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One thing that has bothered me when listening to classical music with the sheet music also scrolling by is its persistent use of 5 or more ledger lines for low enough bass clef parts instead of ottava bassa lines.

Examples (all pulled from public domain scores on IMSLP):

Camille Saint-Saëns's Prélude et fugue, F minor, Op. 52, No. 3 - published by Paris: Durand, n.d. Plate D. & F. 2339. Reissue (new engraving) - ca.1900

Saint-Saëns Op. 52 No. 3

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2

Rachmaninoff Op. 3 No. 2

Frédéric Chopin's Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28, No. 20

Chopin Op. 28 No. 20

I find this use of 5 or more ledger lines below the bass clef to both be less readable than ottava bassa lines and against the tendency for notes above the treble clef to use ottava alta lines instead of 5 or more ledger lines. (At least, I've found notes above the treble clef to much more commonly be found with ottava alta lines instead of 5 or more ledger lines.)

Examples of ottava alta lines for notes above the treble clef instead of 5 or more ledger lines...or even fewer ledger lines than 5 (again, all pulled from public domain scores on IMSLP):

Camille Saint-Saëns's Prélude et fugue, F minor, Op. 52, No. 3 - from the exact same score as the other excerpt from that piece:

Saint-Saëns Op. 52 No. 3 #2

Franz Liszt's Tarantelle di bravura d’après la tarantelle de La muette de Portici, S.386

Auber-Liszt S.386

Franz Liszt's Grand galop chromatique, S.219

Liszt S.219

Why does this double standard regarding the use of ottava lines vs. ledger lines exist? Why are notes with 5 or more ledger lines so much more common below the bass clef than above the treble clef? Why don't publishers pick exactly one, more readable standard and stick to it?

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    In each of the cases cited, the left hand is in octaves. This is generally easy to see. On the other hand, the right hand parts are much more complex and varied, so having the staff available is especially helpful.
    – Aaron
    Mar 8, 2021 at 6:21
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    @Aaron that sounds like an answer.
    – phoog
    Mar 8, 2021 at 6:28
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    @Aaron - I've honestly found those octaves with 5 or more ledger lines to be less readable than just using ottava lines. Counting out the ledger lines and deducing notes from there has been a slight pain.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 8, 2021 at 6:33
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    There seems to be an assumption in the question that using ottava makes things "more readable". And it may be true for the OP but perhaps not for everybody. The examples cited don't seem that hard to read to me, although if they were not actually octaves then it might be harder I suppose.
    – JimM
    Mar 8, 2021 at 9:53
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    When I see something like that, I try to figure out if the interval between the higher note and the low one is constant and, if so, I just ignore the low note reading because I know it's there. But, without the top note, for me it would be significantly harder to read.
    – Thomas
    Mar 8, 2021 at 20:08

3 Answers 3

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Let's look at your first example, the Saint-Saëns.

Yes, if there was ONLY the lowest C, it would be difficult to read and an 8vab line would help. But the higher C, on just two ledger lines, is easy to read, as is the octave interval. So we can allow the music to retain the correct 'shape' with low notes LOOKING low - this also is an important factor in readability.

The same principle applies to all your other examples. There's an 'easy' (few or no ledger lines) to give us our bearings coupled with an easily detected octave interval.

A, below, is arguably better written as B. But C is easy to read, easier than D because it shows where the notes are physically.

enter image description here

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    the logic of choosing between these four options is explained and illustrated very clearly Mar 8, 2021 at 14:55
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    What the? I still find D easier to read than C.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 8, 2021 at 15:08
  • I wonder if it would have been useful to have a convention that the third through seventh ledger lines be shown wider than the first two? The wider ledger lines would then correspond to the lines of the staff to which they are attached, but separated by two octaves.
    – supercat
    Mar 8, 2021 at 15:33
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    +1 for pointing out that there are multiple factors at work. An ottava line is good for avoiding very remote note heads if there is nothing to relate them to. But interrupting a longer line that contains individual remote notes is usually counterproductive. Mar 9, 2021 at 9:39
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    What I find lacking in these examples is they are isolated measures. The question of whether to use an octave mark or not is largely context dependent. If the surrounding measures are also very low, then marking a whole phrase an octave down is easy to read. If the surrounding measures are linked in a phrase with the lowest notes and descent downwards or ascend upwards from the lowest notes, then an octave mark may make it harder to read. So it is with the examples in the question - the context is important. Mar 9, 2021 at 20:28
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First, musicians should learn to read lots of ledger lines. If you are frustrated by them, that’s an important thing to focus on for your studies until you can read them easily.

Second, it is harder to read music fluidly when the 8va or 8vb marks are very brief - a full measure is a good minimum to keep in mind (with some exceptions). You can’t see the flow of the music when the octave is frequently changing. In your third to last example, Camille Saint-Saëns's Prélude et fugue, F minor, Op. 52, No. 3, the 8va is poorly used, and I strongly suspect that was a decision made by the publisher to save space. The last two examples show entire passages played an octave higher than the treble clef. This is appropriate use of an octave sign.

Your first three examples would have to have overly brief 8vb marks that would hinder reading, not help it.

Finally, as Laurence Payne points out, in much of your examples, the lowest notes are parts of octaves played in the left hand, so you only have to read the higher note of the octave and then place your fourth or fifth finger an octave below your thumb.

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  • I passed my Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 10 piano performance and failed my ARCT with a score in the 70s. If reading 5 or more ledger lines was that essential, my piano teachers sure didn't pick up on that.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 8, 2021 at 15:04
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    Once again, I note that there is no good reason to use 8vb, because the "a" in 8va does not stand for alta.
    – phoog
    Mar 8, 2021 at 16:16
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    @phoog I don't disagree with you. Still, major publishers like Hal Leonard continue to use "8vb" to indicate octave below, even for recent works. I assume it's just one of those conventions that doesn't make sense but the fact that it doesn't make sense doesn't stop it from being popular. Mar 9, 2021 at 20:24
  • @phoog A German publisher, Schott, has decided that the "va" is unnecessary, but that the "b" clarifies which direction the octave is shifted. They use "8" above the staff with a line of octave up and "8b" below the staff for octave down. Seems like there's a consensus (for whatever reason) that the position of the mark and line is not sufficient to confirm the direction of octave shift. Mar 9, 2021 at 20:34
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    @phoog Maybe you should direct your views on the matter to Hal Leonard or Schott? Mar 10, 2021 at 1:27
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Read the top pitch of the bass part and then read the ledger lines below as intervals.

Ex. If I know that two ledger lines under the bass is C and then the interval under that C is a sixth, then I know the lower note is an E.

In your examples most of the reading by interval of the lower note is easy, because the interval is pretty consistently an octave. Below is how to do it. The red line traces the top of the bass, all the notes below are at the octave, except the two places where a perfect fifth is added inside the octave.

In blue I circled the two lowest occurrences, one with the top note on a line and the other on a space. Notice that the octave reading is a count of four lines. That's my quick way to recognize an octave.

It's so common to double at the octave in a bass part that you almost don't read it note for note. A quick spot check confirms a passage in doubled octaves.

Regarding too many ledger lines below the staff, it is not too many if you orient from the top bass note.

enter image description here

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    "It's so common to double at the octave...": absolutely. I wonder if there is any piece that has parallel sevenths, ninths, or tenths in this register. I'd be surprised. But if there is, I bet they are written over an ottava bassa instruction. Otherwise, players would tend to assume that they were octaves, because, indeed, one doesn't really read the bottom notes.
    – phoog
    Jun 21 at 20:00

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