Music Notation and Terminology



104. The word time in musical nomenclature has been greatly abused, having been used to indicate:

(1) Rhythm; as "the time was wrong."

(2) Variety of measure-signature; as "two-four time."

(3) Rate of speed; as "the time was too slow."

To obviate the confusion naturally resulting from this three-fold and inexact use of the word, many teachers of music are adopting certain changes in terminology as noted in Sections 105, 106, and 107. Such changes may cause some confusion at first, but seem to be necessary if our musical terminology is to be at all exact.

105. The first of the changes mentioned in the above paragraph is to substitute the word rhythm for the word time when correcting mistakes involving misplaced accent, etc. E.g., "Your rhythm in the third measure of the lower score was wrong," instead of "Your time—was wrong."

106. The second change mentioned would eliminate such blind and misleading expressions as "two-four time," "three-four time," "four-four time," "six-eight time," etc., and substitute therefor such self-explanatory designations as "two-quarter measure," "three-quarter measure," "four-quarter measure," "six-eighth measure," etc. E.g., "The first movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op. 2, No. 3, is in four-quarter measure."

107. The third change referred to above would substitute the word tempo (plural—tempi) for the word time in all allusions to rate of speed. E.g., "The scherzo was played in very rapid tempo."

The word tempo has been used in this connection so long by professional musicians that there can be no possible objection to it on the ground of its being a foreign word. In fact there is a decided advantage in having a word that is understood in all countries where modern music (i.e., civilized music) is performed, and just here is found the principal reason for the popularity of the Italian language in musical terminology. Schumann, MacDowell and other well known composers have tried to break down this popularity by using their own respective vernaculars in both tempo and dynamic indications, but in spite of these attempts the Italian language is still quite universally used for this purpose, and deservedly so, for if we are to have a music notation that is universal, so that an American is able to play music written by a Frenchman or a German, or a Russian, then we ought also to have a certain number of expressions referring to tempo, etc., which will be understood by all, i.e., a music terminology that is universal. The Italian language was the first in the field, is the most universally known in this particular at the present time, and is entirely adequate. It should therefore be retained in use as a sort of musical Esperanto.

108. There are several ways of finding the correct tempo of a composition:

1. From the metronomic indication found at the beginning of many compositions. Thus e.g., the mark M.M. 92 (Maelzel's Metronome 92) means that if the metronome (either Maelzel's or some other reliable make) is set with the sliding weight at the figure 92 there will be 92 clicks per minute, and they will serve to indicate to the player or singer the rate at which the beats (or pulses) should follow one another. This is undoubtedly the most accurate means of determining tempi in spite of slight inaccuracies in metronomes[25] and of the mistakes which composers themselves often make in giving metronomic indications.

2. Another means of determining the tempo of a composition is to play it at different tempi and then to choose the one that "feels right" for that particular piece of music. This is perhaps the best means of getting at the correct tempo but is open only to the musician of long experience, sure judgment, and sound scholarship.

3. A third method of finding tempi is through the interpretation of certain words used quite universally by composers to indicate the approximate rate of speed and the general mood of compositions. The difficulty with this method is that one can hardly find two composers who employ the same word to indicate the same tempo, so that no absolute rate of speed can be indicated, and in the last analysis the conductor or performer must fall back on the second method cited above—i.e., individual judgment.

109. In spite of the inexactness of use in the case of expressions relating to tempo, these expressions are nevertheless extremely useful in giving at least a hint of what was in the composer's mind as he conceived the music that we are trying to interpret. Since a number of the terms overlap in meaning, and since the meaning of no single term is absolute, these expressions relating to tempo are best studied in groups. Perhaps the most convenient grouping is as follows:

1. Grave (lit. weighty, serious), larghissimo, adagissimo, and lentissimo—indicating the very slowest tempo used in rendering music.

2. Largo,[26] adagio,[27] and lento—indicating quite a slow tempo.

3. Larghetto (i.e., a little largo) and adagietto (a little adagio)—a slow tempo, but not quite so slow as largo, etc.

4. Andante (going, or walking, as contrasted with running) and andantino—indicating a moderately slow tempo.

Andantino is now quite universally taken slightly faster than andante, in spite of the fact that if andante means "going," and if "ino" is the diminutive ending, then andantino means "going less," i.e., more slowly!

5. Moderato—a moderate tempo.

6. Allegro and allegretto[28]—a moderately quick tempo, allegretto being usually interpreted as meaning a tempo somewhat slower than allegro.

The word allegro means literally happy, joyous, and this literal meaning is still sometimes applicable, but in the majority of instances the term refers only to rate of speed.

7. Vivo, vivace, (lit. lively)—a tempo between allegro and presto.

8. Presto, prestissimo, vivacissimo, and prestissimo possibile—the most rapid tempo possible.

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