Pitch Notation & Octave Naming

Pitch notation is a way to identify frequencies—notably, piano octave numbers—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, instead of saying or writing "the C two octaves below middle C," you would use the notation C2.

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.
    1. Full SPN keyboard
  2. Helmholtz Pitch Notation
    German system. Middle C is ci.
    1. Full Helmholtz keyboard with variations
  3. English Pitch Notation
    Similar to Helmholtz but differs in the lower octaves. Middle C is c1.
    1. Full English keyboard
  4. Solfège Notation
    Romance language system. Uses words and numbers to name notes. Middle C is do3.
    1. Full solfège keyboard
  5. MIDI Notation
    Used to convert computer commands into musical pitch. Middle C is note #60.
    1. 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, which is 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.”