Thursday, June 8th, 2023

Expression in Music – Words – Part 23c


Expression in Music – Words – Part 23c

 A Tonal System

The main body of information which we have already presented in the articles included in this website, are inclusive of the symbols that are used to write out the components of music, i.e. notes, rests, lines and other marks we commonly think of when discussing music. Almost all of them fall into the concepts and ideas within music theory and in total they create a language, one I have often referred to as the symbolic language of music.

All of this information provides a basis of raw material which is in support of the creation of music as well as the writing of it, music notation. With this article series we are now adding to this body of symbolic language, the words which are used to quantify, qualify and define expression in music and to provide the general and overall direction of and performance of music.


Collectively, the words used to define expression in music fall into three main categories, those which direct one or more performers to behave or to alter their performance technique, those which quantify or define the extent or degree of expression and those words which define via the meaning of the word, a specific articulation or expression. All of these together provide explicit direction and specific instruction to the performers of music.

This article in our Expression in Music mini-series provides a broad based group of words included in the word language of music and which fall into these three categories. Many definitions, both long and short, will be provided as each word has a different meaning, focus or orientation.

Note – For this article, we will be presenting written technical instructions and the general and overall character and direction areas of musical expressions. Phrasing and articulation tonguing, pedaling and fingering are other areas to consider as you develop additional methods. These topics provide added technical instructions for designing, selecting and using musical expression in your compositions however these topics will not be presented at this time.

The word language of music is like any other language or any other field of study. There are many words and phrases which collectively provide the composer additional tools to help define and clarify the music he or she wishes to create in a symbolic and word-like manner. Effective use of them comes with time and especially when practicing with working musicians who may not be schooled in their use.

Other Marks

We have presented ideas about how performance techniques, tempo and dynamics affect the emotional response to the music being played. Moving beyond and in addition to these, the fourth category to musical expression is other marks.

We will now look at each of these ideas, within the other marks category, in a general way to provide the overall breadth of the understanding needed to improve your music notation skills and performance abilities.

Expression in Music – Main Word Group, Instrument Group Instruction

There are three broad based words which are used to describe whether or not a single instrument sounds or a group of instruments sound simultaneously. They are solo, tutti and divisi. Let’s review them now.

solo – to play alone where all the other instruments in the group or ensemble are silenced for a period of time, unless the composition was created for a single instrument.

A solo performance does not mean there is a lack of harmony as most instruments are capable of multiple voices. Chords or chording is the reference here.

A soloist performs either from memory or from a single staff of music. There is no limitation as to which clef is involved or in what key the music is to be played in. The only requirement is that no other lines of music are played during a solo section of music. Otherwise, in a score involving other instruments, usually the staves for the other instruments are filled with rests, hidden or simply left blank. In all cases playing solo simply means to play alone or use a single instrument.

tuttiTutti is the term used to instruct two or more performers, including larger groups such as a full orchestra, to play all at the same time versus having a soloist perform a phrase or section of the music. All instruments play according to the music written on their assign stave, as marked in the manuscript. As the saying goes, “all together now!”

divisi – Divisi is somewhat different than the previous two, (solo and tutti). When a group of ensemble performers of identical instruments are playing together, one group plays one part or line of music and the other plays either a melodic or harmonically related part or line of music at the same time.

An example would be first violins in an orchestra. Assuming an orchestral string section which includes 16 first violins, 8 of them would play one part while the other 8 play a different but related part. The parts can be written on a single staff of music or they are written on different staves. That choice is relative to the complexity of the parts.

A Word about Voices – Voices, in music, permit a single instrument to express more than one line of music in a single staff, played simultaneously. This is a broad concept in the sense that there are many variables and rules which are used to employ such a method of performance. This concept describes the use of stops (double, triple or quadruple harmonically related and simultaneously sounding) or multiple voices rather than playing in solo or divisi.  We will be discussing this idea in upcoming articles.

The word voices or voicing is used to describe the use of chords, groups of notes played at the same time. This too is a broad subject and will be discussed in upcoming articles.

Expression in Music – Words – Generalizations

The performance of music can be one of the most uplifting experiences that a person is exposed to. Written music includes instructions directed at the performers which describes and directs them to play in a specified manner. Performers can play freely, rigidly or expressively. The most commonly used words associated to these methods of performance are rubato, meccanico and espressivo or expressivo.

In order for a composer to convey their musical ideas, within music notation, the symbolic language of music, a composer must convey what it is they hear in their head and that which they wish performed in as close of a resemblance as possible. These three verbal technical instructions in the form of generalizations come to mind as an overall group of words a composer uses to provide those instructions.

Rubato – meaning, to play or perform freely, outside of a designated tempo but within the confines of the designated dynamics and in the general nature of the music that follows. This idea offers a free flowing sense about the phrase of music being performed. It is far less structured that other directives and yet it is still quite musical in nature. See also our description above.

Meccanico – meaning, to play or perform in a mechanical manner, strict, rigid, exact, and as notated in the music, including formal adherence to dynamic and tempo marks. This instruction provides for a more rigid musical expression than when performing in rubato. The resulting music is quite a bit less emotional than rubato or when playing in a more expressive manner.

Expressivo – meaning, with much emotion and within the designated tempo and dynamics of the notated music. Expressivo or espressivo provides for the instruction to place emphasis on the emotional aspects of performance rather than using a free form or mechanical form of expression.

