I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

  • provides labels for specific musical frequencies by combining a note name (such as C) with a subscript octave designation (such as 4).
  • A is a discrete tone with an individual frequency (e.g. C4), while a is less specific (e.g., C in general).
  • ASPN differentiates between , from C to B. The octaves are labeled from lowest to highest, beginning with 0 and continuing in ascending numerical order (1, 2, etc.).
  • A piano keyboard primarily uses the ASPN octave designations 1 through 7, although small portions of octaves 0 and 8 are included.
  • is C4 in ASPN. It is helpful to memorize the ASPN label of this note as a starting point.

American Standard Pitch Notation and Pitch versus Pitch Class

In order to discuss specific notes, or , we will use American Standard Pitch Notation, abbreviated . ASPN designates specific musical pitches by combining a note name (such as C) with a subscript designation (such as 4), creating a bipartite label (for example, C4). ASPN labels are very useful, since they can identify every possible musical note within human hearing range, from the lowest pitches to the highest.

The Reading Clefs chapter introduced , the concept that explains why notes one or more octaves apart have the same letter name. Music theorists distinguish between a pitch, a discrete tone with an individual frequency (e.g. C4 using ASPN), versus a , which is less specific (e.g., C in general). A pitch class includes all the pitches with the same letter name, in any octave, along with their enharmonic equivalents. For example, all Cs are the same pitch class, and the enharmonically equivalent notes D𝄫 and B♯ are also part of the C pitch class. In this chapter we are naming specific pitches with ASPN.

ASPN and Octave Designations

ASPN differentiates between , beginning with the pitch C and ending with the pitch B. This means that each new octave designation begins on the note C, as seen in Example 1. The octaves are labeled from lowest to highest, beginning with 0 and continuing in numerical order (1, 2, 3, etc.). The pitch is C4, which is useful to memorize.

Nine different octaves are shown in the treble and bass clefs, each beginning and ending with the pitch "C." They are labeled with their ASPN label; C0, C1, C2, etc.
Example 1. ASPN octave designations; each octave begins with the pitch C.

 

All letter names within an octave (below the C of the next octave) receive the same octave designation. For example, all of the notes in Example 2 would be designated in the 4 octave, because they are above C4 but below C5. Accidentals applied to a note do not have an effect on its ASPN number. For example, B♯3 and C4 have different octave numbers despite being enharmonically equivalent, because the B♯ is still considered part of the lower octave.

The notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B in a treble clef
Example 2. The notes C4, D4, E4, F4, G4, A4, and B4.

ASPN and the Keyboard

ASPN labels are very helpful for finding specific notes on the piano keyboard. Example 3 depicts a piano keyboard with each octave labeled using ASPN notation. As you can see, the piano keyboard spans the full octaves 1 to 7. It also contains a small part of both octaves 0 and 8. ASPN labels are the same regardless of instrument or voice type. In other words, a C4 will always be labeled as such regardless of whether it is produced with a flute, trombone, violin, or voice.

A piano keyboard with each octave labeled by number. The first two white keys are the "0" octave; each new octave (octave 1, octave 2, octave 3, etc.) starts at the note "C."
Example 3. A piano keyboard with ASPN octave designations labeled; both colored notes (blue and yellow) fall into the octave 4 designation.

 

ASPN and Staff Notation

Example 4 shows ASPN labels for common notes in the treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs. Memorizing the location of C4 in each clef can make finding ASPN labels quicker and easier.

Example 4. ASPN labels for notes in four clefs.

Online Resources
Assignments on the Internet
  1. ASPN Labels and Staff Notation (.pdf)
  2. ASPN Labels, pp. 23, 27, and 28 (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing and Identifying ASPN Labels (.pdf, .docx)

Media Attributions

  • Octave Designations
  • Octave 4 ASPN Labels
  • Piano ASPN Labels

License

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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