Music Theory and Composition : Music Theory and Composition

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

Expression in Music – Categories – Part 23b


Expression in Music – Categories

Main Article Photo - Scales

From the global or “big picture” ideas presented in part 23a of this series on expression in music we step into the following information setting forth the six main expression in music – categories of musical expression marks. As we move forward in this mini-series please keep in mind the information from 23a as this is the foundation from which all else is standing.

A Word About Performance Techniques

This article is not intended to provide detailed presentations about specific performance techniques or their method of production rather it is about the categories of the types of expression marks and a comparison between performance technique marks and expression marks as related to music notation and composition. Some methods or descriptive material about specific performance techniques is included in the for of examples however the main presentations on performance techniques are slated for presentation in other articles.

Expression Marks – Music Notation Distinctions

Expression marks are words, phrases and symbols placed in the score above the staff. They directly affect the overall performance of music in a broader way rather than affecting a specific single note (quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, etc.). Expression marks are typically found at the beginning of a music composition and used for directing the performer(s) on the emotional aspect of music. Their use influences the tonal qualities of the entire score or in a more limited way such as for a motif, a passage or a musical phrase.

Musical expression is usually, in fact almost always, a major determining factor influencing the “feeling” or the emotion of the music. It is commonplace to see various expression marks placed throughout a musical score altering the emotion or feeling of the music. Expression marks are typically placed above the staff making them easy to see by performers.

Also, it should be stated that note duration such as a quarter note, half note, etc., as well as the rhythm of the music in which they are played are not part of the idea of expressions although some would argue that point. For clarity, it should be stated here that all marks in a score influence in one way shape or form the musical expression as all are a part of it.

Articulations – Performance Techniques

The symbols and marks used to represent articulations are used to help create expressive music, however, they are generally considered to be more of a technique which directly influences the emotional expression of music rather than being the expression itself. It is from this reason and because of the important role that articulations play in music that we will be presenting additional articles about them therefore we are omitting an extended presentation about them in this discussion. In fact, our next presentation is about performance techniques and it is inclusive of both their respective description, how to notate them and what influence they have on the overall sound of a musical phrase, section and the entire composition.

Expression Marks – Purpose and Use

As previously stated, expressions are intended and they are used to cause changes in the emotional impact of musical phrases, sections or the entire composition. The symbols, words and phrases instruct performer to alter their performance in specified ways. Expression marks, when applied, attempt to arouse in the listener a specific feeling or to give the performance a specific sonic characteristics. This feeling or emotional reaction is attained through effective use of the collection of words, phrases and symbols written within the score. Expression words or phrases represent, embody and hold characteristic qualities similar to that of human emotion.

Expression Marks – Inclusions

Expression marks include performance techniques, tempo and dynamic markings and the other markings which help performers in the selection process as related to sound production methods. Additional words or phrases representing emotion may also be used and they too are notated in the score or manuscript, again providing specific instructions to the performers. Hopefully, these instructions are effectively conveying the intent of the composer.

So, let’s take a moment to look at the main categories of expression marks a composer uses to gain different emotional and physical reactions making their music dynamic, sounding alive and full of emotional expression.

Prerequisite Articles

Recommended article for Review – The Components of Musicality presents information in a general way disclosing that musical expressions are comprised of six musical concepts or ideas. For reference and convenience, those ideas are melody, harmony, rhythm, performance techniques, tempo and dynamics.”

For an in depth presentation, it is highly recommended that you review the Components of Musicality prior to your reading of this article as the underlying principals of musicality are an important ingredient for creating music which is expressive in nature.

You may also wish to review our Tempo and Dynamics articles have already been written. Please see – Speed in Music – Tempo, Dynamics – Music Theory – Part 21a and Dynamics – Music Theory – Part 21b.

This article (Expression in Music – Part 23b) presents insights and distinctions between performance techniques and expression and a review of tempo and dynamics.

The Six Main Categories

Influential Expression Mark Categories – There are six general categories of expression marks available which directly influence the sound of music. Each category has its own set of markings which include the concepts and marks for melody, harmony, rhythm, performance technique marks, tempo and dynamics.

Note: Melody, rhythm and harmony are large broad concepts which are directly related to note and rest choices, intervals and intervallic relationships, chord construction, song or composition structure and form, among other more advance music theory concepts.

Performance Techniques – vs. – Expressions

Performance Techniques – One important distinction which must be understood when discussing musical expression is the difference between musical expression and performance techniques and their respective marks. Expressions are not the specific techniques the performers use when playing their instruments. Performance techniques play a direct and crucial role in attaining an emotional performance, yes, as they are the methods by which forms of expression can be gained.

Performance Techniques are marked in a score as words, phrases and symbols in a similar fashion and location as expression marks. The main difference is the meaning or definition of the different marks.

