Helmholtz note range notation and pronunciation


Helmholtz pitch notation is often used to specify ranges of notes in historical instruments. This could be a total range (the compass), or it could describe a device like a keyboard or a lever that’s used to operate a part of the compass. In musicology or organology research domains the English variant seems to be the preferred notation in the running text.

Two questions:

  1. How standard is this format, and where can I find a comprehensive description for it?
  2. How do you pronounce it?

Partial answer:

Naming the octaves is clear from the description on dolmetsch.com. So simple ranges:

  1. C-c’’’
  2. FF-c’’’

are pronounced as:

  1. “great octave c through three-line octave c”
  2. “contra octave f though three-line octave c”

There could be missing notes in the beginning of the series; and sometimes also at the end, and this is written like so:

  1. GG,AA-c’’’,d’’’

You all know that the layouts known as “short octaves” have notes in a specific order which is written as:

  1. C/E-c’’’

which could be pronounced as:

  1. “contra octave g, a, though three-line octave c, d”
  2. “great short octave c, e, through three-line octave c”

Quite a number of historical harpsichords have a layout in the bass end that’s different in some other way, for example it could be “broken”, which is then often written as:

  1. C/E-c’’’ with split sharps D/F# and E/G#

Here a short octave is used, but the accidentals are not omitted. Still, it’s probably pronounced as:

  1. “great short octave c, e, through three-line octave c with split sharps on great octave d and e”

Finally, in Peter Williams’s New organ history, a more advanced notation system is described to refer to an organ’s stops and keyboard combination.
Because of the pandemic, I can’t have the book with me at the moment, but if I remember correctly, an interrupted range is meant to refer to the pedal keyboard’s highest note:

  1. CC-f’-c’’’

which, I suppose, could be pronounced as:

  1. “contra octave c through one-line octave f pedal range, and three-line octave c keyboard range”

One can also refer to a divided bridge (FF-F,G#-f’’’) or a bass (FF-c’) and treble (c#1-f’’’) section for split registers etc. English is not my main language, and I’ve heard many people struggle with this. Please let me know what you think is a good colloquial American or British style to use, say, on radio or podcasts, for an audience of peers (those who are familiar with the notation through reading). It’s not clear to me how to unambiguous and fluent at the same time for certain expressions. Also it would be nice if you’d contribute references to descriptions like the one Dr Williams made.

I’m also thinking about programming a parser which can transform a subset of these rules to a series of notes in another format (like integers in the MIDI standard), which can then be used to draw a keyboard (in TikZ, LaTeX).

I have no idea how to pronounce the pitches and suspect that other
people don’t either, so I just give up and say “C below the bass staff”
or “F an octave above the top of the treble staff” or whatever.

As to how to pronounce these ranges, I have no idea: certainly nothing like written below, which i would have trouble parsing in a normal conversation.

For C/E-d’’’ I think I say short octave c e to d3. Beyond that it gets complicated. Generally we know which octaves we are talking about in this context.


On The Sensations of Tone, Hermann Helmholtz, English edition p 15. It’s a comprehensive as you can get, because it’s simply a trivial notation convention. There are lots of variants - there is no ISO standard for Helmholtz.

Pronounce it however you want. Since the notation uses primes and subprimes, that’s what I say: f triple prime, or c double subprime. But often I will say f 3 and it’s clear from context.

Organ builders have their own variants, as you note.

I don’t think you should straightjacket people into a single pronunciation. That’s far too prescriptive. I think the possibilites for missed communication in spoken language are small - people understand a dozen ways to say this. As for ‘three line octave’ and so on - I have never heard any person actually speak that.

I observe that Mr Pickett also says d3, as I do.

Ah, thanks for the responses.

While I would indeed assume that short octave c e to d3 indicates a short octave at C/E, I think many other “great” and “contra” octave references could be ambiguous. Are these terms not really used, then? Is “three-line” or “three-accented” found in English handbooks? I have heard many people struggle with “c lower octave” (lower than what?) or “c below middle c” (which one is in the middle, again?). Especially when switching languages.

I’m not really arguing for anything. Again, I got the “three line octave” expression from here. It corresponds to the French, Dutch, and German words, while I haven’t often heard the expression with a number suffix in those languages. Actually, I remember that even when terms like “drie-gestreept oktaaf” were introduced in schools when a good Dutch handbook (2009, Gistelinck) on music theory appeared, it took quite some time to catch on in my area.

For quite a number of years now I have been reading English articles and books aloud to improve fluency in academic language (and to better comprehend what is written). So I have been sitting on this question for some time.

