Music Guide #4 – List of musical expression
Dynamics are indicators of the relative intensity or volume of a musical line.
Extremely soft. Very infrequently does one see softer dynamics than this, which are specified with additional ps.
Very soft. Usually the softest indication in a piece of music, though softer dynamics are often specified with additional ps.
Soft; louder than pianissimo.
Moderately soft; louder than piano.
Moderately loud; softer than forte. If no dynamic appears, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.
Loud. Used as often as piano to indicate contrast.
Very loud. Usually the loudest indication in a piece, though louder dynamics are often specified with additional fs (such as fortississimo – seen below).
Extremely loud. Very infrequently does one see louder dynamics than this, which are specified with additional fs.
Literally “forced”, denotes an abrupt, fierce accent on a single sound or chord. When written out in full, it applies to the sequence of sounds or chords under or over which it is placed.
Also decrescendo A gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended in the same manner as crescendo.
A gradual increase in volume.
Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the passage.
Dynamics with 3 letters (i.e., ppp and fff) are often referred to by adding an extra “iss” (pianissimo to pianississimo). This is improper Italian and would translate literally to “softestest” in English, but acceptable as a musical term; such a dynamic can also be described as molto pianissimo, piano pianissimo or molto fortissimo and forte fortissimo in somewhat more proper Italian.
Other commonly used dynamics build upon these values. For example, “pianississimo” (represented as ppp) meaning so softly as to be almost inaudible, and fortississimo, (fff) meaning extremely loud. In some European countries, use of the loudest dynamics has been strongly discouraged as endangering the hearing of the performers. A small s in front of the dynamic notations means subito (meaning “suddenly” in Italian), and means that the dynamic is to change to the new notation rapidly. Subito is commonly used with sforzandos, but can appear with all other dynamic notations, most commonly as sff (subitofortissimo) or spp (subitopianissimo).
A section of music in which the music should initially be played loudly (forte), then immediately softly (piano).
Another value that rarely appears is niente or n, which means “nothing”. This may be used at the end of a diminuendo to indicate “fade out to nothing”.
Articulations (or accents) specify how to perform individual notes within a phrase or passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note. They may also appear in conjunction with phrasing marks listed above.
This is to indicates the musician should play the note shorter than notated, usually half the value; the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.
Staccatissimo or Spiccato
This is to indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making the note very short. Usually applied to quarter notes or shorter. (In the past, this marking’s meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent and not staccato. These usages are now almost defunct, but still appear in some scores.) In string instruments this indicates a bowing technique in which the bow bounces lightly upon the string.
Play the note louder, or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.
This symbol indicates play the note at its full value, or slightly longer. It can also indicate a degree of emphasis, especially when combined with dynamic markings to indicate a change in loudness, or combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (portato or mezzo staccato).
Play the note somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge). In organ notation, this means play a pedal note with the toe. Above the note, use the right foot; below the note, use the left foot.
A note, chord, or rest sustained longer than its customary value. Usually appears over all parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo. It can be placed above or below the note. The fermata is held for as long as the performer or conductor desires, but is often set as twice the notes’ original value.
Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes.
A rapid alternation between the specified note and the next higher note (according to key signature) within its duration, also called a “shake”. When followed by a wavy horizontal line, this symbol indicates an extended, or running, trill. In modern music the trill begins on the main note and ends with the lower auxiliary note then the main note, which requires a triplet immediately before the turn. In music up to the time of Haydn or Mozart the trill begins on the upper auxiliary note and there is no triplet. In percussion notation, a trill is sometimes used to indicate a tremolo (q.v.). In French baroque notation, the trill, or tremblement, was notated as a small cross above or beside the note.
Rapidly play the principal note, the next higher note (according to key signature) then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In most music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended. In handbells, this symbol is a “shake” and indicates the rapid shaking of the bells for the duration of the note.
Lower mordent (inverted)
Rapidly play the principal note, the note below it, then return to the principal note for the remaining duration. In much music, the mordent begins on the auxiliary note, and the alternation between the two notes may be extended.
When placed directly above the note, the turn (also known as a gruppetto) indicates a sequence of upper auxiliary note, principal note, lower auxiliary note, and a return to the principal note. When placed to the right of the note, the principal note is played first, followed by the above pattern. Placing a vertical line through the turn symbol or inverting it, it indicates an inverted turn, in which the order of the auxiliary notes is reversed.
