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date: 17 May 2021

Tempo and expression markslocked

  • David Fallows


Words and other instructions in musical scores used to define the speed and specify the manner of performance.

Tempo and expression marks may be the most consistently ignored components of a musical score. Musicians who know the key, pitch, phrasing and perhaps even the first page or so of the precise scoring of the Figaro overture, for instance, are rarely able to name the tempo and opening dynamic of this most popular of all scores. (In fact Mozart himself got it wrong in his Verzeichnüss, putting Allegro assai for Presto.) That is partly because only the notes are objective facts, but also because musicians tend to look first at the music, only later checking the markings to see whether they agree with initial impressions; the markings without the music say very little. By a bizarre paradox, concert programmes and radio announcements often give the tempo mark as the only information about a particular movement; but that odd convention is really just a means of orientation, guiding the listener as to which sections are faster than others. For the present purposes it should perhaps be taken as axiomatic that staff notation is relatively precise for what it is equipped to express whereas verbal or implicitly verbal instructions are employed for the dimensions that cannot be expressed in such simple and unambiguous form. To distinguish between correct and incorrect performance of pitches and rhythms is a relatively simple matter whereas tempo and expression are far more subjective....

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