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Perusing the score of Charles E. Ives' Concord Sonata, in the 4th movement "Thoreau", p. 10, I noticed some ottava markings; in particular, "8va" above the treble clef, and another "8va" below the bass clef. Refer to the red boxes in the below image. Granted, I do know what these mean, and I also get what Ives wanted the pianist to play, but,

  1. Shouldn't the "8va" below the bass clef be "8vb"?, and
  2. Why is there a dash ("-") character underneath the "va" on the bass clef ottava marking (boxed in green)? Similar hyphens appear elsewhere in the score for other bass clef ottavas (but not the treble clef ottavas).

enter image description here

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    Frankly, I'm more concerned with the suggestion that the third treble chord be played with the left hand. That clearly erroneous marking, combined with the unusual octave notation, leads me to conclude that this engraving is suspect. Feb 27 at 13:26

6 Answers 6

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8va is an abbreviation for "ottava" ("octave" in Italian) and is commonly used both for higher and lower octave shifts. The key difference is the placement of the dashed line: aligned to the top for "octave higher" and aligned to the bottom for "octave lower".

8vb is also sometimes used to indicate an octave lower.

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    "8va" is an abbreviation of "ottava", the Italian for "octave". That's all; the "8vb" is basically an error from believing that "a" stands for "above". Feb 26 at 3:14
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    @BrianChandler 8vb is taken as "ottava basso".
    – Aaron
    Feb 26 at 3:15
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    @BrianChandler 8vb is an error from believing that the "a" stands for "alta," which is Italian for "higher." Italian for "lower" is "bassa," hence "8vb." It's definitely wrong, but at some point if enough people start doing something wrong, it becomes right. I don't believe any classical notation references advocate for its use, but all the notation programs I am familiar with support it. It seems to have become common well after Ives's time, sometime in the late 20th century.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 9:06
  • There's no reason to think the dash has anything to do with it being an octave lower instead of higher. The ottava notations in this edition are remarkably inconsistent -- at another place it's "Oct. higher" and "Oct. lower." The ottava bassa notations are absent from the first edition, but they clearly reused the plates for this edition, so there were probably multiple revisions -- unsurprising, given Ives's personality and working methods. Notice how the dotted lines are also different. It's just another inconsistency, plain and simple.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 10:47
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    @BrianChandler in fact, "all'ottava bassa" or just "ottava bassa" is correct Italian (not basso), but if it is to be notated explicitly it should be "8va bassa." Composers haven't traditionally notated it explicitly, however, because it's never ambiguous. The notation's position above or below the staff indicates direction -- and on top of that it's difficult if not impossible to imagine a musical context where the direction could be in question. So 8va (or, as is often used, merely 8. or 8) is sufficient without any textual indication of the direction.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 10:55
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Shouldn't the "8va" below the bass clef be "8vb"?

No. The reason for this is explained in the other answer: the "va" in "8va" is part of the Italian word ottava, just as the "nd" in "2nd" is part of the English word second. The spurious 8vb came into use well after Ives's death.

Why is there a dash ("-") character underneath the "va" on the bass clef ottava marking (boxed in green)? Similar hyphens appear elsewhere in the score for other bass clef ottavas.

A former common practice in abbreviation was to write the end of the word in superscript, often with a little stroke underneath. This has persisted somewhat longer in Romance languages because the final letter often indicates gender. A prominent example is № for "numero" or number.

You will also sometimes find an underscore used with Iº and Iª for primo and prima, etc., and you'll occasionally see "allegro" written as allº as in this YouTube video of a Vivaldi Conto with manuscript score (including marks under the raised letters that I can't figure out how to include in this answer):

Finally, here's an example of this practice applied to the same ordinal number, eighth, in English:

Photograph of a mosaic wall sign identifying 8th Street subway station on New York's Broadway line, the text in capital letters, and the th of 8th being raised and underlined

In a comment, you wrote:

Perhaps I was misleading about the question regarding the hyphen. Yes, I do get it how often a hyphen is placed under super-scripted parts of words, but my question was meant to ask why this appeared in the "8va" on the bass cleff ottava marking only, yet it doesn't appear on the treble clef ottava marking.

The edition you're using is the 1947 reprint, with revisions, of the first edition, published in 1921. A careful comparison of the prints shows that it is indeed literally a reprint with revisions: they took the original plates, altered them, and used them to print the second edition. One place where you can see this is the different appearance of the dotted lines above and below the staff: the first one was present in the first edition, while the second was added 25 years later.

You can also see that the form of the upper "8va" is different in the two editions: the first edition has, among other differences, a less rounded 8 and a finer stroke in tbe v. The second one is closer to the one on the lower staff (but on closer inspection still not identical), so it must have been added during the revision process. On top of that, the use of the words "higher" and "lower" is unusual. I presume that its purpose is to prevent people from getting confused and thinking that the extended 8va applies to the right hand and indicates ottava alta. But it's a bit less odd to use the English words with English "Oct." as we see earlier.

My guess is that when Ives specified that the left hand part was to be played an octave lower than notated, they replaced the original 8va with Oct. higher and added Oct. lower below. Then, for some reason, they decided to go back to 8va, but to leave the words "higher" and "lower," because it would have been too much trouble to take them out and replace the missing parts of the dotted lines. This explains why the "font" of the 8va has changed, and matches the lower staff, while the dotted line has not. (Another possibility is that the difference in appearance was thought to be too noticeable when the two were so close together, so they just changed the old 8va directly to the new one.)