Techniques and expressions are in many ways intertwined with one another and consequently it is important to delineate between the two. In most cases they are so intertwined that it is difficult to teach them as separate ideas especially over the Internet. Therefore, we highly recommend that you seek out a music instructor to gain the deeper knowledge and insights about music and the concepts and ideas that make up the art of music creation and more specifically to thoroughly understand the differences between performance technique marks and expression marks. We are however presenting much of this information here.

The Comparison – An Example

To illustrate the difference between performance technique marks and expression marks we have created the chart below which shows the expression marks for moderately quiet (mp), of rubato and of espressivo (all shown in blue) and the technique of pizzicato (shown in green). Basically, dynamic instructions, rubato and pizzicato expression marks are marks which direct the performer(s) according to the definition of each.

Expression MarksFor this exercise please read through the instructions below before proceeding.

In measures one and two the rubato technique (marked in blue) is used. Rubato is an expression meaning to play in a free flowing manner or style and the performance is not strictly tied to or adhering to the designated tempo. Measure three is at tempo (a tempo) and a performance technique is designated, that being pizzicato (marked in green).

Also in measure one, the dynamic mp is used and it is used throughout all of measures shown. This instruction informs the performer to play at a moderately quiet intensity or volume. In this case the emotional impact would be minimal if only this expression was used.

In measure three, the word pizzicato or abbreviated as shown (pizz.) is the instruction to the performer to play their instrument in a specific way so as to produce the sound associated to the word pizzicato. The pizzicato technique is a crisp, clean and short presentation of each note included under this technical instruction. Pizzicato is not an emotional instruction rather it is a performance technique. What we perceive in our emotional response is the affect of the technique. We might experience it as a certain tension or tightening within our emotional state, however subtle, upon hearing the pizzicato note or phrase being performed. Therefore, an increase in tension is the resulting emotional reaction and the method used to produce the pizzicato sound is a specific technique.

“Expression is the emotional result experienced by the listener which is caused by the use of a performance technique, whereas, performance technique is the method used by the performer to produce a specific type, quality or character of sound.”

In measure four another expression word is used, espressivo (shown in blue) meaning to play expressively or with feeling and emotion. The differences between playing an instrument using the pizzicato technique versus playing under the espressivo expression is dramatic and easy to hear. Espressivo will cause a quite different, more mellow and soothing sound whereas the pizzicato is short, abbreviated notes causing a harsher more stressful emotion.

From a notation perspective, all we are doing in this exercise is altering the expression first by using an expression word rubato followed by altering the sounding notes characteristics through the use of a performance technique, in this case by the pizzicato performance technique and finalizing the last measure using the espressivo instruction.

The study of performance techniques is an expansive study and it is also instrument specific. In that way, it is important to locate an accessible and qualified music instructor to assist you in deepening your understanding of this vitally important part of musical performance and to review additional articles on this website related to performance techniques.

Tempo and Dynamics – Notation Marks

Reminder – Links were provided above to articles on Tempo and Dynamics

Tempo and dynamics are also direct influences how music is experienced. They are highly influential to the overall musical expression and they are but a part of the total influences of musical expression. Tempo and Dynamics are provided for by the placement of their respective marks above or below the staff, respectively, which direct the performers in certain manners of performance.

The vertical and horizontal ideas of tempo and dynamics play an important role in creating the overall intensity and the rate at which the music is performed. How loud or quiet, how fast or slow the music moves creates a foundation for understanding the broader scope of musical expressions through the use of these two subsets of notation markings. Let us review these two ideas now


Making Tempo Marks

The concept of tempo was discussed thoroughly in our article Speed in Music – Tempo and will not be further expounded upon here other than to do a quick review and to say that these ideas are part of the big picture of musical expressions and so they must be known and understood to be effective in music notation and in the actual performance of music. They are individual components of the whole idea of musical expression and yet each is not the whole idea in and of itself.

Words – Commonly used words which instruct for tempo include; Lento, Largo, Larghetto, Adagio, Andante, Moderato, Allegretto, Allegro, Presto and Prestissimo, etc. Each of these words has been previously defined, as well as associated to the metronome markings to reflect the given and desired tempo as noted by the composer. Please reference our article Speed in Music – Tempo.

Symbols – The symbols used to instruct for tempo are typically; a note value such as a quarter note, followed by the equal sign (=) followed by a numeric value such as 120 which represents the number of beats per minute For example; moderato 120 where a rate of 120bpm is established. A note length is also placed in the tempo markings (an eighth note, quarter note, etc.) which establishes the actual value of the note as related to time. These are also called Metronome Marks in music notation and more information about this can be learned through a study of the Speed in Music – Tempo article.

Tempo is the defining degree or rate of horizontal or forward movement or the flow of music in terms of speed as applied to music.

Emotional Impact – Using tempo as a means of influencing expression can be thought of rather easily. A rapid tempo such as prestissimo 200 (quarter note gets one beat) will contribute high stress or tension to the musical work. Conversely, largo 40 (quarter note gets one beat) eases stress and tension and the music is less tense and more calming and fluid.

