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.
Table of Contents
Let’s first define some of the commonly used terms in the music world.
|melody||A melody is a succession of single tones.|
|chord||A chord is a combination of tones sounded together.|
|triad||A triad is a three-note chord.|
|phrase||A phrase is a short musical sentence or thought. |
The phrase usually ends on a longer note, or at the end of a rhythmic pattern.
|period||A 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.
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.
Marks for Repeating
There are various signs to indicate to repeat a section or multiple sections.
Da Capo – means to repeat from the beginning and play to the word Fine (the end)
Dal Segno – means to repeat from the segno sign 𝄋 to the word Fine (the end)
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.
From the “to Coda” sign, jump to the coda section and to the end.
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.
|mezzo forte||mf||moderately loud|
|mezzo piano||mp||moderately 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.
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|
|Accent – to stress or to emphasize|
|a tempo||resuming strict time (back to specified tempo)|
|⋁, 𝄒||breath marks|
|cresc. crescendo – getting louder|
|decresc. decrescendo or dim. diminuendo – getting softer|
|a fermata is placed above or below (upside down) a note – holding the note longer|
|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 – 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|
|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 – a group of three notes played in the time of 2.|
|tutti||All voices or instruments play together|
|vamp||to improvise an accompaniment|
|8va.||8 notes higher (an octave higher)|
|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
- Piano 101 – Learning Piano Starts From Here
- What are the Tone Characteristics?
- Tempo and Rhythm – Are They Different?
- Piano Scales Explained
- Music Expression – The Marks on Musical Sheets
- Musical Intervals – An Important Part of Music Theory
- Transposition In Music – How Does it Work?
- Musical Chords – The Combination of Tones