I ran across a set of interesting images under "octave clef" at http://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory14.htm . Since this qualified as my "learn something new every day," I just wondered if other folks have seen these particular clef markings? I admit to never having seen one (and in fact own a couple cello sonatas which are marked w/ a standard Treble clef but are intended to be played sub*va).

  • 1
    It's taken me years to be able to play treble and bass clefs, then you come along and tell me there are many more different ones. Help !! Yes, guitar is often written without the little 8. I suppose it's generally assumed.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 9:09
  • @Tim There many different clefs. I've only seen bass and treble clefs in piano though. Other instruments use different clefs. Here is a list of clefs: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clef
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 16:25
  • Who wrote these cello sonatas? I'm looking in relation to a comment on another question that suggests this was prominent in the classical and early romantic period, but I haven't found any cello treble clef from earlier than Beethoven, and everything I've found from Beethoven and later is clearly intended to be played at pitch rather than down an octave -- clearly because the treble clef often appears in the middle of a scale. Also, octave-down treble clef has nearly the same range as tenor clef, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to use it unless the composer isn't comfortable with tenor clef.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 23:48

5 Answers 5


Music for guitar is written in the octave down G clef, so any guitarist that reads notation sees it all the time. Tenors (voices) use it too. Other instruments use other octave clefs. I was told piccolo and soprano recorder use the octave up G clef.

  • Add xylophone (up an octave) glockenspiel (up a 15th), contrabassoon (sounding an octave lower). I think the celeste also does an octave transposition. However, these are rarely notated -- they are assumed by the player and the composer. The only place I've seen them commonly used is in concert pitch scores. I'm not a fan, myself -- I learned to do the transposition TO concert pitch when reading a score. I hate looking at a concert score and trying to figure out what the part looks like.
    – Dennis
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 6:30

Most mixed voices choir scores I’ve encountered are written with a G clef for women, a F clef for bass and a sub octave G clef for tenor. Complete with the little 8 below the clef.

So, yes, I encounter them on a regular basis.

  • I only get to accept 1 answer, but yours is certainly useful as well. Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 12:28
  • The SATB choir I sing in uses music where the tenor part is often written on the bass clef and often on the treble octave clef. Sometimes the same short piece can include both (!?!?!) for example He Smiles Within His Cradle (carol 20 in the Oxford blue book starts with the tenors on the bass clef and ends with us on the octave treble. Another piece we are singing has us on the octave treble clef but without the octave marking (!) but I assume that is a typographical mistake.
    – dumbledad
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 7:26
  • @dumbledad: I've encountered SATB music written with rhythmically-homophonic SAT on a G-clef staff (all at pitch) and a rhythmically-different bass part on a F-clef staff. It's also common for publishers to simply omit any sort of octave marking when writing G-clef tenor parts. In most cases it will be obvious which octave the tenors should sing.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 21:03

Pavarotti wasn't called the "king of the high C's" because he could actually hit a high C in treble clef! The note he could hit was a treble C. However, it would be written the same as high C in treble clef (two ledger lines above the top) because tenor writing either has the sub octave G clef or it is understood to be there.

Violas almost always use Alto clef. (That's the so-called "movable clef", the sort of K or B-shaped clef that moves around to be Alto or Tenor or Soprano or whatever clef.) Alto clef marks the middle line as middle C. Cellos and bassons usually use bass clef, but will switch to tenor clef to write higher note passages without using too many ledger lines.

I've never seen anything but treble and bass clef in piano music either. Most pianists can automatically read any note with up to three ledger lines. Once it gets much lower or higher than that, the music transposes up or down an octave and uses the 8va symbol.



In the cello repertoire, this happens only very occasionally. I think the main place it might throw you for a loop would be Dvorak chamber music, if you turn the page and suddenly you're looking at one phrase set in treble-clef-take-it-down-an-octave. I don't remember whether the little symbol below the clef was omitted or not, but I rather think so.

This will probably only cause a hiccup if you're sightreading from a newly purchased copy. If you're working from a library copy or a borrowed copy, likely there will be a little piece of paper with the one phrase written out in tenor clef, neatly scotch-taped into the cello part.

I guess if you want to be ready, and be able to read such a phrase on the spot, you could have some fun playing cello and violin duets with yourself at home, with a recording device. But the main usefulness of that skill would be that you'd be able to demonstrate something to a violinist in a quartet rehearsal. Or you'd be able to fill in for a violinist who had to step out to use the bathroom or take a phone call.

  • Um... a normal treble clef in a cello score is generally supposed to be read as an normal treble clef, not an octave down. And Dvořák certainly did use it this way. But indeed: I think he's one of the composers that didn't seem to care very much for the tenor clef – also bugged me when stuff was written in ledger lines below treble clef. — I do like reading octave-violin clef though, would be rather happy if it was more commonly used instead of tenor – covers virtually the same range, more familiar pitch classes. Tenor is only good when thinking “bass but everything up one string”. Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 14:51
  • Did Dvorak do something odd then? When a cello sees treble clef it's normally because the music goes into the treble clef range. There's no octave-down thing.
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 19:47
  • @LaurencePayne - Sure, in the solo literature you'll see true treble clef, and cellists get used to reading it. The weird, unusual thing I was describing is having to transpose down an octave (easy on piano, easy for woodwinds, hard on the cello). Note, you generally don't find regular treble clef in cello parts of chamber music (string trio, quartet, quintet, sextet) except maybe piano trio. Because, think about it, if there's a viola in the ensemble, the composer isn't going to encroach on his territory when writing the cello part. Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 1:57
  • @leftaroundabout - You're on your own there, Lefty! You'd have to effect a revolution to get rid of tenor clef in the standard cello literature! Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 1:58

The only one you're going to come across in current music is the octave-down-treble-clef for choir tenors. Yes, piccolo reads an octave down, guitar and bass read an octave up. But they don't bother with the special clefs. What YOU mustn't do is use an octave clef as a substitute for 8va lines, for any instrument. It won't be noticed or understood.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.