Musical road signs: dynamics, tempo, fermatas, repeats, etc.


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In order for a piece to be played accurately and with expression and dynamics, written music includes a number of signs and symbols to guide the musician. Some of these include words that tell the musician how loudly or softly to play a note or passage. The following is a list of dynamics often used:

Pianissimo: very soft.
Piano: soft.
Mezzo piano: half as soft as piano.
Mezzo forte: half as loud as forte.
Forte: loud.
Fortissimo: very loud.
Sforzando: forced, abrupt, fierce
Crescendo: a gradual increase in volume.
Diminuendo (or decrescendo) a gradual decrease in volume.

One piece of music can contain many symbols for dynamics, everything from very soft passages (pianissimo) to loud passages (forte) to passages that increase or decrease in volume (crescendo or decrescendo). In some cases, the conductor (or leader) of a group will request changes in dynamics that do not appear in the music (leaving to their discretion the interpretation of the music).

Tempo is measured in beats per minute (bpm). A tempo of 60 bpm would match the ticking of a clock with a beat every second. Quite often, you’ll see the tempo (in bpm) displayed at the beginning of the piece. For a piano or other music student, a metronome is sometimes used as a training device. The metronome can be set for a wide variety of beats per minute and helps the student develop consistency of tempo in their playing. When you see a drummer in a rock band click his drum sticks four times, or call out the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4!, he is setting the tempo for the rest of the band. Tempo has a great effect on the feel and effectiveness of the music played and it’s critical when musicians are playing for dancers. Dances such as the waltz and two-step require a particular tempo.

Bar lines (vertical lines on the staff) are used to separate a song into measures. Measures divide the music into regular groupings of beats be it three, four, or six beats per measure. Except in rare cases, each measure contains the same number of beats throughout a song. Measures are often numbered so that there is a “road map” for the musician when playing as part of a group. For example, a conductor may ask the orchestra to “begin with measure 31.”

A repeat (sign) is used quite often in music. If a particular music passage is to be repeated, a double bar line, preceded by two dots is used. This tells the musician to return to the beginning of the passage and play it again. Other markings such as the coda, and da capo (dc) are used to guide the musician to the proper place in the music such as playing the passage again from the beginning (passages are repeated quite often) or jumping ahead to a particular measure or point in the music.

A fermata (sometimes called a “bird’s eye” because of its appearance) tells the musician that a particular note is to played longer than its normal duration. How long the note is to be held is usually up to the musician or conductor. A fermata is usually displayed above the note it affects.

Some music contains breath marks that show the musician when to take a breath (if singing or playing a wind instrument) or when to lift the bow for string players.

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