1. Please take 30 seconds to register your free account to remove most ads, post topics, make friends, earn reward points at our store, and more!  

Notating very high bass notes

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Ant Illington, Jan 20, 2017.

  1. Ant Illington

    Ant Illington I'm Anthony but I'm only illin' Banned


    I'm an electric bass player but I like to come here for certain things. I have no idea of what the practical range of the DB is so excuse me if I'm off...

    None of my practice involving reading has gone above the A at the 14th fret of the G string which is easy enough to read but I have neglected the last bunch of my fretboard (not that it comes into play much- I am primarily working up there just for continuity in playing multiple octave scales). I am working out efficient fingerings up there but I keep forgetting what I've come up with from day to day so I want to notate my fingerings. That's a lot of ledger lines! Granted this should be a short-term project and anything would work, I want the fewest impediments to my sometimes-feeble brain. So my question is about using 8va vs ledger lines. Is there a standard point at which things switch? I do note that the Berklee Chord studies book goes up to 5 ledger lines but I still have several frets to go. Your guidance is appreciated.
    davidhilton likes this.
  2. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    Extended passages of high notes are often written in tenor or treble clef for double bass players, e.g., the transcription of the Bach Cello suites I have probably has more written tenor clef than in bass clef.

    For me, 3 ledger lines is about all I want to read easily - after that, I start having to count from a note I know.

  3. I read tenor clef well, but I prefer treble. I prefer treble or tenor clef over ledger lines and 8va, but all work, and we need to deal with all of them.
  4. I would read up to the A you referred to in bass clef. If it goes higher, you need to use a different clef, I think 8va is only used in the highest clef (violin G clef) and 8vb only in the lowest (bass F clef).

    I know that violoncello, trombone and bassoon use the tenor clef for higher passages, f it goes really high maybe also the violin G clef.
    For double bass 'm not sure if the tenor clef is used at all, but the violin G clef could be used. Note that the double bass is a transposing instrument (don an octave) in any key you notate, so the open G string gets two ledger lines below in the violin G clef.

    If you change the clef, use it on the whole phrase, not only for the notes "out of range".

    The range of the double bass is larger than on a bass guitar. With a standard length fingerboard it is about two octaves and a fifth, with a long fingerboard two octaves and a minor seventh, but then you can use flageolet notes above, g, a, b.
    This is extended solo range, so stop at two octaves and a fourth, since this could be played on any double bass except period instruments (i.e. the baroque bass Violone or classical basses).
    So the whole G string could easily be notated in the treble clef and hopefully every bass player can read that (it's at least easier for the most of them than the tenor clef). But if the phrase doesn't get as high but lower than the open G, the tenor clef would be better.

    I don't have the book with me to check which clef is are used for double bass, but I have seen the violin clef in popular music (mostly when the bass players themes).
    Ant Illington likes this.
  5. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    My own order of preference for notes above B:

    1. Treble clef or 8va
    2. Tenor clef
    3. Ledger lines
    Carl Hillman and Ant Illington like this.
  6. Tenor is very common in solo rep. Especially older versions. There is enough around that it is just easier to learn to read it, and that also makes it easier to work from 'cello editions as well.
    Ant Illington likes this.
  7. Ant Illington

    Ant Illington I'm Anthony but I'm only illin' Banned

    Thank you all. Wow, there's a whole other world out there; I had no idea that other clefs would be used for bassists. I do read treble clef already and other bass priorities preclude my learning another clef for this task. I guess I'll just use the ledger lines and Finale to keep track of my fingering notations up there until they become 2nd nature. Thanks again.
  8. That's exactly the literature I don't play. I do jazz and orchestra but no classical solo.
    A universally educated player should be able to read it all, but for the OP it might be more interesting what most of the players for that style of music are comfortable to read.

