What Does 8va Mean in Music?

What Does 8va Mean in Music?

Music is a beautiful language to learn. When you can translate the various notes into sounds on an instrument you love playing, it becomes possible to turn a written idea into a beautiful sound that others can enjoy.

Writing music can be a complex process. When put together, the five lines and four spaces on the treble or bass clef are called a “staff.”

Since we know that more than nine notes exist, composers must extend the reach of each staff by adding more spaces and lines. When you get to higher octaves, the number to add in each direction can become significant.

The 8va command, sometimes abbreviated as “8a,” offers a way to simplify that process.

What Does 8va Mean in Music?

When musicians see the term “8va” on sheet music, it’s an abbreviation that states for “all’ ottava”. That means the note should be played “at the octave”, or a full octave higher than what is indicated on the treble or bass clef. This designation makes it easier to notate in compositions with an extreme range.

The treble and bass clefs only provide five lines and four spaces. That means any notes that extend above or below it must have extra lines or spaces added to ensure the correct not gets played.

Although musicians can read sheet music with the extended notes above or below the standard notation area, the mental calculations required to produce the correct composition can be challenging.

Imagine that you have a C written above the staff. That note would be two lines up from the top, with a second line added for reference to the musician.

Let’s say that the composer wants the musician to play a C that’s an octave higher than that. If it were notated accurately, there would need to be five ledger lines above the staff. Then the note would be indicated on the sixth space.

Now put yourself in the composer’s shoes. Can you imagine notating those ledger lines and spaces above the staff for multiple notes on various instruments?

It would turn musical composition into a cumbersome practice of symmetrical lines and spaces above the staff.

That’s why the concept of 8va was created. Through shorthand commands, it indicates to the musician that they should play the same note at the next octave. This single notation saves significant time when writing music by hand.

Recognizing 8va in Sheet Music Today

When you see 8va in sheet music, it will appear above the first note that should be played “at an octave” higher than the note seen.

That means if you saw C2 indicated in the sheet music, you’d play C3 instead.

What makes the 8va instruction unique on sheet music is its extension. Composers can add a dotted line to indicate that a note series should all be played at a different octave. It can be done indefinitely, although it is usually only needed for 1-3 measures.

When the musician reaches the end of the 8va phrase, a small dash downward indicates to stop playing an octave higher. You’d then return to playing the notes as shown in the subsequent measure.

Most instruments can accommodate the octave change without much difficulty. Brass players would need to shift their embouchure tighter and blow more air while keeping the same valve configuration.

Many woodwinds have an “octave key” that makes it super simple to achieve the intended result.

Pianos and guitars are a little harder to manage since the musician would need to shift to different keys or frets to achieve the intended result.

Why Does the Sheet Music Say “Loco”?

When you see the word “loco” as a sheet music notation, it might be tempting to play those notes with a crazy style.

That might be fine if you’re using Spanish as the notation language. Most sheet music uses Italian terms, which means “loco” is directly translated as “in place.”

Musicians who see “loco” on their music should return to the normal playing position after receiving an 8va direction.

Once it appears, with or without a downstroke from the dotted lines, the instruction of playing in an unusual position from the previous passage gets negated.

You might see instructions like “à sa place” or “an seinem Platz.” These are French and German variations of “loco” and serve the same purpose.

Some English translations might use 8va with “sounding as written” to eliminate the need for dashes. This option also negates the command to play an octave higher.

What If I See 8va below the Staff in Sheet Music?

You shouldn’t see the 8va by itself as a command below the staff for treble or bass clef instruments. If it is there, it’s probably an error.

That’s because the 8va command doesn’t give you the option to play the lower octave. That means if you saw the C note on the treble clef below the staff with this notation, you’d play the C found in the staff on the third space.

It would be easier to notate the higher C in that circumstance.

In older sheet music, you could find the term “8va bassa” placed as an instruction below the staff. That order meant the musician should play the lower octave.

When a composer wants the musician to play an octave lower than what is indicated today, a different command is now considered the standard notation. It’s called “8vb.”

The other rules are the same for 8vb as for 8va, except the direction to play is reversed. You’ll see an upstroke instead of a downstroke to indicate a return to regular playing when you get to the phrase’s end for the music.

Some writing programs don’t offer an 8vb command. Instead, you’d see a degree symbol [8°], which communicates the same instruction to play an octave lower.

Since this shorthand is relatively new, some composers and copyists might use only the 8va command when they want 8vb.

If you’re unsure as a musician about what to expect, try reaching out to the composer – or feel free to interpret the music to something you can call your own.

What Are Octaves in Music?

An octave is typically meant as a pitch notation that exists above or below a specific note. On an 88-key piano, there are nine octaves indicated, starting with A0. The upper key is called C8. If you saw the 8va command while playing sheet music, you’d play the number up – such as C5 instead of C4, which is also called “middle C.”

Octaves are identifiable by several naming systems. The most popular are Helmholtz, scientific, and organ pipe.

You can also find different names for each octave. If you’re using a MIDI system for composition, other numbers also apply to the sheet music notation.

The following information serves as a reference for the various ways you might see the notes named or indicated while following the 8va command. In the table below, you see examples based on a C note.

ScientificHelmholtzOrgan PipeNameMIDI NumberMIDI Note
C-1C,,,64 footDouble Contra-50
C0C,,32 footSub Contra-412
C1C,16 footContra-324
C2C8 footGreat-236
C3c4 footSmall-148
C4c12 foot1 Line060

That means if you see the notation “1 Line” in your music, it is the same as playing “C4” or “60.” It would also be appropriate to call that a “middle C.”

Best Instrument to Experiment with 8va

If you’d like to experiment with different octaves while playing, several instruments provide a fun experience.

The piano and guitar are popular choices, but I prefer the Wilmington Alto E-Flat Saxophone.

Although a sax can be challenging to play, it also opens the door to other instrument possibilities. It’s not unusual for musicians to switch between the oboe or clarinet and their different versions.

You could also play a tenor saxophone or another variation.

What I love about this alto sax is the solid nickel body. That makes the instrument more expensive to use than other student-style horns, but I appreciate how it keeps the tone consistent on extended notes.

It’s a sweet sound with a balanced tone and a unique richness that you won’t find in other saxophones.

The Wilmington altos have an added contact key to give you a better low C-sharp that doesn’t bounce.

With this updated version, the bell flare is a bit different to deliver a polished look, incorporating with the keys to create an iconic piece that is gig-worthy once you take the instrument out of the case

The sax comes with a 90-day warranty against factory defects. The pads are reliable, although you’ll need to swap them out as you would with any similar instrument.

I highly recommend upgrading to a hard case with this investment. It comes in something like a guitar soft-sided gig bag.

Learning how to read sheet music can take time. When you know how to play and incorporate the 8va command, you’ll discover new musical worlds to explore!


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