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L is for Legato

Blogging A to ZI don't always have time to write Blogging A-to-Z challenge posts ahead of time. This week I've had almost no free time until just now.

Today I'm going to slide into the topic of  markings. Music involves more than just the notes on the page; it's an artistic expression. Composers use a whole palette of markings and (usually Italian) words to convey to performers how to express the music.

Take this snippet of Bach's Invention #1 in C:

First, I should point out that Bach famously almost never added expression markings. In this example, I added a few to convey how I think someone should perform the Invention.

Start with the Italian at measure 1. The word "allegretto" above the staff indicates the tempo. It's a diminutive form of the word "allegre," which means happy; so allegretto means kind of happy. In practice it means a pretty quick tempo but not overly quick. "Allegro" (happy!) would be a little faster. Tempo markings range from "larghissimo" (really big and slow) to "prestissimo" (really fast). Classical FM has a good roundup of tempo terms.

The little "mf" under the staff is more Italian, but this time an abbreviation indicating how loudly to play. It stands for "mezzo forte," or middling-strong. Typical dynamic markings range from "piano" (quiet) to "forte" (loud), which helps explain why the instrument everyone knows and loves is called a pianoforte (because it can play both quietly and loudly).

The lines connecting the first 8 notes and the notes in measures 3 and 4 indicate phrases that should be played legato, or connected. Legato's opposite is staccato, from the verb stacciare, meaning to sift.

Finally, the little squiggle over the B in measure two is called a mordent, indicating a rapid articulation down from the B to an A and back. The little C next to it is a grace note, indicating that actually the mordent should start on the C. (Listen to the midi file for clarification.)

There are thousands of markings in musical scores that assist performers. But dynamics, tempo markings, phrase lines, and ornaments (mainly in Baroque music) are the most common.

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