Why are some vocal lines in songs notated 1 octave lower than what is actually sung. Here is an example:

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I am pretty sure that Britney Spears voice is singing octave higher than what is notated here so why was this notated like this?


There are a couple of reasons that music can be written in a different octave:

  • Some music explicitly uses a transposing clef. This one means that the notes sound one octave lower than written. Often used for Tenor vocal parts.

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  • Some instruments implicitly shift the notes by an octave or two. Examples include glockenspiel and piccolo. Both play notes an octave (piccolo) or two (glockenspiel) higher than they are actually written. This is for practicality; notes far away from the stave get really hard to read. Another pertinent example is the guitar. Sheet music for the guitar is written one octave higher than it sounds.

  • Finally, there are garden-variety mistakes. I've seen non-professional sheet music which picks the wrong octave for the melody. I've even seen incorrect octave-shifts between different sections. It's not recommended.

In this case specific case, the music is actually in the correct octave. Britney is singing quite low, which is pretty common for female pop vocalists. You can hear her shift into the higher octave on the lyric "still believe" at 1:08.

If you're using a guitar to figure this out, you have to be aware that guitar sheet music is written in the "wrong" octave. So the written middle C on guitar is actually going to be the C an octave lower. As the sheet music is written for vocals, they haven't notated the octave transposition required for guitar.

  • Are you sure about this? I thought that middle C (which is what is notated) was 3rd fret on the A string. In the recording isn't the note sung the C above middle C (1st fret on B string)? – armani May 13 '18 at 12:01
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    @armani -- middle C is the first fret on the B string on a guitar. Guitar staff notation is shifted an octave by convention, so that the C you see notated on the first ledger line below the staff of guitar sheet music is actually the C below middle C. This can cause some confusion for guitarists. – ex nihilo May 13 '18 at 16:56
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    @DavidBowling Good catch, I forgot that guitars are octave transposers. Edited that into the answer. – endorph May 13 '18 at 22:25
  • ah ok, that explains it. I got confused because about 90% of the sheet music I read has middle C an octave higher. I guess all this sheet music I was reading is for guitar :) – armani May 15 '18 at 7:23

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