Music Performance Notation
What to play when
This section of the music notation portion is
dedicated to what I have called "performance notation." It is not
really about music so much as it is about directions to the performer on
how to perform it. Most of it is intuitive, even the symbols used
rarely require much explanation. Consequently, this part will more
resemble a dictionary than a tutorial. As I mentioned in the previous
section, if all you want to do is read just enough music to finish these
pages on music theory, you may safely skip this page entirely, and
perhaps the next one as well (on alternate notations). But, really,
this is pretty intuitive. Give it a look through; you probably won't
find much here that will dramatically challenge you.
You have already encountered the bar line. One variation is the
double bar. The most common version looks like the first one here:
||Repeat with repeat-from
The first bar type is found in every piece of printed music. It means
the end of the piece; if it is a longer piece, it may indicate the end
of a movement or large section. If you run into one in the middle of a
piece, it means you will be at that place in a little while (presumably
after a repeat of some variety).
If the second vertical bar is not thicker, as illustrated in the
next picture, it simply is dividing sections of the current piece, and
generally has little effect on performance, except that it is likely to
be the point at which one sees some instruction to jump to another
location (e.g., [Dal Segno], to be discussed presently).
The third one, you need to pay attention to, though. That means you need
to repeat some section of the piece. If you saw the fourth bar version
(repeat-from) a little earlier, that is the place to which you are
supposed to return. If you didn't have one, you are supposed to go back
to the start of the piece. Sometimes you will have the repeat-from bar
there at the beginning, but don't count on it. The repeat and
repeat-from signs can be combined as in the last illustration.
Generally, a repeat is a one time thing. It isn't like a GOTO
in a programming language that keeps you going over that same section
over and over until something tells you to get to the next part. In
fact, if you have a repeated sections, and then later get told
to go back to the start (or elsewhere within the piece, but before the
repeat), you ignore the repeat the next time you come to it, unless
there are specific instructions to do otherwise (which you could have
anyway, the composer may instruct you to repeat a section twice rather
than once, but that will have to be stated explicitly).
The one frequent exception is in a choral piece with verses. If
there are multiple lines of lyrics under the music, you are probably
going to repeat that section as many times as there are verses, and
there may not be any repeat signs at all, which is, for example, normal
But if that repeat does come on the last measure, it is doing
double duty, both as a repeat and as an end-of-piece marker.
On rare occasions, you may find two different segnos in a
piece. In order to distinguish them, one of them will be doubled.
Sometimes that is as simple as this: . But if the publisher's music typographer had too much time on his hands you may see this: . In either case, they have to tell you which one you are Dal Segnoing to, so you will see something like D.S. to tell you to go back to the double segno.
This sign is called a segno (Italian
for 'symbol', pronounced sey'nyo). The first time you see it in
a piece, you take note of its location, but otherwise ignore it. Later
you will probably see the instruction '' (Dal
Segno = 'to the symbol'). At that point, you jump back to the segno
and continue from that point (ignoring repeat marks this
A related instruction is (Da Capo = 'to the
top') which, predictably, means, jump back to the beginning of the
Either one of these instructions may be associated with the instruction,
'al Fine' (to the end). When you get this it means that the end
of the piece will not actually be at the end of the score. I will be
indicated by the first variety of double bar above, and (probably)
labeled 'Fine' (end). The first time you run into this, you ignore it,
since there is obviously more music to play. When you come to the
or , you jump back to the
indicated place and play up to the Fine, at which point you are done.
This is the coda symbol. The term
(coda='tail' in Italian) also describes what in modern pop might be
called an outro or a tag. Not surprisingly, then, the
symbol often indicates where it starts. This would, in itself, be
informative, but generally useless information, except as a place for
your band/orchestra director to tell you to start from during rehearsal.
However, in musical notation, it has another use, which may have little
to do with outros.
