I originally asked this as a follow up on this thread, 8va or clef change? but it was suggested by "Elements in Space" (thanks, Elements!) that I should ask this as a new question, and link to the original post if I think it relevant. It is, so I have - but I get why he suggests asking a new question. It's an old post for starters - I hadn't paid enough attention to the date until his comment. So here's my post:

Some background/why I'm asking

I wrote an opus several years ago, and completed 3 of the movements before getting side tracked and never finishing the third. Having just migrated a bunch of my projects over to a new PC, I came across my MuseScore folder (and got excited about MuseScore 4 and the realistic sounds, not to mention the great visual changes they brought in for v3.6 that groups your instruments for you without any input from the composer. No more manual bracketing! Wayhay. Anyway, I digress...)

So, in importing my scores into MuseScore 4, I have decided to complete my little string quartet project. I have a question, promise! So, during my first movement, I've got an 8va clef for violin first chair, and it pretty much stays in that area for the whole piece. Chair two is using a normal clef. As the movement draws to its end, 26 bars (plus two repeating sections, so without counting it's 40+ bars) I've got a 8va clef on chair two, which I mark on the stave, and there it remains until the close of the movement, and around the same area, chair one has a 15va clef, again marked on the stave and in this octave it remains until the movement ends.

My reason for using the clefs instead of ledger lines is that it looks (to me) much more readable and contained within the page boundaries rather than having a whole heap of ledger lines. I'm not a violinist, I'm a guitar and bass player. At the time of composing, I did ask a cellist what they thought and whether I'm following the correct convention.


My question I guess, and how I found this post, was that during my importing this into MuseScore 4 from v2, I re-read through my opus, and hesitated. Is it enough just to have the 8va/15va clef being on the stave at the point of change, as well as at the start of the subsequent new lines post-change, or should I have some system/stave text to draw the players attention to this?

On googling 8va clef convention, I found this post and having read the questions I think this is a great place to ask! Thanks in advance for your insight(s).

I've put a couple of images of my score on imgbb if you find that helpful - I like to visualise things before I answer, so maybe you'll find it helpful also.

15va clef on violin 1

8va clef on violin 2

  • Oh, and hello everyone! Nice place you've got here! I'm new (new to here, but not stack, and not to music either). Is there a place to post your intro, etc? I'll have a look around! I found this because I was googling my above question, found an old post and was directed to create a new question instead. So here we are.
    – Noscere
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:26
  • 2
    The bad news is that I don't recall 8va treble clef being used in violin music at all - I recall 4 or more ledger lines above the treble clef being used more often (sometimes along with regular treble clef notes in the same chord).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:43
  • The proper abbreviation for two octaves is 15ma, short for quindicesima.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 11:44
  • 1
    did ask a cellist - cellists don't tend to need a lot of ledger lines as it's easier to change to a higher clef, even for a single bar. Any more than 2 extra lines at they start blurring together - and out comes the pencil. Violinists obviously are more used to it.
    – fdomn-m
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 16:25
  • I can tell you for sure that I've never seen anything but ledger lines in orchestral flute parts. Not even the 8va - - - - - - - - dodge, which I only ever saw in books of etudes and the like, where space on the page was at a premium.
    – Robusto
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 1:59

3 Answers 3


I would never recommend octave notation in violin music.

Unlike piano, a violinist has no easy mapping from one octave to another—you can't just shift your hand and read the same notes, so as long as you're playing extreme, uncommon fingerings, you can just as easily read the corresponding extreme, uncommon staff lines. Your example would go up to 6 ledger lines, which isn't that remarkable for a professional first violin part, but even if it were more, 8va wouldn't help the player. Even if you justify 8va, 15ma is overkill.

Octave clefs are non-traditional for most instruments.

The canonical function of octave clefs is to render explicit the transposing nature of instruments like the guitar or piccolo. The little "8" isn't really meant to be read, and I've seen it argued that it's too subtle to expect anyone to notice—a little ridiculous in a practice that involves counting ledger lines, but what do I know. Prefer 8va brackets, and if you must use clefs, consider calling it to attention the first time it comes up, especially if it's meant to be sight-read.

I'm of the opinion that traditions are made to be broken and tools are made to be used, and octave clefs can be useful—on instruments where they're helpful to the musician, like keyboards. As a violinist I would see a big red flag that the composer was unfamiliar with the instrument and its limitations.

