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I've been transcribing music on and off for a few years now as a hobby and noticed while reading someone else's sheets that they have heaps of clef changes midway through the piece. It sort of blew my mind a little that you could even do that.

My question is when and why use a clef change over an 8va? Is there some sort of convention I haven't heard about? Some sort of debate or war ongoing between Octavians and Clefians because of this question?

My understanding was that clef changes should only be used if the octave change spans like a third of the piece.

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    The answer depends largely on the instrument; some are more used to working in multiple clefs. Piano uses two of them every day, but violin and flute have no use for bass clef. The poor viola switches between alto and treble regularly, and cello gets into all three. Jun 23 at 15:20
  • One thing to keep in mind is that clef changes were in use for at least a couple of centuries before anyone thought of using 8va.
    – phoog
    Jun 23 at 17:50
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    To add to "depends on the instrument": on a piano, it's very easy to see a note and instantly play an octave higher - same fingering pattern and all that, just move your hand to the right. As a violist, it's really hard to do that - I don't consciously think about the name of the note I'm playing, I translate directly from dot on page to place to stop a string, and there's no easy relationship between sensible fingerings for the same passage an octave apart.
    – meta
    Jun 23 at 22:46
  • @AndyBonner I feel like my heads going to explode from taking in all this information. So assuming this was for a piano and the notes on the bass clef enter the treble range for a single measure, would I be justified using a clef change, an octave change or not changing anything, or does it not really matter that much and I should just stop overthinking things.
    – Jim
    Jun 24 at 13:57
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    @Jim In that case: A clef change would be fine (but only necessary if the notes are high enough). An 8va would not be right. Jun 24 at 14:37

2 Answers 2

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As AndyB commented, this depends heavily on the instrument in question. Us cellists get quite used to jumping amongst bass, tenor, and treble, with stacks of ledger line anyway .

By comparison, you never ever use any clef other than treble for clarinets and saxophones, no matter how many ledger lines. The lower-pitched members of these families read the treble clef as-is, so you the composer must recognize both the Bb or Eb offset as well as an octave or three difference between written and produced pitches.

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  • Not to mention the concert flute, which easily reads the high D, six ledger lines up. (See Prokofjev's Classical Symphony. Did the guy never hear of a piccolo?) Jun 23 at 16:29
  • And then you're sightreading Dvorak, you turn the page, and suddenly you're expected to take something up an octave with no advance notice (shudder). Jun 24 at 5:10
  • The question asks: "why use a clef change over an 8va?" but you haven't mentioned 8va in your answer. Jun 24 at 7:59
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    @ElementsinSpace that's just one more headache we get used to. There's even some cello music written in treble clef but we're supposed to know it's to be played sub8va Jun 24 at 12:32
  • @CarlWitthoft That seems kind of rude, why would anyone write cello music that way? Jun 24 at 13:18
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If it's piano music, you can use 8va for notes high above treble clef in the upper staff, and 8vb for notes far below bass clef in the lower staff.
But, use a clef change instead for notes in the upper staff that are below the treble clef, and for notes in the lower staff that are above bass clef.
Three or fewer ledger lines usually doesn't warrant either.

Non keyboard type instruments usually don't ever want to see an 8va or 8vb.

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  • This makes perfect sense for piano, +1. Using 8vb in the upper staff or 8va in the lower staff is messy, it clutters the center of the grand staff. Better to use clef changes in those situations and va/vb on the top and bottom. Jun 23 at 15:25
  • Music which is intended for multiple instruments playing in unison may sometimes contain 8va or 8vb brackets with a notation that they apply only to certain instruments (presumably those which would otherwise not have the range to play the parts as written). Having an instrument jump octaves at a place that makes musical sense may be better than simply playing to the top or bottom of their range.
    – supercat
    Jun 24 at 15:24
  • It's worth noting that although Britten used ottava clefs (e.g. clefs that signify an octave transposition) in his piano music, it's generally frowned upon.
    – benwiggy
    Jun 24 at 16:11

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