Definition and background:
Abbreviation for all' ottava or "at the octave." This indication is most often found above specific notes on a staff and indicates that those notes should be performed one octave higher than written. This indication can be used with a dotted line that covers a series of notes to be performed at the octave (above). The dotted line should end with a downstroke to indicate the end of the passage to be altered. The end of the passage can also be indicated by the term loco ("at place") or perform at the written pitch. The use of this indication can also be extended to below the staff. If this indication is found below specific notes on a staff, it indicates that those notes should be performed one octave lower than written. This indication can be used with a dotted line that covers a series of notes to be performed at the octave (below). The dotted line should end with a upstroke to indicate the end of the passage to be altered. The end of the passage can also be indicated by the term loco ("at place") or perform at the written pitch. More often one would see 8va bassa, 8a b, 8vb or simply 8 below the note or passage to indicate performing an octave lower.This indication is used for two reasons. First, it provides a shorthand for composers and copyists to keep from writing music with numerous ledger lines. Second, it is often preferable to performers who have a more difficult time reading ledger lines than notes on the staff.This indication was at one time shown as 8a alta (alta meaning alt or high). Also 8.
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Wikipedia - Glossary of Musical Terminology
Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary
ORB -- Medieval Music Glossary