As a final note, it's 15ma, short for Italian quindicesima, as 8va is short for ottava.

  • 3
    I'd argue that 8va isn't particularly hard for violinists; we do get annoyed at having to count more than 4 or 5 ledger lines, but would also get annoyed at a switch to 8va just for a few notes. But the examples here would be perplexing rather than annoying. We're also pretty adept at transposing by an octave, even for things notated low on the staff, thanks to church gigs that say "take it up an octave on the last verse." I think the big takeaway here is: octave clefs are a species of transposing clef, and as such are meant for transposing instruments. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 22:10
  • @AndyBonner Tweaked it. I've never done a church gig, that's interesting. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 8:44
  • 1
    To bolster your argument about conventions, here's what Gould has to say in Behind Bars: "The [octave-transposing] clefs may be used in a full score to indicate that instruments such as the piccolo and double bass are written respectively an octave lower and higher than sounding. Do not use these clefs to replace genuine octave transpositions. The clefs tend to go unnoticed, as the player is unaccustomed to reading them." Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 13:53

I would not use an 8va clef in violin music. Instead, would use an "8va" marking where necessary.

In 35 years of playing violin, I've never encountered anything but treble clef, outside of some moveable clefs in baroque music. I've encountered the suboctave treble clef (8 on the bottom) in classical guitar music and the tenor part of vocal music, especially English madrigals. I've never encountered the "sopranino" (8 on top) clef before; Wikipedia tells me I might have if I played recorder or penny whistle.

Violin practice is normally to prefer ledger lines especially when there will be 4 or fewer ledger lines, and when the section using ledger lines will be brief, like maybe just a few notes. Longer passages that would have 4 or more ledger lines can be written transposed with "8va" marking. Just try to avoid shifting back and forth between 8va and non-transposed too often in a short time.

In this piece, there's no need for 8va for the second violins. Note, the goal is not to "tidy up the score" and remove unsightly ledger lines; the goal is to do whatever lets the players play it most easily. Violinists are quite used to counting ledger lines, at least up to 4 or maybe 5. As for the "15 clef," I couldn't even imagine what to do with it. I had to search Wikipedia to find that it's in fact two octaves above written, not a fifteenth. This would be a welcome time not to notate it at pitch, but it's quite enough to write the D with two ledger lines and add 8va.

To answer the core question, for instruments that should switch clefs (viola and cello when appropriate), I don't think any text instructions are needed. But if the clef change comes at a line break, I would add a "courtesy clef" at the very end of the preceding line.

  • 6
    Um, two octaves is a fifteenth. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 4:23
  • 2
    Scale degrees are counted in the Roman fashion, with both ends counted. Thus, 8+8=15, because it's actually (8-1)+(8-1)+1
    – No Name
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 7:59
  • @NoName or just 7+7+1.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 11:47
  • @NoName: Or, if one notices ordinals and recognizes that a stretch of road that's one mile long would start at the beginning of the FIRST mile, and end at the beginning of the SECOND mile; a two-mile section of road starting at the beginning of the FIRST mile would end at the beginning of the THIRD mile.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 23:39
  • 2
    And this is why you wait until everybody understands Zero before making a numerical system that we will be stuck with FOREVER.
    – user121330
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 19:55

Violist and stringed instrument teacher here. For viola, use the treble clef for extended passages F (third line above alto clef staff) and above. I've seen single high notes in alto clef up to the A first harmonic, but it's kind of rare. For cello (which is an octave below viola) use tenor clef with similar rules for passages above G or so, and then switch to treble clef. Please, never use false treble clef for cellists. For a great example of high cello music, check out Ravel's Violin/Cello duet. As a side-note, there are a few high passages for violin in the Ravel and no 8va markings. For a violin, the notation I've seen is to explicitly mark the 8va transposition with a dashed over-line, and it usually starts at 7th or 8th position on their E string.

One reason for the ledger-line preference is that the upper stringed instruments have an evenness/oddness for notes in their clef choices. For example, the second line down the treble clef is the same D as the second ledger line above the alto clef - not a space - and it's played in first position with the third finger on the A string. In fact, all of my open strings are spaces and all of my first and third fingers in first position are lines (in C major). An octave transposition changes lines to spaces and spaces to lines which impedes my dwindling eyesight and slow brain from identifying notes. There is a physical change in how notes are played that happens around seventh position - which reduces the value of the evenness/oddness and that's about where we see the 8va notation come in.


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