Consequently, this concept of tempo, as regards to the overall musical expression, can be used in conjunction with other markings to increase or decrease tension as desired. In this way tempo is highly influential in creating the “expression” of intense music and for gaining the emotional and physical response within the listener of tension or stress.


The concept of dynamics was also discussed in previous articles, specifically; Dynamics – Music Theory – Level 2 – Part 21a and Dynamics – Music Theory – Level 2 – Part 21b. Again, because of the depth of discussion in the presentation of previous articles on this subject matter it would be redundant to provide duplicate information on these concepts. Consequently it is to your advantage to review them as an adjunct to this article. For this article a review of that material is as follows.

Words – Commonly used words which denote dynamics include; Pianississimo, Pianissimo, Piano, Mezzo-Piano, Mezzo-Forte, Forte, Fortissimo and Fortississimo, etc. Each has been clearly defined with representative markings as commonly used in modern music notation. Each helps to create a specific influence on the overall expression in music.

Symbols – They are represented using the letters and/or a combination of the letters primarily p, f and m. Dynamics is a different dimension to sound as compared to speed. It is the vertical movement of intensity or power we perceive as volume rather than a horizontal movement in terms of speed such as that musical concept represented through the use of tempo markings.

Emotional Impact – The intensity of the sound is increased when using more power to influence the sound. For example; a drummer will strike the drum harder to produce a louder sound and strike it softer when desiring a quieter sound. A performer of a wind instrument will blow with more force to create a louder sound versus blowing with less force to create a quieter sound. A stringed instrument player will either pluck or bow with more force to generate a louder sound and with less force, creating a quieter sound.

Regardless of the source of the power or its method of delivery, striking, blowing, plucking, bowing, etc., the resulting degree of force directly influences the perceived expression, musically speaking. The performer’s play the notes with more  power or less power which demonstrates sound to us as either a louder or quieter sound in alignment with the amount of power employed to create the sound.

The emotional impact of the use of dynamics is similar to the effect caused by using tempo as a means of affecting different emotional responses. However, rather than horizontally causing the emotional reaction it uses a vertical approach for impacting the resulting musical expression.

Dynamics is the defining degree of vertical movement in terms of intensity or loudness in music.

This is not to be misunderstood to mean vertical in terms of harmonic or melodic movement as will be discussed in forthcoming articles related to each. What is meant by vertical in the sense of dynamics is quite different than using higher or lower notes as placed on a staff, as related to and comparable to the frequency or pitch of each note. Again, dynamics represents the degree of loudness, louder versus quieter, of the sounds produced on the instrument as perceived by the human ear, measurable in decibels.

By increasing the intensity within a phrase or section of music, the listener will experience an increase in emotional stress or tension and could even be startled or surprised if a note or short series of notes was performed at a higher intensity or volume when being preceded by or followed by quieter notes. The inverse, lesser tension, is experienced when decreasing the intensity as lower or quieter music is more pleasing with a lot less stress or tension being conveyed where quieter notes ease stress and comfort the listener.

Together – When used together, tempo and dynamics, the emotional reaction is empowered causing an even greater influence on the music and therefore our emotional and physical reaction to it. If the composer uses a higher tempo with a louder dynamic the increase in tension is also increased, more so than if only one is used. The inverse is also true. Use both tempo and dynamics into consideration when composing music. The results will be demonstrated as an ebbing and flowing of the music altering our emotional and physical reaction to it.

Both dynamics and tempo play a critical role in terms of how we want the notated music to sound as related to what reaction we wish to cause in the listener, however they are not the only sets of instruction available to the composer as we will soon learn.

Conclusion of Expressions – Part 23b

So far we have learned in Expression in Music – Part 23a that expressions are comprised of six main factors which directly and/or indirectly influence musical expression; performance technique, tempo, dynamics, rhythm, harmony and melody.

We have also learned that expressions are not the techniques used by performers to create the emotional (mental or physical) effects of music rather that expression in music is determined by the aforesaid collection of tools. We also learned that tempo and dynamics, alone or together, offer great options to the composer for creating the desired physical and emotional reactions to music.

Tempo is the horizontal influence whereas dynamics if the vertical influence to musical expressions.

Our review of tempo and dynamics as related to emotional impact offers insights into the total idea of expressions as applied to music and music notation and that there are other marks which help to make up the total collection of tools a composer has at his or her disposal to convey to the performers the instructions for creating the emotional ideas. Ideas designed into the composition during the creative processes used when composing music.

Further Study

Please Continue your Study of the concepts and principals of expression in music.

This concludes our overview and a review of the general categories of words, phrases and symbols which are used to define and instruct performers. Also, this review tempo and dynamics as subsets of musical expressions should shed light on the possibilities of their use in music composition.

For further study please proceed to Expressions in Music – Words – Part 23c provides for further information about the additional markings used to create or cause an emotional impact during the performance of music and the related music notation practices.

Expressions in Music – Categories – Part 23b

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