As with segno, the composer might need multiple codas. Fortunately,
typographers have not gotten to this one yet, so a double-coda is a
simple . Just as with the segno, the score
will have to tell you which one is intended with something like
As an instruction in music score, you will generally see them in pairs,
and will presently run into a or a in conjunction with 'al Coda.' In this case you obey
the instruction to jump to either the start (Capo) or the symbol
(), play (or sing) until you get to the first
and then jump to the next one.2
Those are the jumping around instructions that are common enough
to require Italian names and special symbols. The composer, of course,
is not limited to these instructions, and some of those other things
are quite common (like singing a refrain, for which there is no official
Italian musical term-which is not to imply that Italian songs don't
have them). If the composer wants you to do something else, she just has
to write the instructions into the piece (hopefully in a language that
you understand). Some things (like the repetition of hymn verses) are
just expected parts of the genre, which you are expected to know.
Of course, we know that the instrument we call a piano is
not always quiet. We have shortened the name from its original form
which was, 'piano-forte.' It was named this because, unlike its
predecessors, the clavier and the harpsichord, it could be played
either softly or loudly.
Getting louder more slowly is called a crescendo; getting
softer is a diminuendo (or decrescendo). These are
indicated by elongated arrows: or
, except generally much longer (alternatively, the
instructions can be simply written, particularly if they cover an even
longer period, and are usually abbreviated as cresc./dim.). If
the arrows are used, the idea is that their length determines the amount
of time covered by the process. A crescendo arrow that takes up the
space of three measures is expected to take three measures in time to
complete. Often there will be dynamics marker (,
, etc.) at the right end to tell you what the target
volume should be. This will certainly be true if the instruction has
been given by writing cresc. or dim.
If you see , that is sforzando ('forcing'),
it means you should play suddenly louder (relative to whatever your
current dynamics were), but then just a quickly back to your baseline.
works almost the same way.
Of course, some words have been re-appropriated by other,
often commercial, interests. Last night I had some "Allegro" coffee.
Ironically, it was decaffeinated.
Tempo (playing speed) is usually indicated
right at the start of a score, above the highest staff. It can be in
English (French, German, Swahili, etc.), but in order to keep musicians
from having to learn 14 languages to get by, convention dictates that
these instructions be in Italian, as are many musical instructions. You
will not actually need to learn Italian though, just a handful of
frequent terminology, some of which we have already seen. I will give
you a list of the most common, but if you see one you don't know, these
days you can just type it into your favorite search engine.4
A little Italian
|allegretto||somewhat less lively|
|andante||kind of slowly|
|andantino||slowly, but not that slowly|
|animato||animated, e.g. kind of quickly|
|largo||slowly and broadly||
|moderato||somewhere in the middle|
|prestissimo||as quickly as possible|
|presto||quick to very quick|
| || |
Some adjectives to go with that
|molto||more 'very' than assai|
|non troppo||not too much||
|un pochettino||a very little|
|un poco||a little|
| || |
And some of my favorites
|ad libitum||however you like|
|briliante||brilliantly (like anyone needs to tell you to play that way)|
|commode||lazily (my usual approach)||dolce||sweetly|
||Sometimes you have been playing at a certain tempo and the composer
wants you to slow down for effect, frequently right at the end. This is
how she tells you.
||OK, enough with the tempo change, back to regular speed (whatever
||You really are done. Hold this note (chord) until it fades out, or
until the conductor tells you to stop. If you are singing, this will
usually be right after you pass out.
More performance marks
Here are a bunch of others that don't fit so nicely
into the above categories.
If you see two numbers under some notes in a single piano bass line,
that is figured bass, not fingerings. That will be discussed later.
When I was in college, one of my professors encouraged us to distinguish
between slurs and ties, making the ties look more like sideways
brackets. Then in another class, the professor complained that I was
doing what the first prof. had told us to do. If you use Finale®
score software, you will see a distinction in color on the screen (slurs
are red), but when you print, that distinction is lost. For the reason I
gave in the text, performers are unlikely to confuse them, although if
you are slurring a passage with tied notes in it, you should still mark
||Fingerings. You might see some numbers next to the
notes. These are instrument specific, and they usually come from the
editor, not the composer. They are simply telling the player what
fingers the editor thinks should be used to play this passage. Unless
you know they come from the composer, you are free to disagree, although
paying attention will often get you out of a finger tangle in the next
||Down/up strokes. They are supposed to look like the frog
and tip of the violin bow, respectively. They indicate whether the note
should be played with a down stroke (stronger) or an up stroke. On
guitar and other plectrumed instruments, they mean whether the
strum/pluck is down () or up ().