    BTW, the same with older orchestra editions for bassoon, more tenor clef, less ledger lines.
    I think that is a historical thing, in Renaissance they tried to avoid any ledger lines at all (probably because that was hard so typeset), so they often shift the (same kind of) clef up or down a line to avoid ledger lines.
  9. BD Jones

    BD Jones

    Jul 22, 2016
    While I am comfortable with ledger lines and treble or tenor clef, I prefer 8va. If you are sticking to bass guitar, I'd work on reading either ledger lines or 8va. You don't see a lot of tenor or treble clef in bass guitar music.
  10. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Same here. I really prefer treble or even bass clef with 8va for higher notes. I am not fond of the tenor clef at all. There is no real need to use the tenor clef as a composer and the treble clef makes more sense. What I really hate is the constant switching between clefs that you see in a lot editions. Some even use three different clefs and that makes it harder to read and especially harder to see the contour of the melody line.

    As said the tenor clef is (fortunately) used less in modern editions but you see it a lot in older editions. So you have to be able to read it if you do classical solo repertoire.
    Unfortunately there no consensus on this and it would be nice to have consensus as it would make sight reading more easy for us bass players.
  11. If some of you have the book "Beyond Bars", you might have a look at the string section chapter. Unfortunately my copy is at home, so I cannot have a look before Thursday evening.

    Maybe you can find it in a university library.

    It's a more special thick book on notational conventions for composers and arrangers. More oriented on classical and contemporary art music, less oriented on popular music.
  12. I have no love for tenor clef, and see no reason to use it. But, whether you like it or not, it shows up in a significant amount of repertoire. Not only classic and old editions, but also many contemporary pieces and modern editions. For a classically trained bassist, it is an essential part of your education.

    I also don't see the point of 8va notation in bass clef. It's clear enough, but why wouldn't you just switch to treble? The 8va is really only necessary for very high harmonic partials. Speaking from experience (I read and perform a LOT of new music), I'm a bit more likely to make a mistake reading 8va -- if there's a lot happening on the page and I'm sight reading, my brain will filter that marking out. Reading clefs is automatic
    the_Ryan likes this.
  13. Bisounourse


    Jun 21, 2012
    Gent, Belgium
    This is interesting, but can someone help me with terminology (some of it gets lost in tranlation, and I am not familiar with the terminology).
    So as I understand, it relates to the following:

    Bass clef: Fa Clef
    Treble Clef: Sol Clef
    Tenor Clef: Do Clef or Ut Clef
    8va: notation where you have to play an octave above the notation as it is written
    Is this correct?
  14. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    When reading high notes in treble clef, which E does the bottom line of the staff represent?
  15. Almost. "Do clef" tells you the shape of the symbol, but they can move around. Alto and tenor clef are both C-clefs, but they are not same.

    It's the same E as the bass clef E above the staff with two ledger lines. Remember bass and treble clef share middle C, one ledger line above and below the staff respectively.
  16. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    I'm not familiar with "Ut Clef," but otherwise that is correct. We would be more likely to refer to bass clef as "F clef," treble clef as "G clef," and tenor or alto clef as "C clef."
  17. 640px-Middle_C_in_four_clefs.svg.
  18. bengreen


    Jan 26, 2016
    San Diego
    I know how to read tenor clef. I'm just not comfortable with it. It's a process of translation for me rather than "direct from the eyes to the fingers". I often end up having to memorize those passages. And I can't tell you how many orchestra parts I've seen with the note values penciled in above the tenor bits.

    I think the reason is simply that most of us have had keyboard studies at some early point in our musical lives and the treble clef became part of our internalized knowledge base. For me also, and perhaps likely for someone on the EB side, there was guitar (classical in my case) in the mix, also treble reading though transposing down an octave like the bass.

    Except for Bach and Schubert, I'm not really enamored with the bass solo literature. For Bach, after being unsatisfied with all of the heavily edited bass transcriptions, I've ended up running cello midi files (there's lots of them online) through notation software to come up with my own transposed but otherwise minimally adulterated versions. And no tenor clef, thank you!

    I do wish I was more facile with tenor. I feel vaguely inadequate for not being so. But it's like someone telling me the temperature in Centigrade. I don't "know" whether it means hot or cold until I change it over in my head to Fahrenheit (Degrees C times 2, minus 10 percent, plus 32). Which kind of slows down a "how's the weather?" conversation.