Why they would have done that here and not in the earlier instance of "Oct. higher" and "Oct. lower," I could only speculate. A likely reason is that the first appearance is in a fairly busy part of the manuscript, busy enough that they left the original 8 on the upper staff and added Oct. higher above it, so making changes would have risked modifying nearby engraved elements.

Ives was notorious for continually revising his music, so it wouldn't be particularly surprising if he required multiple changes over the course of the revision process, and it wouldn't surprise me if his editors had grown frustrated with this and become less concerned about presenting a consistent edition.

This doesn't explain why the lower staff has a stroke under the "va" and the upper does not, but in the face of all of this inconsistency I am not sure that an explanation would be necessary or even possible. The stroke is unusual, and I don't see it in other engraved publications of AMP (though most of the pieces on IMSLP are reprints of other publishers' plates or, in later decades, are reproductions of manuscript copies using some photostatic process). It could be that they just had two punches, one with and one without the stroke, perhaps because they were applied at different times using different sets of tools. In any event, this seems to be the only appearance of that punch on the upper staff.

Regardless of the reason for the inconsistency, it has no musical significance.

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  • Perhaps I was misleading about the question regarding the hyphen. Yes, I do get it how often a hyphen is placed under super-scripted parts of words, but my question was meant to ask why this appeared in the "8va" on the bass cleff ottava marking only, yet it doesn't appear on the treble clef ottava marking.
    – pr1268
    Feb 26 at 11:34
  • @pr1268 ok, I have a hypothesis about that, which I have added to the answer.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 13:02
  • @pr1268 and in case you have read the answer in the last 10 minutes, I have revised it because I realized that I was wrong in my earlier belief that the same engraving punch was used on the two 8va glyphs in the image.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 13:14
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This is a highly contentious question, and despite the authoritative credentials of 8va, you will find people arguing for 8ba, 8vb, and God knows what else, based largely on their own experience.

However, you will find that in engraved music from the mid-19th-century onward, the symbol is frequently displayed using only the numeral, with no abbreviated letters. This can be seen in the most respected publishers, like Henle Verlag. The direction of the shift is determined solely by the position of the symbol above or below the staff.

The resurgence of 'va' (as well as that of 8vb, 8ba, etc) largely arose with computer typesetting, or other late-20th-century alternatives to traditional processes.

As for the (incomplete) underlining: I wouldn't read anything into it, other than simply a peculiarity of the house style.

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    I can't comment on the prevalence of letters in 19th century scores; my sense is that both 8 and 8va are common, but I don't know. I do know, having just checked several examples, that 8va was common in the early and middle 20th centuries before computer engraving came on the scene.
    – phoog
    Feb 26 at 13:07
  • @phoog Henle uses 8; it's certainly more common in many of the leading publishers. I'd certainly encourage it, if only to rid ourselves of the discussion!
    – benwiggy
    Feb 26 at 13:17
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This is a good example of the adage 'A derivation is not a definition'. 'Decimate' originally meant 'one in 10'. Now it means 'almost all'. And, though musicians may hold out longer than the crowd, in general speech it is now perfectly idiomatic to 'rise to a crescendo'.

It seems accepted that '8va' derives from the Italian 'ottava'. That's of interest. But it doesn't close the question. Music uses a lot of 'bastard Italian'. Usage, and in particular usage by established, respected composers, is all.

'8va' written above a stave means 'octave higher'. Written below, it means 'octave lower'. Below the stave, '8vb' is also acceptable. Just '8' may also be used in either position.

Ives doubles up, indicating 'above' or 'below' not only by position but also with those actual words. Unusual, but perfectly clear. I have no idea why he underlines 'va' in the lower version.

Which of the options should we use today? Gould (p.28) seems to have no clear preference. As long as there's an 8 and a hook-ended dotted line.... I rather like her idea that 'va' (or vb) should be in superscript or subscript to correspond with the dotted line. But my notation software (Sibelius) doesn't implement this, and I'm not really going to lose much sleep over it.

enter image description here

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As others have already indicated 8va means ottava. The raised va is hereby an ordinal indicator, as would be 8th in english. Now, usually the direction of transposition is indicated by direction above and below the staff. To be specific you can also say ottava alta or ottava bassa (or in this case mixed with english ottava higher and ottava lower). This would be abbreviated by using 8va alta, 8va a. or and 8va bassa, 8va b. or 8a b..

Now at some point people interpreted 8va as ottava alta (which should tradionally if anything be 8va a. or 8a a.) and thus coined 8vb for ottava bassa. This one was then adopted by notation software and thus became a common thing. Other creative approaches include:

  • 8ba for ottava bassa
  • 8va with a lowered va for direction down

Also it is both historically and modern use to simply use an 8.

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To a much larger extent today than in centuries past, it is common for people to use text or speech to describe markings, e.g. "What does an 8va marking mean?" (pronouncing 8va as eight-vee-ay). The use by editors of 8vb rather than 8va as a notation for playing notes an octave lower than written causes octave markings below the staff to be described or pronounced differently from one above the staff.

Some people regard musical notations as eternal, having always existed from the beginning of time. In reality, most musical notations exist because someone invented them and other people decided they were useful. Rather than viewing 8vb as "correct" or "incorrect", it would be better to view it as a recently-coined notation that will likely not supercede the use of below-the-staff 8va markings, but may persist as a recognizable alternative.

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