The strength/weakness effect is generally similar. These may be
editorial marks, but sometimes they do come from the composer, since
they directly affect the sound.
||Arpeggio marks come right in front of a chord. They mean
that the chord is rolled (notes played quickly in succession, but as one
chord sound. On guitar, this means strumming slowly. On violin, it means
rolling the bow across the strings. On piano, it is like your fingers
are rolling up the chord. Etc.
Note that the second one has a small down arrow. Most arpeggios go up,
but if there is down arrow like that it means to arpeggiate top to
||Glissandos look a lot like arpeggios that have lost their
balance, but they sound very different. It means you are supposed to
slide from one note to the other (the first one is up; the second is
down). On a string instrument this is straight-forward. On a keyboard
you have to run your finger up the keyboard to simulate a slide. Other
instruments can pull it off with varying degrees of success (trombone:
easy; water glasses: not so much [well, you could try a straw]).
| or or both
||In a trill, the indicated note is actually played as a
quick successive alternation of itself and the next note up in the
current scale, although sometimes the next note down.
article has some examples.
||Turn and inverted turn (gruppetto). Where
0 = the starting note, 1 = a scale step up, and -1 a scale step down, If
the turn appears directly over the note it means the sequence 1, 0, -1,
0. If it comes immediately after the note the same sequence is preceded
by the 0. The inverted turn, logically enough, inverts that.
||Staccato. The little dot directly under or over the
note-head, indicates that it is to be played as a single short tone, but
it is still assigned the same time frame. So this quarter note with a
staccato mark would be played as a sixteenth note followed by a three
sixteenth (dotted eighth) rest.
||Tenuto. The is either an accent of sorts to ensure that you
play the whole note, or an indication of brief separation between notes.
It is never as short as a staccato.
||Accent. I hardly need to explain this. What exactly an
accent is may depend on the style of music. Usually it involves a slight
swell in volume for the duration of that note. It may just be a stronger
attack, or some other method of playing that makes that note stand
| In this fragment, the slur is the part with the
sideways parenthesis over it. What is the difference between a slur and
a tie? Whether the notes being connected are the same—try slurring
two of the same note and see what you get.6
||A slur is the opposite of staccato; it runs the notes
together. How this is expressed depends on the instrument. With
breath-controlled instruments like the trumpet or clarinet, this usually
means playing with a continuous breath, and without allowing your tongue
to interrupt the flow of sound even briefly. On plucked and fretted
instruments it generally refers to not replucking the string-using
hammer-ons and pull-offs. On bowed instruments it is a single continuous
bow motion. In vocal scores with lyrics, it is usually used to connect
notes that are sung as part of the same syllable in the text (melisma).
Some instruments, like the piano, don't really have a different way of
producing slurs, in which case it is usually the same as legato, and
functions mostly as an indication of phrasing, with no separation
between the notes.
||Legato is pretty much the rest of the time: No clear
separation between notes, but usually with independent attacks (tongue,
breath, plucking, syllabification, etc.).
Like any language, music notation is a constantly moving target. It
expands to include new approaches to both playing and composition. New
notational ideas, however, often take some time to catch on-to have some
recognized acceptance. At the same time, archaic aspects of the language
slowly fall out of use until only a few people remember what they mean.
'Outro' as the new name for 'coda,' for example. This is not to say that
there are not some differences, only that they are not as radical as
modern performers often assume.
The majority of popular musicians, even many professionals, do not
become familiar enough with music notation to read it fluently. That
does not mean that music has changed that much. This situation has
required modern musicians to develop their own new language, often for
the same old things.7
Acknowledging the Competition
There are also parallel competing notation methods with long histories,
and some of them have a life of their own. On the next page in this series we
will look at some of these competing notation approaches. In some cases
this is just historical curiosity, but in others I can guarantee that
you will run into them.