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Is the notation "16va" or "16vb" ever used to mean to transpose what is written up or down two octaves? I cannot think of how else you would represent the highest and lowest notes on a piano without using excessive ledger lines, but I have never seen it written that way. Can you think of any pieces that use those parts of the piano's range? Do you know how that sheet music is written down?

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

First off 2 octaves above or below is a 15th because an octave is 7 letter named notes above a unison (P1) so to get the first octave you have 1 + 7 = 8. 7 more notes above that is the next octave so 8 + 7 = 15. However it is very rare because as you inferred, it is rare that a pianist will play that high up and also it is much easier to understand just the 8va or 8vb than 15ma or 15mb. Also from a practical standpoint the grand staff can comfortably fit 5 octaves from C2 to C6 which is equivalent to 60 keys on the piano. If you introduce notation for an octave above or octave below, you now cover 7 octaves from C1 to C7 which is equivalent to 84 keys. Since the normal max for a piano is 88 keys, you can see that having 8va or 8vb gives you access to pretty much every note within two ledger lines of the grand staff.

8va is the abbreviation for the Italian "all'ottava", or "at the octave (up)" while 8vb is the abbreviation for "all'ottava bassa" or "at the octave below".

The notation does exist, and you may see it when you have a part that repeats itself multiple times, each time an octave higher. I personally have never seen any song with that notion, but it does exist.

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Do you happen to know what 'ma', 'mb', 'va', 'vb' are abbreviations for? I've seen '15va' used before, I believe. – NReilingh Feb 9 '14 at 20:44
Italian: 8va is "all'ottava" and 8vb is "all'ottava bassa" – Wheat Williams Feb 9 '14 at 20:59
@NReilingh I've sworn I've seen 15va before too, I just could not find example using it. The example I've found uses 'ma' and 'mb' so I kind of assumed I remembered it wrong. – Dom Feb 9 '14 at 21:11
15ma stands for quintessima, which is the Italian term for a double octave. – Pat Muchmore Feb 9 '14 at 21:14
quindicesima – Steven Lu Sep 22 '14 at 6:52

The double-octave transposition notation is indeed used in many kinds of classical and contemporary music. (The piano is only as big as it is to begin with because composers kept pushing the boundaries.)

Your idea is very close, but incorrect. The notation is actually 15ma or 15mb, because the number in question refers to the size of the interval.

| 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 | 8  9  10 11 12 13 14 | 15
| C  D  E  F  G  A  B | C  D  E  F  G  A  B  | C


In doing further research about the terminology, I came across this post on the ABRSM forums:

Posted 28 October 2005 - 05:27

This is one of my favorite topics. The term 8va is an abbreviation for the Italian word 'ottava' which means octave or 8th. The term 15ma (NOT 15va) is the abbreviation for the Italian word 'quindicessima' or 15th. 8va and 15ma may be used above notes in the treble clef to mean one octave (8va) or two octaves (15ma) higher than printed or below the bass clef to mean one octave or two octaves lower than printed, respectively.

The term 16va was used at one time in some printed music but is incorrect and should not be used. Neither of these terms should ever be used in any other situation, i.e. below notes written in treble clef, above notes written in bass clef, or in connection with any other clef, ex. alto, or tenor, etc.

The term 8vb is not strictly accurate but has come into use recently to mean ottava bassa, one octave lower. It is really redundant and meaningless because 8va already means one octave lower when used in its proper setting below bass clef.

I hope this clarifies things.

Steven Sherrill, Orchestra Librarian

This actually clears up some confusion I've had for a few years after seeing an 8va used on a bass clef to mean "down an octave". It seems in actuality the basso addition is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, and so our current usage of these terms will not necessarily be consistent with older printings of music.

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But it should 15ma and 15mb, no "v". – Pat Muchmore Feb 9 '14 at 21:14
@PatMuchmore Thanks; edited and updated with some additional information. – NReilingh Feb 9 '14 at 21:42
Not sure the ABRSM post is 100% accurate. There is clearly some debate over octave signs, but the even the 50-year-old, conservative standard reference (Gardner Read's Music Notation) argues that 8va is sometimes inadequate for transposing down. Read ultimately agrees with Sherrill's rules on when to use octave signs, preferring a clef change to an 8ve sign in the "wrong direction," but he has difficulties with the position: he proposes new clefs that incorporate the 8ve transposition, and concedes that "nothing is more annoying to the performer than an unreasonable change of clef." – LiberalArtist Sep 1 '14 at 4:00
I find 8vb and 15mb somewhat curious; why keep the "v" and "m" but drop the "a"? That would seem like writing "8th" or "15th" above something to raise it an octave or two, and "8tb" or "15tb" to lower it likewise. – supercat Oct 18 '14 at 13:27
@supercat You're not wrong! I think some of the contemporary usage in the English speaking world comes from teachers and students equating '8va' with "octave above" and '8vb' with "octave below" even though it should really be "ottava" on its own. – NReilingh Oct 18 '14 at 19:25

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