Little music signs always throw people off.
There are so many out there; it’s tough to know what every single one means.
One day, I was playing in a band when the musician next to me leaned over and pointed at his music.
He was asking: What do 8va and 8vb mean in music?
Most people won’t see this marking in their music. It’s only really common in piano and the high and low instruments.
Still, everyone may come across it at some point. Here’s what it means:
In music, 8va and 8vb are octave signs and change the note without having to move it on the staff way up or down. 8va means to play the notes up one octave. 8vb means to play them down one octave. This means they still are given the same pitch/letter name, but it’s played higher or lower.
As a tuba player and music teacher by trade, I’m used to talking about this and seeing it.
In the rest of the article, we’ll talk about some of the nuances around this marking and why it’s used in the first place.
Octave Sign – 8va And 8vb
8va Music Symbol Definition
As much of our music words came from Italy and the Italian language, it’s only natural that this symbol comes from an Italian word.
The 8va sign is short for ottava. The word stands for octave or 8 notes.
When you see the word ottava or the symbol, 8va, you play the written note 8 tones higher than what’s written.
This means the note name stays the same; it’s just one octave higher.
So if you see a G in the middle of the treble clef staff with an 8va symbol, you play it as if it were on the top of the treble clef staff.
8va may also be paired with the term loco.
When you see this symbol, it means to start playing the notes back as written.
8vb Music Symbol Definition
When we want to play notes one octave below, composers use the term 8va bassa or ottava bassa.
Over time, this was shortened to 8vb or 8ba.
Interestingly, 8vb is a term that only started showing up when classical music started to rise in America.
Now, it’s accepted everywhere, though not as common still in Europe.
Most notation software use 8vb, but some that are strictly based out of the U.S. may not.
Instead, you’ll have to use or read the 8va bassa marking.
How To Know If 8va Or 8vb Is For A Single Note Or The Whole Phrase
As simple as this sounds, composers and arrangers don’t always use the markings in the exact same way.
Sometimes, you’ll only use the marking for a single note.
Other times, you’ll go on for a whole phrase.
You might see dots or boxes or none at all.
Here are a few of the variations of the octave signs you may find:
|What you see||What it means|
|8va with bracket* or dotted lines||Play up an octave until bracket is done|
|8vb or 8va bassa** with bracket* or dotted lines||Play down an octave until bracket is done|
|8va with a note in parenthesis||Play a single note up one octave|
|8vb with a note in parenthesis||Play a single note up one octave|
|8va or 8vb with dots followed by loco||Play all notes up or down an octave until the word loco, then play as written|
|8va or 8vb with other marks until the word loco||Play all notes up or down an octave until the word loco, then play as written|
|The number 8*** with dots written above the staff||Play all notes below the dots up one octave|
|The number 8*** with dots written below the staff||Play all notes above the dots down one octave|
*It doesn’t matter if the marking is above or below the music if you see the “va” or “vb.”
**8vb and 8va bassa always mean the same thing.
***The main difference here is that the number, 8, has no “va” or “vb” to tell you whether to play up or down.
Why Do We Use 8va And 8vb In Music?
If all this seems confusing, octave signs were actually invented to help you.
When you play really high or really low, you need to use little lines called ledger lines to show the notes.
After a couple of these, it gets harder to read.
Using the octave signs saves room for writing and lets you read the notes in a place where you’ll instantly recognize the note.
Usually, you only see this on instruments with extremes in their range.
Common examples include:
- Piano and other keyboard instruments
- String Bass; Double Bass
Octave Signs For Piano: 8va And 8vb Symbol
Piano being the instrument with the most accessible range, it uses octave signs all of the time.
All the rules we talked about before do apply to the piano, but many people will ask if this symbol applies to both hands when you see it.
No. The octave sign only applies to the staff if it’s by. The right-hand plays the top staff (treble clef most of the time), and the left-hand plays the bottom staff (bass clef most of the time).
If the composer, arranger, or transcriber wants both hands to be up or down, they’ll use the phrase “both hands” to let you know.
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What Does 15ma Mean?
15ma is a rare symbol and use almost exclusively by piano music.
It stands for the phrase quindicesima, which means 15 notes higher.
Despite the number, it doesn’t actually want you to play only 15 notes higher; you need to play two octaves higher.
You’ll rarely see this written as 15mb or 15ma bassa. The bass clef covers the low end of the piano well enough it’s not needed.
Commonly Asked Questions
What Does 8va Mean In Bass Clef?
The 8va sign still means to play up one octave or 8 notes in bass clef.
While it does seem easier to simply switch the clef to treble clef and read it normally, this may not be practical if it’s only happening for a short period.
What Does 8vb Mean In Treble Clef?
By a similar token, if you see the 8vb sign in treble clef, it means to play down one octave.
Yes, bass clef would be easy to read here, but another reason to avoid switching clefs is familiarity.
If you’re on an instrument unfamiliar with bass clef, it’ll actually hinder you from reading it.
What Does Con 8va Mean In Music?
Con 8va is a rare musical symbol that translates to “with octave.”
With this mark, the highlighted melody or line needs to be played both as written AND up one octave.
It sometimes happens on the piano when they want one hand doubling the melody.
It’ll also happen on occasion in wind instrument music for orchestra or band when the composer wants both high and low versions of the melody played.
In this case, the section should split into two equal groups (or with one extra person on the low part if the section contains an odd number of people) to play the melody.