clef is often chosen in group lessons where there might also be trumpet, baritone or euphonium players, and possibly is a bit easier to understand for a complete novice because the ‘open’ notes (where the slide is fully closed) play the arpeggio of the C major scale, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice.
Here is a quick summary of the uses for the clefs:
Bass clef - the most versatile clef, used in lots of ensembles:
- Wind band
- Jazz and big band music
- Show or musical production orchestra
- Bass trombone in brass band
Treble clef - this is almost exclusively used only in brass bands, but is also useful if you want to read trumpet or tenor sax parts in a jazz band:
- Brass band first and second trombone
- Doubling trumpet or tenor sax
One misunderstanding often made is that bass clef is only for bass trombone. This is not the case, and even the first trombone parts in orchestras and big bands playing the highest parts are typically written in bass clef, often with lots of ledger lines! (Unless written in tenor or alto clef). Bass clef for bass trombone only really applies in the brass band, where the bass trombone is the only instrument to play in bass clef (apart from the timpani - brass bands are a bit weird like that! Even the tubas play in treble clef as transposing instruments!) The benefit of all the instrument parts being in treble clef is that a player can swap between any of the valved instruments and not have to learn a new set of fingerings for the notes.
I would advise that any trombonist who wants to be a versatile and busy player, and play for a range of ensembles in different styles, should learn to play confidently in both clefs ‘natively’. Whilst it is perfectly possible to ‘transpose’ another clef once you have learned the first (often treble clef readers do this) I don’t think it ever gives the same competence, and makes sight reading new music much harder. I also suggest that although it’s hard for a complete beginner to learn both clefs at the same time, it becomes harder the longer you leave it once ‘stuck’ in one clef to learn the other.
I should also mention that an advanced player will also need to learn to play in tenor clef (although there is trick to doing this, by pretending the music is written in treble clef) as this is often seen in older brass band parts, and alto clef which is used in classical and orchestral trombone parts.
I hope this article helps clear up any confusion you might have, but please get in touch or leave a comment if you have any other questions!