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I have been transposing some voice + piano accompaniment music originally written for a mezzo-soprano or alto into a key for a tenor down (usually by a third or a fourth) and have found the resulting piano sheet music to look rather odd. I don't know how to play piano, but I imagine taking sheet music that already uses ledger lines below the staff and transposing it down by that much make it annoying to play, and in particular difficult to sightread. However, I'm not sure how or when it is appropriate to use ottava lines and clef changes, in a way which will feel natural for the pianist.

  • Is there a general rule of thumb for when to use clef changes or ottava lines? Is there a maximum number of ledger lines, or a minimum number of notes within the staff or written without ledger lines? Would instances where a note is being played "in octaves" (i.e. F4 and F3 being played at the same time or within the same phrase) be exceptions to that rule of thumb?
  • Should clef changes generally be reserved for full phrases/sections while ottava lines should be used for short sections within phrases?
  • Would it be appropriate to use ottava lines for a short sequence repeated in increasing/decreasing octaves (i.e. an arpeggio across multiple octaves) if one or more of those repeats is entirely off the staff? Or would that be more confusing than helpful?
  • When, if ever, is it appropriate to use ottava clefs? In particular, is it ever appropriate to write the right hand in the "vocal tenor clef" i.e. the treble clef down an octave?
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  • Along with the answers already submitted something to ask yourself when creating a piano or any instrumental part is: “What would I want to see if I were sight reading this part?”, or “How can I make this part as easy as possible to sight read?”. Mar 13, 2023 at 0:22

3 Answers 3

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Is there a general rule of thumb for when to use clef changes or ottava lines? Is there a maximum number of ledger lines, or a minimum number of notes within the staff or written without ledger lines? Would instances where a note is being played "in octaves" (i.e. F4 and F3 being played at the same time or within the same phrase) be exceptions to that rule of thumb?

It depends on the instrument. For piano, three ledger lines is probably the largest reasonable distance from the staff, but if the hand is playing an octave then the pianist will be paying more attention to the note closest to the staff, so the farther note could have up to seven ledger lines.

But you should never use any clef other than treble and bass clefs in a piano part. Do not use octave transposing clefs. Instead, use 8va.

F4 and F3 is an odd example to choose because both are readily notated in both clefs, whether as part of an octave-spanning chord or in isolation.

Should clef changes generally be reserved for full phrases/sections while ottava lines should be used for short sections within phrases?

Not necessarily. If the right hand crosses over and plays an isolated G2, for example, a clef change is probably going to be clearer than an 8va.

Would it be appropriate to use ottava lines for a short sequence repeated in increasing/decreasing octaves (i.e. an arpeggio across multiple octaves) if one or more of those repeats is entirely off the staff? Or would that be more confusing than helpful?

If I understand this correctly, 8va is likely the best way to handle it.

When, if ever, is it appropriate to use ottava clefs? In particular, is it ever appropriate to write the right hand in the "vocal tenor clef" i.e. the treble clef down an octave?

No. If a clef change seems appropriate for the right hand, use the bass clef. Using two bass clefs or two treble clefs is not uncommon in piano music. Other nonstandard clef combinations are.

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If you want a rule of thumb, 3 ledger lines are safe.

When writing octaves, as long as one of the notes is in 'safe space', probably no need for octave lines.

The only people who read 'Tenor Treble clef' are tenor singers. Never use octave-transposing clefs in piano music.

Don't be afraid to transpose the piano part UP if the texture is in danger of getting muddy. Look at the repertoire. Bass soloists aren't accompanied only by bassoons and contra-basses. The flute plays as well!

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  • Any male singer will read octave-tranposed treble clef. So do guitarists.
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2023 at 12:12
  • And we bassoon players often read tenor clef. As does cello players and tenor trombone players (often in classical music from older times).
    – ghellquist
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:04
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    @ghellquist That's a different sort of tenor clef!
    – Laurence
    Mar 13, 2023 at 18:59
  • @Laurence: good to know.
    – ghellquist
    Mar 13, 2023 at 19:02
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Whilst you can mechanically transpose piano parts down a fixed interval, there's a good chance you'll end up with something that sounds muddy in places. If you have the time it would be better to paraphrase those sections, preserving the harmony but played higher up on the keyboard so they don't sound so murky. Your singer won't have to fight against the piano texture then.

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