If an instrument has a range too high or too low for composers to easily write its music on bass or treble clef, the music may be written either an octave higher or an octave lower than it sounds, in order to reduce the use of ledger lines. —Wikipedia

So I'm playing piano, and there's suddenly a passage where I need to play the notes written on the bass staff, but an octave lower. The notation for this is the bass clef, possibly ornamented with a written notation to play an octave lower.

Or I'm playing some instrument that normally plays in two octaves, one corresponding to the treble clef and the other an octave higher than the treble clef, and — both are written on treble clefs, one above the other??

This seems terribly confusing. Why not use another clef symbol, one that unambiguously indicates the correct octave? (I'm assuming such a symbol exists; if not, why not?)

  • 2
    Given the variety of content in each of the answers, I think the original question is a bit unclear. Would you be able to edit your question to more clearly articulate what it is you are looking for? – jjmusicnotes Jun 13 '13 at 7:53
  • 2
    The symbols actually exist. Beside the different C key positions (alto and tenor being most frequently used), see octave-transposing keys. They are seldom used in favour of markings like 8va, the range either marked with a dashed line or a terminating loco. – guidot Jun 13 '13 at 9:40
  • Another method (possibly addressed by the Wikipedia) is simply by convention: Double bass and contrabassoon are notated like violoncello/basson, but sound an octave lower. Every player learns this, so there is no need to reflect it in notation. – guidot Jun 13 '13 at 9:52
  • @jjmusicnotes, done. – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 15:24
  • @msh210 - That's much clearer - I'm glad we were able to clear up the miscommunication. – jjmusicnotes Jun 13 '13 at 17:53

There is a (modern) convention for representing octave shifts "at the clef":

  • an "8" above the clef is equivalent to "8va",
  • an "8" below the clef is equivalent to "8vb",

and applies throughout the piece.

  • Per a suggestion that I clarify my question, I've edited it. You might wish to have a look at the new version and see whether you wish to edit your answer. – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 19:26
  • Right, though this convention isn't all that widely adapted. Guitar is often written without an 8 below the violin clef, bass (be it electric– or double bass) almost always without the 8 below the bass clef, etc.. – leftaroundabout Jun 18 '13 at 21:33

It's not confusing as long as it's consistently done in a particular way for particular instruments whose players are used to the notation.

For example, classical guitarists don't care that when they play the middle C, what actually comes out of the instrument is the C below middle C.

It would be confusing if different pieces for the instrument, or different publications of the same music, had different conventions.

The differing conventions might be confusing to composers who write for many instruments. But (the composer hopes!) music is read and performed many more times than it is written, so the conventions of those who read are more important.

  • This makes sense, +1, and thanks, but what about instruments that only sometimes transpose, like the piano, whose bass clef sometimes means one octave down? – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 4:54
  • Per a suggestion that I clarify my question, I've edited it. You might wish to have a look at the new version and see whether you wish to edit your answer. – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 19:25

Alternative clefs have been proposed, but are not in common use. In the appendix of Rossing's The science of sound, there are clefs called the "super-treble" which is notated as two consecutive treble clefs, and the "supra-super-treble" written as three clefs, which indicate one and two octaves above standard treble clef, respectively. Similarly, there are extensions to the bass clef. Since other solutions are traditionally accepted (8va notation and C-clefs), there is really no reason to use Rossings unconventional notations.

To add to the confusion, I thought from the title of the question that I should mention the tritave that arises in the Bohlen-Pierce scale. In other words, why do we transpose at the octave, and not some other interval?

  • Per a suggestion that I clarify my question, I've edited it. You might wish to have a look at the new version and see whether you wish to edit your answer. – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 19:26
  • The program "Master Composer" for the Commodore 64 had treble and bass staves marked with the appropriate staffs, and also had a staff marked TR+ above the treble staff (line notes CEGBD reading up IIRC) and one marked BA- below the bass (CAFDB reading down). I've never seen that notation elsewhere. I would think having a staff marked with with two consecutive treble clefs reading an octave above a staff with one could be nice for handbell music, since such a staff could stack above a treble cleff with two ledger lines between. – supercat Jun 16 '13 at 4:01

Two aspects that have not yet been mentioned:

  • For a performer to sight-read music, the performer must know at a glance that e.g. a note on the top line is F, the top space is E, etc. Examining the position of each note relative to e.g. the center of the C clef would be way too slow. From a sight-reading standpoint, it's easier for most performers to deal with a smaller number of note assignments (e.g. just treble and bass clef) than to have some pieces where the top line is F, some where it's A, some where it's E, some where it's G, etc.)

  • In some cases, two instruments or vocalists that are told to play the same notes will in fact be expected to play an octave apart. For example, when grown men and women are singing in unison, most of the men will usually sing an octave lower than most of the women. Likewise, if a cello and string bass are given the same notes, the string bass will usually be expected to play them an octave below the cello. There is thus a convention that, except when otherwise noted, male parts written for the treble clef, or string bass parts written for the bass clef, should be assumed to play an octave below what's written.

Note that it's common for male parts to be written "at pitch" using the bass clef; the use of the bass clef rather than the treble clef indicates that the part is being written assuming the men's lower range. Since there isn't any common clef lower than the bass clef, however, one cannot very well use the clef to indicate object transposition or lack thereof for that instrument; music that wants something other than the standard octave transposition must include a directive saying so.


There's a bit of confusion that I feel OP has with regard to the quote. The quote describes transposing instruments, who are always written higher or lower than they sound, and 8va and 8vb notation, which are temporary effects that displace music by an octave. The property of the instruments that transpose by an octave is not the same as just changing clef on, say, piano. 8va and 8vb notation can occur for almost any instrument, but is most commonly used in instruments for which playing something an octave higher or lower is not a matter of a whole new physical motion (ie. octave valves, pianos). Instruments that transpose at the octave (like guitar, bass, etc) are done this way specifically to avoid always having to write 8va and 8vb.


I feel this question could be re-phrased quite successfully. However, I think the answer lies in the other clef sign - called the C clef, as used by, for example, viola players, which puts 'middle C' wherever the composer wishes - for example on the middle line of the five. This obviates the use of ledger lines, up or down, the pitch of the instrument is central to the clef sign.

Possibly the question is asking why not alternate and use different signs for the same instrument. This would be totally unnecessary . 8va etc.is more than adequate.To me when this is used, on the piano, it becomes a transposition. Only temporarily, though, unlike, say, a guitar, which actually uses a tiny 8 under the treble clef to show that the whole music is transposed by an octave.

The important factor is surely to use all of the staff to hang notes on for an instrument to play when reading, rather than needing to count up or down how many ledger lines are there. This is sorted for most instruments with a 3 or 4 octave range using one clef (treble or bass), and 8va /8vb signs. With a piano of 7 octaves, the problem is overcome using two clefs, AND 8va etc.

  • 1
    Per a suggestion that I clarify my question, I've edited it. You might wish to have a look at the new version and see whether you wish to edit your answer. – msh210 Jun 13 '13 at 19:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.