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Is there a highest and lowest note that can be written on sheet music without using the one or more octave higher/lower notation? In my case for the piano specifically.

I want to learn to sight read and my first goal is to be able to name any note that appears on sheet music so that I don't have to count from a known position. Therefore I need to know all notes that could appear. Are there any rules about that? Can the highest and lowest notes on the piano be written without using the octave higher/lower notation?

Is there no standard for sheet music notation? I'm creating some very simple software to generate notes to help me practice but I don't want it to generate total nonsense which I'll never see in the real world. Are there any standards I could look up?

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For the notation part you could generate Lilypond-notation, and then generate your practice sheets from that. Then you will get standard notation. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilypond. –  Meaningful Username May 14 at 14:18
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There aren't any hard and fast notations. I own sheet music that goes 3 octaves above the staff. As a longtime (suffering :-) ) musician, I would certainly ask that you limit your layout to maybe a 12th above or below, and after that use "8va" notation, or switch clefs for those instruments for which multiple clefs are in common use. –  Carl Witthoft May 14 at 14:29
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One thing to consider is the limitation of the human brain. We break the staff up into five lines and can differentiate pitch based on where they fall. The ability to determine the pitch often has to do with how many ledger lines above or below the staff it is. Once you get to a certain point, the brain cannot automatically group the ledger lines into discernible numbers/distance. Think about tally marks. Once you get past 4, we add a slash through the group to make 5. This allows us to not have to count the marks. The brain can recognize groups of 4 but it gets harder as you move above that. –  Basstickler May 14 at 15:23
    
Once you think you've mastered it, may I suggest you test yourself on this excerpt from Trance and Dental Etudes by P.D.Q. Bach. (You may need to broaden your definition of "piano" to include the Überklavier). –  Nate Eldredge Jul 16 at 5:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

There is no absolute limit. The highest C on the piano, written 3 octaves above the staff, is perfectly legitimate. However, practically speaking, notes that far from the staff will almost always be written in a musical phrase containing other nearby notes, so the 8Va notation is used. Music that high is nearly impossible to sightread if not written using 8va notation, both because the distance from the staff is so great, and because the notes are so seldom read in that position.

If you are just starting out with sight reading, start out with a two octave range around the C in the center of the staff, and gradually increase it in both directions as you need it.

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A bit off track but for completeness I'd just like to add that the 15ma notation can be used when 8va isn't enough. –  Ulf Åkerstedt May 16 at 21:34
    
If it was written too far away from the staff, you could always find out what it is before playing and write it. Taking your C that's 3 octaves above the staff, I would write C+3 next to the note. –  Cole Johnson Aug 22 at 22:12

As others have said, no there isn't a real limit, but there is a practical limit. If I am sightreading something and there are lots of ledger lines, there's no way you'll figure it out in time, so you might as well just skip it.

However, sometimes you'll know if you've worked your way up there gradually, or are playing octaves or something. A lot of sightreading isn't seeing each note, but recognizing patterns, so if you see an octave (and you'll get used to the distance between intervals on the sheet music), you only have to look at one of the notes. The same goes if you're playing individual notes really high or low - if you know where you are, you just read intervals instead of pitches.

I wouldn't recommend practicing more than maybe 3-4 ledger lines though if you're going for sightreading. It's just not common enough to worry about, and there are just too many other things to focus on, like getting the gist of a measure and filling the rest in yourself.

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"filling in the rest" should also entail learning to actually see and count the rests -- much more important than > 4 ledger lines –  ohmi May 16 at 22:34

As a point of comparison, I play Alto Recorder, and often see music that reaches the g four ledger lines above the treble staff (our highest note). Flutes, I think, can go even higher without using 8va.

Soprano and Sopranino recorders, as well as piccolos, can all go higher, but are typically notated an octave lower than sounding.

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Former flautist here. It's easily possible to go to the C five lines above and commonly taught. It's possible to play every note up to A7, which as far as I'm aware doesn't have a known fingering. This note is on the 8th line above the staff. The highest note that I know is possible to play is C8 which sits on the 9th line above the staff. –  OmnipotentEntity May 14 at 16:46
    
That being said, the fingerings become somewhat of a complete mess after C#6. –  OmnipotentEntity May 14 at 16:48
    
What, your alto won't play the a natural above that g? Tsk! Admittedly, I've only ever played one piece that needed it... –  Matthew Walton May 15 at 13:25

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