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I want to know after how many ledger lines should you start notating music with the 8va symbol. I have read that the flute often has music written on ledger lines. So up to how many ledger lines can a flute read? And what about the other instruments?

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    I don't know a reason to not use it as long you can reduce the ledger lines on one end of the staff, but it doesn't make sense when there are finally more ledger lines at the opposite end. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 18 at 12:16
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    I would grab a stack of existing flute sheet music to get a "feel" for what's typical. – Carl Witthoft Oct 18 at 13:33
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    @CarlWitthoft Trombones are only regarded as transposing instruments in brass band music, and the use of treble clef for those parts considerably reduces the number of ledger lines. – PiedPiper Oct 18 at 13:56
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    There's no excuse for writing cello parts with 6 or 8 ledger lines: that's what tenor clef and treble clef are for. – PiedPiper Oct 18 at 14:15
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    @Grace Any woodwind, brass or string player whose instrument goes high (or low) enough to need ledger lines are used to reading them. – PiedPiper Oct 18 at 15:57
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Flute or violin players can read as many ledger lines as you want, but extended passages in the very high register (A6 and above) are often easier to read if you use the 8va symbol. Once you get to six ledger lines then 8va is almost always a good idea. This is a typical example of appropriate 8va use:
example The same goes for low brass players in the low register.

Be aware that woodwind, brass and strings players nearly always need different fingerings and different muscle tension for higher notes, and notating the notes at pitch gives them more of a "feel" for the music. You should only use 8va when it does make the music easier to read. The high trills from my example written at the correct pitch give the player a cue to provide enough breath support to get those high notes out.

For keyboard players you can write 8va (or 15ma) any time you want.

  • Very well explained – Grace Oct 18 at 14:49
  • I (personally) would prefer that example passage to switch to 8va a lot sooner. Seeing the same note written in two ways triggers my OCD :-) – Carl Witthoft Oct 18 at 15:22
  • @CarlWitthoft That is a valid consideration, actually. Often you'll go to 8va earlier simply to show notes in the same register as later when you need to higher. Between that and the different expectations for different instruments, it's hard to make a one-size-fits-all recommendation. – trlkly Oct 18 at 23:44
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The basic idea of staves is to keep as many dots as possible within their confines. That's one main reason alto and tenor clefs work well for the particular instruments they are used for.

Once a piece goes out by three or four ledger lines, that's fine if the music then gets back to within the stave concerned. However, if a passage stays outside, using around five or six ledgers, there seems little point in using all those leger lines when 8va/vb and in extreme cases 15va/vb can be utilised instead. Not only does it make things easier to read, keep it neater, but probably you'll get more staves on a page.

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    @phoog 8vb may be nonsensical, but that's the standard usage and avoids stupid questions in rehearsals ("do you want that down an octave or up?") – PiedPiper Oct 18 at 14:54
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    @phoog - pretty sure it exists, although not used often. In some guitar music, there's an 8 under the treble clef, making it very clear. In lots of guitar music, even that's left out. It took me a couple of years to realise that guitars are transposing instruments! But that's not quite what OP is asking about. And why 'once again'? Where was the last time? – Tim Oct 18 at 15:18
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    I should also note that a two-octave transposition is properly indicated with 15ma, not "15va," since the Italian word it abbreviates is quindicesima. This underscores the spuriousness of "8vb," let alone "15vb" or "15mb." – phoog Oct 18 at 15:39
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    @phoog - true - ma/mb are the 'plurals' va/vb. So the correct terms are 8va, 8vb, 15ma and 15mb. Always open to learn more! – Tim Oct 18 at 15:46
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    @phoog I agree '8va b' would be the right way to do it, but then you could abbreviate that to '8vb'. – PiedPiper Oct 18 at 16:14
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Pianists have to cope with octave marks a lot, thanks to their instrument having such a huge written range.

How many leger lines are OK without using an ottava bracket? For me, up to 4 is no problem. Beyond 4, it gets trickier, but there's a common piano idiom where large numbers of leger lines are not so bad: octaves. Octaves are very common in piano music, and pianists are used to recognising them. If a passage in octaves entails tall stacks of leger lines for the "distant" notes, that's not so great a problem, because you can just read the "near" notes, knowing that the "distant" ones are an octave away.

Consider the notation for this fragment of Chopin's etude in C, op 10 no 1:

Etude in C, op 10 no 1, 1st 2 bars, RH

This is a study in changing the position of the RH rapidly, and playing wide broken chords in the RH. It helps to have the note-heads indicate the general positions of the keys played by one hand in one position. But the start or finish of an ottava bracket disrupts that line and makes it harder to read the notes and work out when to change hand position. I think the first bar above would be better notated if its last note but 3, E6, were not under the ottava bracket (i.e. the bracket had started after that note); that way, the notes C5 G5 C6 E6, which are all to be played by the RH in the same position, would all have come before the ottava bracket, and the shape of those 4 notes together would be easier to see. In that case, the mental jolt of going from notes with no ottava to notes under the ottava bracket would have been less bad, because the hand changes position anyway. Compare the start of bar 2, where the bracket ends just when the RH changes position, and it is easy to see that the shape of that bar's 1st 4 notes is the same as the next 4.

The publisher seems to have followed the convention that it's better to put a beamed group either entirely within, or entirely outside, an ottava bracket. That might look nicer but it's less convenient for the pianist.

(BTW, look at that metronome mark!)

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