As musicians sight reading music – are you very comfortable reading parts in ledger lines or is it more convenient having higher/lower parts notated within the staff with an 8va (or 8vb) symbol?

For example:

trombone phrase written with 8va, with ledger lines

Of the two measures, which would be the easier and quicker to read/process? Or would you generally prefer one way over the other?

  • In this particular case, I would actually prefer a change to treble clef. But that's just because I play piano and guitar. I guess a trombone player might really need to not have clef changes like that. Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 21:53
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    @ToddWilcox My goodness, no, not treble clef for trombone unless perhaps very high alto trombone or soprano trombone Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 15:50
  • Use 8va sparingly and dependent on instrument. As others say, many instruments are quite comfortable with ledger lines (flute, picc, tuba, 4th horn, btbn, clarinet, etc just to name a few. Find yourself an orchestration book for solutions to your problems Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 15:54
  • As a guitarist, ledger lines below middle C down to D-E is preferred (down to the lowest string, I'm unsure what would be best to notate 7 or 8 string guitar). More than about 3 ledger lines above the system I would use 8va instead. Octaving is pretty straightforward on guitar.
    – Johan
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 13:17

6 Answers 6


Players of any instrument should be comfortable with up to 3 ledger lines. Measure 2 should be perfectly readable.

For many instruments, writing the part in the correct octave without an 8va mark is preferable because playing in different octaves means different technique. For trombone, the middle line D is played in 4th position, but the D an octave higher is typically played in 1st. So if a player sees a middle line D, he might instinctually start to go for 4th position, and then have a little mental hiccup when he notices the 8va mark. It's not a huge deal, but it can impact sight reading. This is more important for woodwinds.

You can also change clef. Trombonists, cellists, and bassoonists should all be adept at reading tenor clef as well (and maybe even treble clef). High school players may not have learned other clefs yet, or may be slow at reading them, but a professional should have no problem.


When tempted to use an 8va line the answer is more often than not 'no'. Ok for piano sometimes. Occasionally for violin. Never for flute - they prefer the 'telegraph poles'. So do jazz and commercial trombonists. Keep them in bass clef, don't worry about the leger lines. Orchestral trombonists are OK with tenor clef, but not alto, unless it's a specific part for Eb alto trombone. (Yes, I know you'll find a couple of exceptions in modern(-ish) Russian editions. Don't copy them.)

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    I think it can depend a lot. On piano 8va/8vb is much easier for me to read than more than two ledger lines. I just move my whole hand an octave and then read like normal. Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 21:57

It really depends on the context. A short passage up there would be clearer as ledger lines. Especially if you are going back down in range soon.

You haven't written all the options however. There are others. You can use the tenor or alto clef which would depend on the instrument. From my experience playing cello, if it is brief (one or two bars) - ledger lines. If it is longer (a line or more) - tenor clef. I imagine something similar happens for trombone. Though I have never personally seen 8va that notation used for something so low.


In your example, ledger lines. Even for a few bars 2, 3 or 4 ledger lines shouldn't cause grief to the player. For a longer passage, change clef. That said, if you're writing for inexperienced players, should you have extended passages in extreme registers?

The choice of clef depends on context: both who the players are & what the music does. Texts like Blatter's Instrumentation and Orchestration are helpful here. Other scores are also illustrative of the conventions that players are used to in their parts. Also, beware the conventions of non-native clefs for some instrument: e.g. horn in the bass clef & double bass in the treble clef have in certain periods transposed differently from the their native treble & bass clefs, so some technical knowledge is helpful.


One should NEVER use 8va above the bass clef. Change clefs instead. 8va only goes above a treble clef, and only if the passage is entirely in ledger lines with the 8va sign. Also, 8va is only used for keyboards (piano & mallet percussion) and harp. It is NOT used for brass and woodwind instruments because the fingers for a high octave are completely different as opposed to piano where the fingerings are the same regardless of the octave in which the passage is played.

Further, 8vb is NEVER used below the treble clef

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    I'd disagree with the requirement that a phrase must have all the notes needing ledger lines before you'd consider an ottava. The fourth ledger line is an octave above a note that doesn't need a ledger line, but passages with a lot of 3 or 4 ledger line notes are much easier to read an octave lower.
    – Tom Serb
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 14:33

Two things: first, you shouldn't use an ottava over the F clef (or below the G clef). A change in clef is the simple solution.

Second, anything up to about four ledger lines isn't a problem for me, unless there are tons of notes with 3/4 lines - then I'd prefer the phrase to be written lower.

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