Pitch Notation & Octave Naming

Pitch notation identifies frequencies using letters, numbers, and/or symbols, allowing for the quick reference of a specific pitch. This lets you avoid having to explain a note by its position on the staff, or by its relative location on the keyboard (for example, C2 instead of “the C two octaves below middle C”).

Pitch Notation Systems

Scientific Pitch Notation labeled on the piano keyboard.
In each pitch-naming system, octaves start over on C; so each note after C1 is also followed by a 1 (D1, E1, and so on). The two notes on a piano keyboard that come before C1 are A0 and B0. Image © Brandy Kraemer

However, despite its goal of simplifying things, some confusion may arise with pitch notation because there are a few main systems in use; these are:

  1. Scientific Pitch Notation (SPN)
    American system, pictured above. Middle C is C4.
    • View full SPN keyboard with more info
  2. Helmholtz Pitch Notation
    German system; middle C is ci.
    • Full Helmholtz keyboard with variations
  3. English Pitch Notation
    Similar to Helmholtz but differs in the lower octaves. Middle C is c1.
    • Full English keyboard
  4. Solfège Notation
    Romance language system; uses words and numbers to name notes. Middle C is do3.
  5. MIDI Notation
    Used to convert computer commands into musical pitch. Middle C is note #60.
    • Full MIDI-labeled keyboard


Pitch Class & Octave Names

Octave naming on the grand staff.
Each octave begins on C; so C3 is in the third or “small octave,” and C4 is in the fourth or “one-line octave.”. Image © Brandy Kraemer

Pitch class simply refers to an octave from one C to the next. In pitch notation, the notes C4, D4, and B4 belong to the same pitch class: the fourth octave.

But, pitch notation is just one way of referencing notes. Each octave, as well as each C, has its own universal name. These are as follows:

  • Octave Names (pictured above):

    C0 - B0: sub-contra octave (A0 is the lowest pitch on a full piano)

    C1 - B1: contra octave

    C2 - B2: great octave

    C3 - B3: small octave

    C4 - B4: one-line octave, or 2nd small octave (contains both middle C and A440)

    C5 - B5: two-line octave, or 3rd small octave

    C6 - B6: three-line octave, or 4th small octave

    C7 - B7: four-line octave, or 5th small octave

    C8 - B8: five-line octave, or 6th small octave (C8 is the highest pitch on a full piano)
  • Names of the C-Notes:

    C0: triple pedal C

    C1: double pedal C

    C2: pedal C

    C3: bass C

    C4: middle C

    C5: treble C

    C6: top C or high C

    C7: double top C or double high C

    C8: triple top C or triple high C

All of the notes may be called out using these systems; F1 is also known as “contra F” or “double pedal F.”