Music Expression – The Marks on Musical Sheets

Music expression is the surface details of musical sound. Thus it is how the music is played or expressed.

Why do people listen to music? It is because music expression grabs our attention and evokes our emotional response.

In order to read, write or understand music, one must learn the expression signs, words, and abbreviations, in other words, the musical vocabulary.

Basic Terms

Let’s first define some of the commonly used terms in the music world.

melodyA melody is a succession of single tones.
chordA chord is a combination of tones sounded together.
triadA triad is a three-note chord.
phraseA phrase is a short musical sentence or thought.
The phrase usually ends on a longer note, or at the end of a rhythmic pattern.
periodA period is normally made up of two phrases.
It is often built of similar or parallel melodic tones.

The following are a few examples that relate to these terms.

music expression: basic terms
music expression: phrase and period

Expression Marks

The expression marks on the music scores serve multiple purposes:

  • How the tones are related to each other: for instance the slur and tie marks.
  • When sections of a music piece are to be repeated.
  • Dynamics of tones

Slur and Tie

In music scores, you see curved lines drawn above or below groups of two or more notes. The curved line is the slur. Usually, this means you play or sing the notes smoothly together (we use the Italian word legato).

Sometimes, people may think the slur and legato are the same. They are actually different. The slur is a marking (the curved line), while the legato is a technique to perform the tones.

A tie is a curved line connecting two notes of the same letter name and pitch. You will only play the first note and hold for the second note.

music expression: slur and tie

Marks for Repeating

There are various signs to indicate to repeat a section or multiple sections.

Marks

Meaning

Example

repeat symbol

return to the beginning or to another double bar with two dots

two dots bar line for repeat

D.C.

Da Capo – means to repeat from the beginning and play to the word Fine (the end)

da capo example

D.S.

Dal Segno – means to repeat from the segno sign 𝄋 to the word Fine (the end)

Dal Segno example

1st and 2nd endings

when repeating the second time, it goes to the 2nd ending, then either continues to another section or ends the piece.

music expression: 1st and 2nd endings
coda sign

From the “to Coda” sign, jump to the coda section and to the end.

music expression: coda example

Dynamics

In the article What are the Tone Characteristics? we introduced the tone dynamics and related expression chart which is the same as the below chart.

TermMusical SymbolDefinition
fortissimoffvery loud
fortefloud
mezzo fortemfmoderately loud
mezzo pianompmoderately soft
pianopsoft
pianissimoppvery soft

Changes in dynamics can be progressive and extend over a period of time. That is where the crescendo and decrescendo come into play.

  • A crescendo is a continuous increase in the volume of sound.
  • A decrescendo is a gradual decrease in the volume of tones. A decrescendo music symbol is also known as diminuendo.

The following shows the crescendo symbol and the descrescendo sign.

music expression: crescendo symbol and decrescendo music symbol

An impressive crescendo can generate some spectacular moments in a music piece while the diminuendo may reach some sort of soothing effects.

Music Symbols Chart

In our Music Fundamental series, we have introduced a few music expression marks. However, it would be easier for reference if we bring all of them together in the below music symbols chart.

Symbol or Abbreviation Definition or Effect
ad lib ad libitum – giving the performer liberty in matters of tempo and repression
accel. Accelerando – increasing speed or tempo
note with accent Accent – to stress or to emphasize
accom. Accompaniment
a tempo resuming strict time (back to specified tempo)
⋁, 𝄒 breath marks
coda sign Coda
crescendo symbol cresc. crescendo – getting louder
decrescendo decresc. decrescendo or dim. diminuendo – getting softer
fermata a fermata is placed above or below (upside down) a note – holding the note longer
Fine the end
leg. Legato – playing smoothly and connected
meno less – the notes to be played less quickly, or less softly
ped. pedal – using sustain pedal
piu more – the notes to be played with more effects, faster, louder, etc.
rall. rallentando – gradually slower
rit. retard or ritardando – gradually slower
rubato flexibility or tempo, either quickening or slowing
sfz sforzando – a strong accent immediately followed by soft (piano) effect
♯; ♭; 𝄮; 𝄪; 𝄫 sharp; flat; natural; double sharp; double flat
spiccato an Italian word means very detached, usually used for string instruments.
staccato staccato – the note is played short and jumpy. The dot can be placed above or below the note.
suspension holding a note in any chord into the chord that follows
tenuto ten. or tenuto – sustaining for the full value of the note. The tenuto is a note with a short bar either above or below.
triplet triplet – a group of three notes played in the time of 2.
tutti All voices or instruments play together
unis. unison
vamp to improvise an accompaniment
8va. 8 notes higher (an octave higher)
voce the voice
volume the power of a voice or instrument

To Wrap Up…

It is the expression in music that makes it attractive and catches our attention. The composers use musical expression marks to convey the intention. Many times, it is up to the performers to interpret the music language on the sheet and create expressive music that evokes listeners’ emotions.

As part of learning music or playing the piano, it is essential to learn the music expression symbols. Moreover, for music creators, writing the music with intended expression marks will make the piece ever closer to the original desire.

It seems a lot of expression symbols. No worries, because it is not likely you’ll have to remember them overnight. When you progress through your learning, these symbols will appear in your lessons gradually. You will get familiar with them and improve your grasp of them with practice.

Related: Music Fundamentals Series

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