# Transposing guitar and 8va/8vb notation

Okay, so as a violinist, I know that if “8va” appears above the staff, then I should play it an octave higher than written. Similarly, “8vb” indicates that I should play it an octave lower than written (in theory).

My question is about the use of 8va/8vb notation not above the staff, but underneath the clef. Does it mean the same thing?

The question arises in this context: I am learning to play the guitar and I know that music for guitar is written an octave higher than it is played. This is confirmed when I use some digital/online musical scores written for guitar and ask it to transpose to “concert pitch,” it moves the notes down an octave.

So if I were being finicky and wanted to be completely precise about music written for guitar and wanted to indicate that it was written an octave above what was to be played/concert pitch, would I use “8va” or “8vb” underneath the treble clef?

I think I’ve never seen 8vb being used with guitar music, but that’s what seems right to me.

8va/8vb is an instruction to the player about where to play the notes in relation to what’s on the page, not an indication of where the notes sound in relation to what’s on the page.

(my apologies if what I’m about to write is remedial for you):
Many instruments are what are known as ‘transposing instruments.’ Most of these, for example, a Bb clarinet, sound at a different pitch than they are written. So, a C on the page for a clarinet is actually sounding a Bb. You don’t indicate on the clarinet’s music that the notes written are different than the actual pitch that comes out of the instrument.

What key an instrument is ‘in’ (ie, the pitches that sound when the instrument plays a written C scale) has to do, usually, with the pitches/overtones that sound when the instrument is fully open (brass), or the most simple scale that can be played by opening holes in the instrument in order.

Some instruments are transposing, but only for ease of legibility ; to reduce the need for ledger lines. Guitar is a transposing instrument that falls into this category (as is double bass). But, like the clarinetist who is reading in his ‘home key,’ the guitar player’s music is in her ‘home key.’ There is no need to indicate what the absolute pitches are.

However, if you’re preparing a score, the story may be different. There are two types of scores, a ‘transposed score,’ in which each instrument appears in its own key, and a ‘non-transposed score,’ in which all notes for all instruments appear in the same key. In this case, you would/could use 8vb on the guitar staff, if you wanted to avoid ledger line use.

I’m unsure what you are talking about. 8va is never used above or below the clef, but above the staff, with dotted lines to indicate the horizontal extent. But there is a clef that sometimes incorporates “8” at the tail to indicate that the clef is a transposing one. I’ve seen that for vocal tenor parts (like the double clef as shown here), but it is not used today, IMHO.

Here’s the rule for traditional notation. 8va for one octave, 15ma for two, is used only above the treble staff. 8va basso is used only below the bass clef.

The reasoning behind this is we have other clefs (tenor, alto, moveable-C) to cover most situations except for the extreme ranges, so why use 8va below the treble staff, for example, when we have a perfectly good, conventional clef for that, the bass clef. Conversely, why use 8va above the bass clef?

However, practicality sometimes overrides theory and styles change, which I believe explains the “8vb” shorthand for “8va basso,” at least in English. Also, non-traditional performers may not be well versed in some clefs, and find it easier to read an octave below their familiar clef, or an octave above, even if it make little sense in theory. This explains the use of the bass clef for Baritone Horn as a non-transposing instrument, but treble clef as a transposing one, since many Baritone Horn players were originally trumpet or tuba players pressed into service when bands are short of Baritones.

My references for the above are books in my personal library, as well as extensive notational experience in Hollywood. These books may be out of print and the links may be to different editions:

Clinton Roemer, The Art of Music Copying, pub. Roerick Music, Sherman Oaks, CA 1973

Gardner Read, Music Notation, Second Edition, pub. Allyn & Bacon, 1969

Ross, The Art of Music Engraving and Processing, pub. Hansen, 1970

Rosenthal, Practical Guide to Music Notation, pub. MCA Music, 1967

Rosecrans,* A Music Notation Primer,* 2nd Ed., pub. Rosecrans 1976

I just noticed that all my referenced author’s names begin with “R”. I wonder why?

Are you talking about a little 8 being written underneath the clef, like this? Typically, guitar notation is written an octave higher than it sounds, so just the treble clef is used without the 8 below the clef. The “8” represents that the pitches sound an octave lower than written.

From what I can tell, that type of notation, at least in the example above, is just a technical one to put it in line with concert pitch. Standard guitar notation does not include that 8, and the octave transposition (in relation to concert pitch and standard C notation) is assumed.

Or are you talking about something else, as that doesn’t involve the 8va/8vb/15va/15vb notation, but it does involve an 8 underneath the clef itself.

Ah, I understand your question. Yes, you want to use a treble clef with an “8” written under it like in my example. It’s called an “octave clef.” It is also sometimes used to notate vocal tenor parts.

There is also this funky clef, sometimes drawn overlapping, that also indicates the same thing. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen that in an actual score, but I have seen the 8 either above or below the clef notation.

Remarkably like the two clefs I referenced in Post #3.

D’oh! Exactly so! Shoulda paid attention to the replies in the meantime. Somehow, I missed your post both times. :smack:

ETA: But you found the cool, interlocking one.

As a guitarist, I just wanted to provide a deeply thought-out, expert opinion from 35+ years of playing: I have no clue, and didn’t know guitar music is written an octave higher.

In the immortal words of an apparently huge role model of mine: D’oh! :smack:

Going through my collection of classical guitar music, I’d say at most 30% of it uses an octave treble clef, eg. a treble clef with a little numeral 8 at the bottom of it.

It makes absolutely no difference to me whether that little 8 is there or not, by the way - the ‘e’ on the top space of the staff is still going to be the pitch of the open 1st string, and that pitch is a major third above middle c on the piano, not a major tenth.

I have one score, a Universal edition of the Webern Op. 18 for soprano, Eb clarinet and guitar, where someone has painstakingly written the guitar part out at pitch. (The clarinet is also written out as it sounds; presumably, this is for the convenience of the singer and whatever coach/pianist she uses to learn her part.) If I were ever on the verge of playing this piece, the first thing I’d do is take an hour or so to write it out in treble clef…

To elucidate, do I play middle C by playing the 5th string at the 3rd fret or by playing the 2nd string at the 1st fret?

In simple terms, guitarists play as if the former is middle C, but the latter is “real” middle C.

Okay. That’s what I’ve been doing. If 030000 is middle C, bass E is between ledger line 4 & 3 below the treble clef. If 000010 is middle C, bass E is the ledger line below the bass clef.

8va is short for ottava, and is actually sometimes used to mean ottava bassa, or one octave below. But the standard for a while has been to use 8vb, even though many purists say it is wrong.

Here are some purists complaining about it on a forum.

Right, 030000 is the ~131 Hz note that looks like “middle C” in guitar notation, but 000010 is the ~262 Hz note that a pianist, etc. would call “middle C”. The whole point of the octave shift is to eliminate the need for the bass clef, placing everything into a readable range using just the treble clef.