Is there a highest and lowest note that can be written on sheet music without using the one or more octave higher/lower notation? In my case for the piano specifically.

I want to learn to sight read and my first goal is to be able to name any note that appears on sheet music so that I don't have to count from a known position. Therefore I need to know all notes that could appear. Are there any rules about that? Can the highest and lowest notes on the piano be written without using the octave higher/lower notation?

Is there no standard for sheet music notation? I'm creating some very simple software to generate notes to help me practice but I don't want it to generate total nonsense which I'll never see in the real world. Are there any standards I could look up?

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    For the notation part you could generate Lilypond-notation, and then generate your practice sheets from that. Then you will get standard notation. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilypond. – Meaningful Username May 14 '14 at 14:18
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    There aren't any hard and fast notations. I own sheet music that goes 3 octaves above the staff. As a longtime (suffering :-) ) musician, I would certainly ask that you limit your layout to maybe a 12th above or below, and after that use "8va" notation, or switch clefs for those instruments for which multiple clefs are in common use. – Carl Witthoft May 14 '14 at 14:29
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    One thing to consider is the limitation of the human brain. We break the staff up into five lines and can differentiate pitch based on where they fall. The ability to determine the pitch often has to do with how many ledger lines above or below the staff it is. Once you get to a certain point, the brain cannot automatically group the ledger lines into discernible numbers/distance. Think about tally marks. Once you get past 4, we add a slash through the group to make 5. This allows us to not have to count the marks. The brain can recognize groups of 4 but it gets harder as you move above that. – Basstickler May 14 '14 at 15:23
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    Once you think you've mastered it, may I suggest you test yourself on this excerpt from Trance and Dental Etudes by P.D.Q. Bach. (You may need to broaden your definition of "piano" to include the Überklavier). – Nate Eldredge Jul 16 '14 at 5:49

There is no absolute limit. The highest C on the piano, written 3 octaves above the staff, is perfectly legitimate. However, practically speaking, notes that far from the staff will almost always be written in a musical phrase containing other nearby notes, so the 8Va notation is used. Music that high is nearly impossible to sightread if not written using 8va notation, both because the distance from the staff is so great, and because the notes are so seldom read in that position.

If you are just starting out with sight reading, start out with a two octave range centered around the C in the center of the staff, and gradually increase it in both directions as you need it.

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    A bit off track but for completeness I'd just like to add that the 15ma notation can be used when 8va isn't enough. – Ulf Åkerstedt May 16 '14 at 21:34
  • I've seen handbell music use seven ledger lines above the staff. Since one pair of treble/bass clefs may have notes spread throughout a seven-octave range, and different notes of a chord may be played in different octaves, 8va notation would be inapplicable (beyond the fact that handbells are essentially always played an octave above what's written). I've sometimes wondered why there's no standard for a "super-treble" staff two octaves above the treble clef (with two ledger lines separating it from a treble clef). At least for handbell music I think that would make things much easier to read. – supercat Nov 26 '16 at 17:52

As others have said, no there isn't a real limit, but there is a practical limit. If I am sightreading something and there are lots of ledger lines, there's no way you'll figure it out in time, so you might as well just skip it.

However, sometimes you'll know if you've worked your way up there gradually, or are playing octaves or something. A lot of sightreading isn't seeing each note, but recognizing patterns, so if you see an octave (and you'll get used to the distance between intervals on the sheet music), you only have to look at one of the notes. The same goes if you're playing individual notes really high or low - if you know where you are, you just read intervals instead of pitches.

I wouldn't recommend practicing more than maybe 3-4 ledger lines though if you're going for sightreading. It's just not common enough to worry about, and there are just too many other things to focus on, like getting the gist of a measure and filling the rest in yourself.

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  • "filling in the rest" should also entail learning to actually see and count the rests -- much more important than > 4 ledger lines – ohmi May 16 '14 at 22:34

One point that has not been pointed out here, is that I was taught when sight reading a new piece of music, it should be looked over beforehand and analyzed to spot the hard to read notes so that they don't catch you by surprise as you attempt your performance. Doing so allows the time needed to count and determine ledger lines and notes.

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  • I do this, but it was once pointed out to me that it's arguably no longer sight reading at that point. A truly crack sight reader can look far enough ahead to be able to process the hard-to-read bits while playing. – phoog Oct 16 '18 at 16:37

As a point of comparison, I play Alto Recorder, and often see music that reaches the g four ledger lines above the treble staff (our highest note). Flutes, I think, can go even higher without using 8va.

Soprano and Sopranino recorders, as well as piccolos, can all go higher, but are typically notated an octave lower than sounding.

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    Former flautist here. It's easily possible to go to the C five lines above and commonly taught. It's possible to play every note up to A7, which as far as I'm aware doesn't have a known fingering. This note is on the 8th line above the staff. The highest note that I know is possible to play is C8 which sits on the 9th line above the staff. – OmnipotentEntity May 14 '14 at 16:46
  • That being said, the fingerings become somewhat of a complete mess after C#6. – OmnipotentEntity May 14 '14 at 16:48
  • What, your alto won't play the a natural above that g? Tsk! Admittedly, I've only ever played one piece that needed it... – Matthew Walton May 15 '14 at 13:25

The hard-and-fast rule for written sheet music is READABILITY. Anything that makes it easier to read is "more correct" than some markup that makes it harder to read.

In the example given in the question, you'd rarely use ledger lines to annotate a note that's more than an octave above the staff, because it just gets too swampy to read all those ledger lines. Use the 8va notation. However, it's generally not seen to have an 8va marking on anything shorter than a bar or a complete phrase. Think about that on a piano or guitar: a single note or three written up 7 ledger lines tells you to "grab a quick high note" while the notation 8va tells you "move your whole hand position up there for a bit."

However, it isn't uncommon to have single bass clef notes annotated 8vb.

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For practicality, it very much depends on the context. A major scale played upwards through 5 octaves is perfectly readable, using as many ledger lines as needed. However, playing some huge complex interval like a 39th out of nowhere is never going to be sight-read at full speed. Context usually will determine whether ledger lines are appropriate or not.

Of course, theoretically, there is no limit to how many ledger lines can be used, as frequency exists on an infinite and continuous spectrum.

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