I am learning to play a song on the piano which shows the guitar chords, bass guitar notation as well as the piano notation. As usual, the bass guitar part is written one octave higher than what the bass guitar is playing. For example, the low E on a 4 string bass is notated just below the bass clef when actually that is the second E on the bass guitar (Low E string on a normal guitar)

If I am learning to play the song and want a real authentic understanding of the arrangement of the song, should I transpose the bass part to its proper octave or does it not matter?

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    Does it actually have a separate bass part on an extra stave or just a double stave piano part? – John Belzaguy Mar 4 at 10:55
  • there is a stave for each instrument in this case but my question applies to the grand staff too. – armani Mar 4 at 18:22
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    Bottom line (no pun intended) the bass is an octave transposing instrument as mentioned by @Tim. The other issue is: is this a rendition created for publication or is it the actual arrangement? Published lead sheets often have a “piano arrangement” in the grand staff that has nothing to do with what is on the recording.. When I arrange I sometimes write the bass in a specific octave because that’s where I want it so if you want to understand this play it where it’s supposed to be but consider the difference in timbre between a bass and a piano (or play the bass using a sampler). – John Belzaguy Mar 4 at 19:13

Notation for bass (and guitar) is written one octave higher than it sounds, due to the fact that most of the notes involved are more easily read on the stave lines and spaces than they would if written on mainly ledger lines. If the sheet is written using the grand clef, as in bass and treble for piano, then usually we play the actual notes.

If there's a small 8 attatched to the bass clef, so in fact it is written for bass guitar, it is intended that the notes are played an octave lower.

By listening to recordings, you'll have a better idea as to which octave was used in them, although just by playing both ways, you'll be the judge. Some pieces will benefit from playing the bass part in octaves, so you'll cover both options when playing that way.

The 'bottom line' is - use your ears, both to listen to what others do, and to what you play, and make the decision based on that. You may even mix and match.

  • Isn't the bass-clef-with-small-8-below technically a different clef from the normal bass clef, i.e. a suboctave bass clef with the dot marking F2 (instead of F3)?  So it's not just indicating an intent; the notes are actually written an octave lower, due to the clef. – gidds Mar 4 at 21:30
  • @gidds - won't the notes be played a octave lower, not written an octave lower? – Tim Mar 5 at 7:25

I you are just trying to understand the arrangement it doesn't matter where you play the bass line. If you want it to sound in the same octave as the bass then you need to play it an octave lower. But a piano low register doesn't have the weight of an electric bass, you might find it sounds better playing the bass line in octaves. It might sometimes sound better playing the bass line as written (i.e. sounding an octave too high)

  • THank you. But won't some harmonic intervals become more dissonant the lower you go on the piano? – armani Mar 4 at 17:44
  • @armani If they sound too dissonant down low, play them an octave higher. – PiedPiper Mar 4 at 17:46
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    @armani I wouldn't say "dissonant", I would say that the harmonic intervals sound more "muddy" – Shevliaskovic Mar 4 at 19:06

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