Guitar music transposed up an octave

Hey Guys,

I’m part of a music theory group online, and an interesting discussion arose that piqued my interest.
I had no idea about this, and became a bit fascinated by the topic.

Basically, this is what I took from it;

The guitar is a transposing instrument - specifically by a full octave. So middle C on a guitar ( ie. B string, 1st fret) is actually an octave lower in relation to concert pitch. So, notes sound an octave lower than notated. As such, music notation for guitar is written an octave higher than it sounds. So, if you have a piece written for piano, transpose it up an octave for guitar.

What mysterious juju is this? :crazy_face:

I’ve been studying theory for a couple of years now, and have developed a reasonable foundation, specifically as it relates to guitar. However, I’m still very much a babe in music theory, and had no idea about this fascinating little rabbit hole.

I suppose it doesn’t have a direct affect on day to day playing, or development etc, but fascinating nonetheless, and would be interested in any input from the resident boffins - ie @Richard_close2u , @LievenDV , @stitch etc.

Cheers, Shane


I am no where near that rabbit hole. But have fun with that.

I don’t read notation so probably won’t be much help. What I do know is middle C can be played in 4 spots an an acoustic and 5 spots on an electric.
If I had to learn a piano peace on the guitar I do it by ear and use which ever C sounded good to me.

Yeah thanks @stitch. As you said, with playing a piano piece for example, you’d feel it out by ear and play notes, triads, arpeggios etc in certain areas if the fretboard, as to what sounds good.

Interesting topic though. I suppose I’m always on the lookout for concepts etc, that are not only interesting, but may have some practical application.

Cheers, Shane

I’ve just started to learn to read standard notation as part of the online piano course I’m doing, and I suspect that the transposition up an octave is a convention that has arisen in order that only one staff - the treble clef - is needed to write guitar music (with quite a few ledger lines above & below the staff, tbf) . I’m going out on a limb now, but I’d guess bass guitar parts can similarly be written solely on the bass clef.

resident boffins please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

Sounds like a logical explanation to me.

Yes, I did see mention of this. One stated that if werent the case, the guitar notation would need to be on a grand staff - a combo of treble and bass - so I imagine it would look messy pretty quickly ( and use twice as much paper).

Shane @sclay
Just started to learn standard notation using Justin’s book and not come across this in the book perhaps not got to that point yet but when I was looking around on the internet a while ago I came across an article that seems to confirm this.

I did see some YouTube videos noting/explaining this and was baffled and intrigued. It’s at least one octave above my head so just accepting it for what it is.

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I’m not a standard notation kind of guy really.

Within Guitar Pro, which I use a lot, there exists the option of viewing a guitar part with TAB only, TAB and standard notation on the treble clef, TAB and grand staff etc.

Here are several views of the G major scale E-shape (which spans two octaves).

TAB only

TAB & standard notation (treble clef)

TAB & standard notation (grand staff)

Notice how it has automatically re-tabbed the first eleven notes - showing the first ten as though played on a single string of a 6-string bass guitar, then the eleventh as a note out-of-pattern at fret 1 of the B string, before choosing what it thinks are the optimal fret locations for the notes. Notice too that the standard notation has dropped every note down on the clef by a full octave.

Standard notation only

And what is the end outcome of this doing?

In the immortal words of the agents in Burn After Reading:

[ warning - not safe for work ]


I always perceived it as a usability thing mostly, like discussed above.

So many instruments make a broad range from lowest to highest note and it’s sometimes easier to nudge a bunch of individual perpectives instead of trying to plot all notes of all ranges on such an elegant staff as it is. Actually, thinking about it, i couldn’t think of a better and more elegant way to solve that while the tool (the staff) remains universal and elegant enough.

Though, I’m no sheet music reader and I never have to deal wih this in real life practical situations.

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This Wikipedia article mentions some interesting explanations to why some instruments are transposed in standard notation:


Much appreciate Richard. Expected nothing less than this thorough expose. The subject doesn’t hold a great deal of practical significance I suppose. Therein ends the lesson. :crazy_face:.
(I could utilise that video in a few areas of my life to be honest :nerd_face:)

Cheers, Shane

Guitar is not really a treble instrument.

Middle C on a guitar is here


Middle C on a treble clef staff is here

So any note played below middle C on the guitar (and that means a lot of notes) will need to be placed on ledger lines below the staff. That makes it difficult to read.
By relocating middle C an octave higher, your fretboard now maps out like this


Thanks, for the pictures. This makes total sense!