Octave Signs Meaning and History

What are Octave Symbols in Music?

Perfect octave Symbol on COctave signs are a special symbol seen in music. Unlike many of the other symbols seen on sheet music this one is rare but is still an important item to understand when it is seen on a piece of music. These special symbols tell a musician when to take the music as written and then transpose it up an octave.

To understand the octave scale symbol a musician must first understand the scale. The musical scale is divided into octaves. On a piano, an octave is comprised the notes from any C to and including the C next above, giving you eight notes hence the name “octave”. When you hit the C above your starting C you’ve went an octave higher in sound. The pitch will sound higher and it continues to go higher as you continue down the keyboard. All scales, no matter the starting note, has eight notes and will go from starting note to the next highest note.

An octave sign usually appears above the note that it effects. If it affects several notes within the same measure together you will see a dotted line going from the sign to the last note that is affected by the octave sign. Anything underneath those lines will be required to be played an octave higher than what is written.

To know that you must play the notes an octave higher you will see an 8va on the music. On occasion you will also see an entire piece of music that is to be played as an octave higher than written. This happens rarely and there will either be a notation at the top of the piece of music that instructs the musician to play 8va or, even more rarely, you will see an octave clef. This is made from a traditional clef, Treble, Bass, or C clef, that has an 8 written underneath. This is a signal to the musician that this piece is to be played an octave higher than written.

Octave signs can appear anywhere within a piece of music but they are used sparingly. These symbols are not often used as it can make sight reading a piece of music correctly a difficult tasks. Like changing notes from natural to flats with multiple accidentals, octave signals can throw a musician off if used too often.

This symbol typically shows up on a piece of music when it would be easier for the musician to transpose the music up an octave rather than trying to count ledger lines. Pieces that require the use of ledger lines are simple to read but if you need to take those notes on the lines up an octave it can be difficult to site read, as notes that high are seldom used.