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Music theory book

Performance directions

12.1 Dynamics

The dynamic markings are the symbols that tell a performer how loud or soft they should play. Traditionally these instructions are written in Italian and usually abbreviated.
Such signs include:

  • p = piano = soft
  • pp = pianissimo = very soft
  • mp = mezzopiano = medium soft
  • f = forte = loud (literally “strong”)
  • ff = fortissimo = very loud
  • mf = mezzo forte = medium loud
  • cresc = crescendo = getting louder (literally”growing”)
  • dim = diminuendo = getting softer (literally”diminishing”)
  • sfz = sforzato = forced, accented
  • rfz = rinforzando = literally “reinforcing”, i.e. increased tone on a note or a group of notes
  • smz = smorzando = dying away

A gradual change from soft to loud is indicated by the word crescendo and the opposite by the word diminuendo (abbreviated: cresc. e dim.). Alternatively these can be indicated using symbols known as hairpins.
A sudden change from loud to soft is indicated by the abbreviation fp. The opposite is indicated by the abbreviation pf.

12.2 Tempo indications

Here are some of the most common terms used to indicate the tempo of a piece:

  • grave = very slow
  • largo = slow
  • lento = quite slow
  • adagio = quite slow (literally “at ease”)
  • andante = medium pace, sometimes described as “at a walking pace” (literally “going”)
  • andantino = slightly faster than andante (but it is also used to mean slightly slower than andante – the term is ambiguous)
  • moderato = a moderate tempo
  • allegretto = slightly slower than allegro
  • allegro = a brisk tempo (literally “happy”)
  • vivace = lively
  • presto = fast
  • prestissimo = very fast
Other terms are also used to indicate tempo with greater precision, often by specifying a character for the music:
  • solenne = solemn
  • sostenuto = sustained
  • maestoso = majestic
  • marziale = martial
  • grandioso = grandly
  • scherzando = playful
  • giocoso = playful, humourous
  • deciso = decisive
  • agitato = agitated
  • appassionato = passionate
  • impetuoso = impetuous
  • dolce = sweet
  • tranquillo = tranquil
  • con fuoco = with fire
  • morendo = dying
  • funebre = sad, funereal
  • cantabile = singing
  • marcato = marked
  • grazioso = graceful
....and many others.
Changes of temp are indicated by the following terms (with their abbreviated forms in brackets):
  • accelerando (accel.) = getting faster
  • ritardando (rit.) = getting slower
  • rallentando (rall.) = getting slower
  • più mosso = getting faster (literally “more moved”)
  • animato = animated (faster)
  • stretto = getting faster (and often louder as well)
  • smorzando = dying away – getting slower and softer
  • ritenuto = getting slower

12.3 The metronome

To indicate the tempo with greater precision the metronome can be used. This is a device, mechanical or electronic, that can produce regular beats at a specified tempo.
Mechanical metronomes can produce beats in the range 40-208 beats per minute. Electronic metronomes often have a wider range of tempi.
The first composer to use a metronome was Beethoven.
Metronome beats are measured in units of time. For example:
esempio 1
Braille example 1
Braille example 2

12.4 I Expression marks

We give here, in summary, the principal expression marks since their interpretation can vary according to the instrument being written for.

12.4.1. Slurs.

Slurs are curved lines that connect two notes of different pitch and indicate that they should be played without any gap between the two sounds.

Examples of slurs:
esempio 2
Braille example

12.4.2 Phrasing lines

These differ from slurs only in that they connect more than two notes. The phrasing line is often not just a technical indication but also helps to clarify the melodic structure and in this case there may be slurs within the phrase.

Example of phrasing lines:
esempio 3
Braille example

12.4.3 Slurs within phrases

As mentioned above, slurs are sometimes found within phrasing lines, to clarify expression. For stringed instruments the curved lines connecting groups of notes indicate that they are to be played in a single bow stroke.
esempio 4
Braille example

12.4.4 Staccato

This is indicated by a dot over the note and means that the note must be separated (or detached) from the next note.

Written Played

esempio 5
Braille example

12.4.5 Staccatissimo – very staccato

This is indicated by wedges over the notes and means that they notes should be even more markedly detached from their successors.

Written Played

esempio 6
Braille example

12.4.6. Mezzo staccato (detached)

Notes played mezzo staccato are separated from one another very slightly. Whilst they are not legato they are not strongly staccato either. This is indicated by a combination of a legato line with staccato dots.

Written Played

esempio 7
Braille example

12.4.7 Emphasised notes – the tenuto mark

A short line, known the tenuto (literally “held”) mark, above the notes indicates a slight accentuation with a slight breath between the notes.
esempio 8
Braille example

If the notes require greater emphasis the following symbols can be used
> marcato
marcato molto

12.4.8 Slight emphasis

A combination of the tenuto mark with the staccato mark indicates slightly less emphasis than would be given for the tenuto mark on its own.
esempio 9
Braille example

12.4.9. The comma or breath

A comma placed at the end of a motif or phrase indicates a slight pause or breath. It is a characteristic sign in music for strings and for voices. If there is a fermata (pause) sign over the comma then the pause will be longer.
esempio 10
Braille example

12.5 Musical abbreviations

These are signs that facilitate either the writing or the interpretation of music. They include:

12.5.1 Repeat sign

This symbol is made of two lines and two dots and indicates that the passage contained between the two signs is to be repeated:
esempio 11
Braille example

Often, at the second repeat sign, we find bars marked with the numbers 1 and 2. The bar marked “1”, known as the “first time bar”, is only played when the passage is played for the first time. When the passage is repeated this bar is skipped and the bar marked “2”, known as the “second time bar”, is played instead:
esempio 12
Braille example

The instruction “D.C. al Fine” indicates the repetition of a piece from the beginning up to the point marked “Fine” (the Italian word for “End”).
There are other symbols for repetition that can be placed at any point in a piece. Here are some examples of how these symbols can be used:
esempio 13

12.5.3. Other repetition signs.

There are symbols which indicate the repetition of:

a note or un group of notes:
esempio 14
Braille example

a whole bar:
esempio 15
Braille example

or two bars:
esempio 16
Braille example

12.5.4 Reiterated notes

Reiterated notes are marked by writing transverse lines across or between note stems, as illustrated below:
esempio 17
Braille example

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