The first half of the principal note’s duration has the pitch of the grace note (the first two-thirds if the principal note is a dotted note).
The 8va (pronounced ottava alta) sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to tell the musician to play the passage one octave higher. An 8va or, as alternative in modern music, an 8vb sign (both signs reading ottava bassa) is placed below the staff meaning play the passage one octave lower.
The 15ma sign is placed above the staff (as shown) to mean play the passage two octaves higher. A 15ma sign below the staff indicates play the passage two octaves lower.
8va and 15ma are sometimes abbreviated further to 8 and 15. When they appear below the staff, the word bassa is sometimes added.
Repetition and codas
A rapidly repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency to repeat (or alternate) the note. As shown here, the note is to be repeated at a demisemiquaver (thirty-second note) rate, but it is a common convention for three slashes to be interpreted as “as fast as possible”, or at any rate at a speed to be left to the player’s judgment.
In percussion notation, tremolos indicate rolls, diddles, and drags. Typically, a single tremolo line on a sufficiently short note (such as a sixteenth) is played as a drag, and a combination of three stem and tremolo lines indicates a double-stroke roll (or a single-stroke roll, in the case of timpani, mallet percussions and some untuned percussion instrument such as triangle and bass drum) for a period equivalent to the duration of the note. In other cases, the interpretation of tremolos is highly variable, and should be examined by the director and performers. The tremolo symbol also represents flutter-tonguing.
Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.
Denote that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. In the examples here, the first usually means to repeat the previous measure, and the second usually means to repeat the previous two measures.
Volta brackets (1st and 2nd endings, or 1st- and 2nd-time bars)
A repeated passage is to be played with different endings on different playings; it is possible to have more than two endings (1st, 2nd, 3rd …..).
(lit. “From top”) Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music from its beginning. This is usually followed by al fine (lit. “to the end”), which means to repeat to the word fine and stop, or al coda (lit. “to the coda (sign)”), which means repeat to the coda sign and then jump forward.
(lit. “From the sign”) Tells the performer to repeat playing of the music starting at the nearest segno. This is followed by al fine or al coda just as with da capo.
Mark used with dal segno.
Indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. Only used after playing through a D.S. al coda (Dal segno al coda) or D.C. al coda (Da capo al coda).
Bowed string instruments
Left-hand pizzicato or Stopped note
A note on a stringed instrument where the string is plucked with the left hand (the hand that usually stops the strings) rather than bowed. On the horn, this accent indicates a “stopped note” (a note played with the stopping hand shoved further into the bell of the horn). In percussion this notation denotes, among many other specific uses, to close the hi-hat by pressing the pedal, or that an instrument is to be “choked” (muted with the hand).
On a stringed instrument, a note played by stretching a string away from the frame of the instrument and letting it go, making it “snap” against the frame. Also known as a Bartók pizzicato.
Natural harmonic or Open note
On a stringed instrument, means to play a natural harmonic (also called flageolet). On a valved brass instrument, it means to play the note “open” (without lowering any valve, or without mute). In organ notation, this means to play a pedal note with the heel (above the note, use the right foot; below the note, use the left foot). In percussion notation this denotes, among many other specific uses, to open the hi-hat by releasing the pedal, or allow an instrument to ring.
Up bow or Sull’arco
On a bowed string instrument, the note is played while drawing the bow upward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with an upstroke.
Down bow or Giù arco
Like sull’arco, except the bow is drawn downward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with a downstroke.
Pedal marks appear in music for instruments with sustain pedals, such as the piano, vibraphone and chimes.
Tells the player to put the sustain pedal down.
Tells the player to let the sustain pedal up.
Variable pedal mark
More accurately indicates the precise use of the sustain pedal. The extended lower line tells the player to keep the sustain pedal depressed for all notes below which it appears. The ∧ shape indicates the pedal is to be momentarily released, then depressed again.
Senza sordino (or senza sordini), tre corde or tutte le corde
Tells the player to let the soft pedal up or, for other instruments, to remove the mute.
Con sordino (or con sordini), una corda
Tells the player to put the soft pedal down or, for other instruments, to apply the mute.