Imagine if you were listening to someone speak, perhaps reading out the news on television, or reading a poem to you. The speaker’s voice sounds the same the entire time they are speaking, with no rise or fall in sound, no changes in rhythm or tempo (speed), and no indication that there are pauses, full stops, or breaks for breath. Imagine how boring that would be to listen to! Writers include punctuation marks in text to help the reader or speaker understand and enjoy the text more, and to add interest.
In just the same way, music has its own ‘punctuation marks’ to help the listener understand and enjoy the piece. It is our job as performer to transmit all these punctuation marks to the listener by highlighting them in our playing. If we don’t do this, the music will be boring, monotone, lacking in colour, rhythmic vitality and interest. From the very beginning of the music, in fact, even before we play a single note, the composer will give us very clear signals about how he would like the music to sound, and throughout the music there are signs and symbols to tell us how to “punctuate” or shape the music.
Musical Punctuation Marks
Metronome Mark – this gives an indication of suggested tempo (speed). Not all music includes a metronome mark on the core: music written before Beethoven’s time does not because the metronome had not been invented. Beethoven was very clear about metronome marks and the speed at which his music should be played. Ignore it at your peril!
Tempo and descriptive markings – usually in Italian at the start of the score. For example, allegro (briskly), lento (slowly), cantabile (in a singing style), con fuoco (with fire).
Articulation markings – signs which tell us to do something particular to a note, such as staccato (detached, bouncy), legato (smoothly), accented, pause (fermata).
Dynamic markings – signs or words which tell us how loudly or softly to play. For example: crescendo (getting louder gradually), subito piano (suddenly get soft), sforzando (with force)
Phrase marks – curved lines which indicate that a group of notes form a musical ‘idea’. See my longer article on phrase marks.
Rests – where to be silent
Other signs and markings – such as accidentals, octave markings, ornaments, pedal signs, repeat signs, first and second time bars, Da capo al fine (repeat a section and end at the fine sign), key signature changes, cadences (see my later long article on cadences).
Be sure to take note of all the signs and symbols in the music and respond to them accordingly as your. The composer has put them there for a reason!