    In terms of where to switch, I'm pretty much in line with what I hear above: bass clef not much above A, treble not much below G. But try not to have a new clef every other note.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2017
  19. 1smileymn


    Aug 19, 2007
    Denver, CO
    For some reason 8va throws me off more than it should (anyone else have this problem?). I used to be able to read tenor clef in college, but as more of a jazz player now I prefer to jump into treble clef around a high "A."
  20. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    There are a lot of different ways to notate. Different things have been used over the years, and if you spend most of your time reading old or new editions, you could be surprised by some of what you see.

    First, the double bass is a transposing instrument. The open E in orchestral 4ths tuning that is notated one ledger line below the bass clef actually sounds an octave below that. It has become so rare to see music written "at pitch" that you rarely see anything down there, particularly in the lower range of the instrument. It also makes things complicated when you start seeing 8vb in parts, particularly in modern notation. That could be because the notation software the composer is using does not have the double bass in the correct octave for playback reasons, that could be because the composer is indicating the transposition that is largely just assumed, or that could be because they actually want the part played in the octave indicated by 8vb. Depending on what notes are written and the musical context, that can be either quite clear or quite ambiguous. Occasionally you will see solo repertoire written "at pitch" as well, with the G in the top space of the bass clef being the octave on the high G string in orchestral 4ths tuning. This can again get confusing at times because the intuition is to play it in the "normal" range of the instrument where that would be an open G, and if you see 8va at some point, which frame of reference is that from? In the solo repertoire the octave is often fairly obvious, but in chamber music or orchestral work, I have had to ask conductors or composers (if they are present) for clarification occasionally.

    The tenor clef is more common in older editions than it is in newer editions. There was a real aversion to bass music being written in the treble clef for a while, and you would encounter some really bizarre stuff with 8va bass clef, tenor clef, 8va tenor cleff, tons of ledger lines, etc. in some of those editions. Especially when frequent clef and octave changes happen, it can get really confusing as to where you are. The other point that is rarely mentioned is that most double bassists, cellists, bassoonists, trombonists, etc. who use the tenor clef are rarely familiar with with the clef any lower than about middle C. The reason we tend to use it is because we ran out of bass clef and need higher notes, so anything that gets really low in the tenor clef "should" have switched back to bass clef. I can read it a little more fluently from the time I spent playing viol, but when lines have big leaps in them to the bottom of the clef somewhere and it is a read through situation, it's largely a guess and hope for the best situation. The tenor clef also only adds a 5th of range in comparison to the bass clef. The D an octave and a 5th above the open G in orchestral 4ths is on three ledger lines, and that is about as many as I would like to read. That covers the upper range of the double bass in a bass section as it is very rare to play higher than that in an orchestral context, but the solo repertoire often goes higher.

    Enter the treble clef. This is much more common in newer editions, to the point where seeing the tenor clef is kind of unexpected. the solo register of the instrument lies in the staff a whole lot better, many people are already familiar with the treble clef from other musical studies, and unless you are really at the other end of the fingerboard, you are not reading crazy stuff above the staff. The issue with using treble and bass clefs and not the tenor clef is when the music is in the range from about the open D string to the D two octaves higher. The bass clef is not appropriate because you have too many ledger lines above it, the treble has the opposite problem, and switching back and forth between clefs can be messy/confusing. That is where the tenor clef excels, but is also a rare situation to find yourself in.

    Hopefully that clarifies a few things for those wondering how and why we use other clefs.

    As far as personal preference goes, I prefer to read whatever I am playing in our standard transposition of one octave higher, where the open E is the first ledger line below the bass clef. From there as long as an appropriate clef is used, I am indifferent as to if it is bass, tenor, or treble. 8va/vb notation bothers me as I strongly associate the notes on the page with where they are on the instrument and being asked to play "the same note" in a different octave bothers me. I also find it challenging to read treble clef down an octave for example if I am playing a melody from a lead sheet or something, as it is in the "wrong" place.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.