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It's not uncommon to find piano music where the left hand plays primarily in octave 1, or the right hand in octave 6 (i.e. below the staff of a bass clef or above the staff of a treble clef). This can be notated with ledger lines or with ottava brackets, and there are several questions on this site about when to prefer one or the other (e.g. here, here, and here).
However, there's a third option that I've almost never seen used—octave clefs. To me, that easily seems like the best choice: it's easy to read and doesn't have any extra visual clutter. Is there something I'm missing? Why aren't octave clefs more common?

To be clear, I understand why this isn't done for other instruments and/or shorter passages. I'm asking specifically about the piano, when the entire piece (or at least a large portion of it) would be off the staff.

2 Answers 2

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it's easy to read and doesn't have any extra visual clutter.

That's exactly why it's hard to read. With ledger lines and ottava brackets you have something there reminding you continually that you're not playing in the normal clef. A little 8 or 15 is easy to miss.

Add to this that octave clefs in general are a fairly recent invention, and treble-clef-with-8-on-the-top is exceedingly rare, with bass-clef-with-8-on-the-bottom nearly as rare. By contrast, ledger lines have been in use for several centuries and ottava brackets for two centuries or so. Most piano music was written, and most editions of most piano music were published, before octave clefs were even an option.

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  • Fair enough, I suppose. I don't see it as that much harder to miss than, say, an extra flat in a key signature, but maybe that's just my own biases showing. I think that the historical reasoning is stronger, even though it's only describing how the situation came to be, not prescribing why it should be the way it is.
    – user87413
    Jun 21 at 20:22
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    @user87413 I think part of the importance of the history is that pianists learn from the literature, and none of the literature has octave clefs. The easiest things to read are the things one has read many times in the past, so the readability of anything has to be seen in the context of the reading experience of the readers. I guess I’m saying the history is the biggest reason why octave clefs would not be helpful. Jun 21 at 23:18
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    @ToddWilcox indeed, that explains the persistence of staff notation in general despite its many inconsistent and illogical aspects.
    – phoog
    Jun 21 at 23:39
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The problem with octaved clefs is that these are quite uncommon and easy to overlook. Usually we do want the visual clutter of ottava brackets, because it should be clear from one short look from a reasonable distance (in maybe suboptimal lighting) that this part is supposed to be taken up or down an octave. For such reasons octaved clefs are very uncommon not only in piano music, but pretty much any kind of music. The only cases such clefs are really used are with instruments that are notated in a different octave than they are played in, such as tenor instruments, contrabass instruments or in the other direction piccolo, sopranino, soprillo instruments and the such.

Just compare these two ways to write the same thing:

enter image description here

It should be clear that the upper one is much faster to grasp and it is harder to miss the indication.

EDIT: I’d say there is one particular case where using transposing clefs in piano music is useful, and that is when one clef is doubling the other clef in a different octave. Consider something like this:

enter image description here

Something like that can be notated with an ottavation bracket, but if the passage is longer this gets a bit superfluous. So notating it this way may be reasonable. But note that in this case the specific shape of the material makes it much harder to overlook.

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    "The only cases such clefs are really used are with instruments that are notated in a different octave than they are played in, such as tenor instruments, contrabass instruments or in the other direction piccolo, sopranino, soprillo instruments and the such": and even there it's better not to use them, since these instruments were traditionally written as octave transposing instruments, so using an octave clef introduces the possible ambiguity that the notated transposition is in addition to the instrument's innate transposition.
    – phoog
    Jun 21 at 19:49
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    @phoog Nah, no one will take an octavated clef in these intruments as additional octavation. But you’re right that there is little reason to do so (although it is more common in modern computer notation, probably because big score writing programs choose to do so. But somethings this can get really confusing. If a Horn is written in a treble clef it transposes down, but in older scores if notated in bass clef it doesn’t. Also a point: A Contrabass usually transposes down an octave. This is also true if notated in tenor or treble clef. So if we have an octavated bass clef this gets weird.
    – Lazy
    Jun 21 at 20:02
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    @phoog But then in old notation sometime a treble clef would be transposed by two octaves (for passages of solistic character). Really some messy stuff.
    – Lazy
    Jun 21 at 20:03
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    "no one will take an octavated clef in these intruments as additional octavation": in most cases it would probably be impossible to do so because of the context, but never underestimate the capacity of beginning musicians to apply various rules overzealously. In what old notation would a treble clef be transposed 2 octaves? For double bass? How old?
    – phoog
    Jun 21 at 20:04
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    @phoog Sure, never underestimate a musician. This type of notation was used from Viennese Classics to mid 19th century.
    – Lazy
    Jun 21 at 20:12

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