/C below middle C/ is quite unambiguous, as middle C is universally
agreed to be c’. The c below that is commonly referred to as “tenor c”.
There must be other short cuts that we use in English, as I dont recall
ever having to use the long descriptions in your original post.


I find the various systems systems which use subscripts and superscripts, coupled with upper and lower case, coupled with doubled letters, hopelessly confusing and inconsistent: how can you know for certain which system a particular person is using? As a piano technician, I became used to the system pretty much universally used in that field, at least in the United States, and I use it exclusively. The lowest C on the standard piano is C1, top is C8. Below C1 we use 0, so A0 is the lowest note on a standard piano.

This covers the useful range of pitches and is unambiguous. Once you have memorized the fact that middle C is C4 and A440 is A4, the rest is quite straightforward.

This is the exact same standard naming that MIDI uses, which has become universal.


I don’t know why organ builders and makers don’t adopt this. It’s clear, simple - and easy to pronounce (bart!).

Much as I admire Helmholtz as a scientist, I think we can consign his quaint 19c notation to the rubbish bin of history.

Dear Andrew. I understand your arguments. However, this group cares about performance on historical instruments. Most of what we read is musicology, and Helmholtz notation is, by far AFAIK, the most common notation in modern musicology on historical performance and instruments. I would not dare to try and change what has become, in English-speaking countries, a true standard, again AFAIK.

Just checked briefly. Helmholtz is taken for granted by English-speaking Europeans. I see this ranging from Denis Arnold’s (ed.) The New Oxford Companion to Music (1983) to the late Peter Williams in his last book, Bach, A Musical Biography (2016), see p. xii.

However, I see now that it appears not to be so common in other Continents.
Fenner Douglass (The Language of the Classical French Organ, 1969 rev. 1995) uses Helmholtz. But Ed Kottick, also in the USA, uses a modified-Helmholtz, in which CC, C, c are the same, but then instead of the apostrophes ’ ‘’ ‘’’ he uses superscripts (looking like powers) 1 2 3.

Needless to say, the system is not in use in non-English-speaking countries like Italy.

It may be that this group focuses mostly on historical instruments (and their replicas), and performance of music of their time. I wonder, though, do most harpsichordists read from original clefs and original manuscripts? Some do, of course, but in communicating to the non-specialist, or in teaching how to play the instrument and its repertoire, we almost exclusively use modern G and F clefs, no?

If you really want to converse authentically, you need to use the re fa ut style nomenclature of Guido d’Arezzo. How many are versed in that?

Some things are worth preserving, others are not. Helmholtz came long after Frescobaldi (who probably would have used Guido’s system to name notes). Why choose to preserve Helmholtz over Guido?

Well, the problem with piano notation for US, is that because of the simple usage conventions by which we harpsichord makers communicate with each other, it actually introduces more things to say and keep track-of. For what it is worth - and note, that just like those clunky proposed pronunciations found in the research of our original poster, and this is NOT a criticism of that poster - the usage that most harpsichord makers use when discussing harpsichord notation over a few beers at the end of the day is itself simply a usage that has evolved in everyday communication.
C/E - f’’’ C-E to f-three -pronounced “See - Eee”
FF-f’’’ F-F to f-three pronounced “Eff, Eff.
c’’’ or c with numerical superscript looking like ‘cubed’ - pronounced “C-three.”
c” or, ditto, squared… pronounced “C-two”
c’ pronounced ‘middle c.’
c or, to avoid ambiguity by many of us, written c with a numerical superscript of a zero - pronounced ‘tenor c.’
C - pronounced “See”
CC - pronounced See See.
It only looks more complicated when written out.

So when I discuss with a colleague my proposed scaling, or observed scaling from data on some instrument, I might say something like 'the c-two equivalent scaling of f-two (c" eq of f") is …xxxx", but what do you think of the weird way the scale gets stretched somewhere between f-two and c-three, eh?


There are a few of us here who actually encourage the use of C clefs and staves with more than five lines. Apropos of which, it would seem to me the it would be helpful to teach these to the student from the word go, rather than keeping exclusively to modern notation.

The ancient hexachord nomenclature predates most of our repertoire. It is based on singing and, though it would be relevant to some models of clavichord, the compass of harpsichords exceeds it at both ends.

Gamma ut = G (Helmholz) and E la = e’’

Moreover, there are two instances of some names, an octave apart:

Sol Re Ut = g AND g’.

So, while in some cases, this system might be considered more authenticke, it would also be ambiguous.

As far as MIDI is concerned, I personally find it hard to recall which number is assigned to which octave.

I have no problem with c’’ being written as c² – as long as the 2 is not too small for my old eyes!