All three of these marks convey specific performance instructions and which directly impact the emotional nature of the performance. Each is placed above the staff at the start of a composition, a musical phrase or a section of music, where applicable. The impact is considerable as one would guess and they should be used to gain the degree of emotional impact you are seeking as the composer of the musical work, in a global sense.

Their use is determined by how you want the music expressed by the performer whereas your selection of the appropriate word is based upon your choice of emotional reaction you wish your audience to experience. The light and free flowing effect of the use of the rubato expression conveys a sense of freedom and a carefree feeling not found in meccanico expressed music. Likewise the flowing, smooth and pleasant expressivo musical expression provides an easy, comfortable and relaxed sense very much different than either rubato or meccanico performances. The idea being that whichever emotional affect you desire in a specified area of a musical composition can be enhanced and conveyed by including these instructions. Please keep in mind that these words are not the only influence on expression in music, only a part of it.

Expression in Music – Words – Quantitative Additions

Important and influential quantitative or words which have an association to the degree or amount of influence are used with and in conjunction with other qualitative or descriptive words. Each causes a degree or an amount influence on the main word they are used with, when directing the performer as to how you as a composer wish the music to be performed. Generally, the quantitative words often precede the primary or qualitative word however some fall into a different protocol by following afterwards depending upon the language used, (English, Italian, French, Chinese, etc). Take note of this difference when studying compositions by other composers from countries other than the one you live in. The process will help you to understand their proper use in different cultures or different Nations.

Combined with other keywords a phrase is constructed where each word is directly influencing the meaning of the complete instructional phrase. The word or phrase is first presented in Italian and in bold followed by its relative meaning in English.

Expression in Music – Quantitative Word List

A la – in the manner of

Al – to the

Assai – very, very much

Ben – well

Bis – twice

Come – as, like

Con – with

Contra – against or counter to

Ma – but

Mano – hand (destra right hand, sinistra left hand)

Meno – less

Molto – more

Mosso – slower, less

Moto – movement

Muta – change (such as in instrument or key)

Pieno – full

Piu – more

Poco – little

Poi – then, afterward

Quasi – almost, as if

Senza – without

Sempre – always, continuous

Sopra – above

Sotto – under or below

Subito – suddenly quickly

Troppo – too much

Via – by way of

These words add a dimension to other words in one or another. Either they instruct how the performance is to be played, such as pieno, contra, subito, or they instruct as related to what degree the performance is to be played, such as meno, molto and poco. Generally, they are all used in conjunction with other words and again, they impact the meaning of the previous or ensuing word it is used with by degree or amount.

Expression in Music – Qualitative Words

The following short list of Italian specific and overall direction based words follows. A longer and more complete listing will be provided as the last article within this series.

All of these words are related to the overall aura or feeling of a composition, section of music, phrase of music or motif and they instruct the performer to play in a specified manner. They are descriptive or qualitative in nature. The Italian word is provided along with the English word most closely related to its meaning.

Expression in Music – Qualitative Word List

Addolorato – pained or afflicted

Affannato – Breathless, anxious or excited

Affettuoso – tender or affectionate

Affrettando – rushing or hurrying

Brillante – brilliant

Brio – vivacity, spirited

Cantibile – singable, song like

Cupo – Gloomy, somber

Dolce – sweat, soft

Duramento – Hardly

Legato – smoothly, without interruption

Morendo – dying or fading away

Pacato – calm

Precitato – rushed

Pronto – quickly

Retard – slowing down

Riposo – with repose

Spezzanto – divided or broken

Strepitoso – noisy, boisterous

Tranquillo – tranquil

I think you get the idea that specific words can be used to instruct the performer as to how or in what form of expression a composer would use to influence a section or musical phrase with the desire to selectively impact the overall feeling of the music.

When used with other keywords the impact of the foregoing words can be altered as desired. For example; you may want to state con brio which would mean with vivacity for a musical phrase to gain a more energized or more intense of an emotional response.

Another example would be to use the following phrase; affettuoso moso or less affectionate with the idea of lessening the impact of the affectionate aspect of the musical expression, making it seem a little colder or less emotional. Make a mental note that combinations of words are often used in notated music.


Again, the idea is that words and phrases are used to alter the notated music from the perspective of their meaning and the instructions provided by them. The affect of their use when placed within the composition directly impacts the listening experience as well as the emotional and physical reaction within the listener, in specific ways relative to their individual meaning and/or their collective meaning. They are tools a composer can use to instruct the performers of the music, which are different from and in addition to the use of notes, rests and other notation marks such as those for dynamics and tempo.

So far we have presented many key words which impact both technical instructions and general overall character and direction of the music. There are many more notation marks to consider as a composer which direct or instruct other aspects of music. In particular are those which provide for instruction as to which finger to use on which note, pedaling marks for keyboards, tonguing marks as used for wind instruments and so on. Also, marks are used to instruct for articulations and phrasing which are useful for the composer as well. Again, these will be presented in upcoming articles.

All together musical expressions is a broad study. It encompass many aspects of notated music and all impact the response to the music in one way or another, including the overall and minute performance as well as the physical and emotional reactions within the listener. To be effective and complete as a composer it is best to study each of these in detail and learn to use them appropriately in your composition and notation efforts. This article has demonstrated some of the methods used to declare an instruction which are used to emotionally express music. We hope you will continue your study moving forward.

This concludes Expression in Music – Words – Part 23c. Please proceed to part 23d for a longer listing of other marks used to direct or influence the overall performance of music.

Please proceed to Expression in Music – Expression Word List – Part 23d

Expression in Music – Words – Part 23c

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