Pieces with nothing but the notes? (no tempoindications, dynamic changes etc.)

March 6, 2012 at 04:50 PM · I am very interested in the idea of complete freedom of interpretation from the performers side. A piece with with nothing but the notes would be really fun to play for a pianotrio for instance don´t you think?

Do you know any good examples of pieces ith nothing but the notes? (no tempoindications, dynamic changes etc.)

Replies (30)

March 6, 2012 at 05:08 PM · Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart (except for some dynamics)

March 6, 2012 at 06:40 PM · No tempoindications in Mozart and Bach?

I have never seen any Mozart or Bachpiece without any indication of how the piece should be played (like Vivace etc.)

March 6, 2012 at 08:23 PM · What Andreas said. Much of Bach and Mozart contains what we regard as tempo indications. However, since the metronome did not exist when they wrote, it is difficult to say what tempos precisely they envisioned. The tempo markings are, at best, indicative of relative tempos, i.e., you can tell what the composer intended as a slower movement and what as a faster movement.

Biber would be another example of no tempo markings.

March 6, 2012 at 08:53 PM · Actually the only Bach I can remember that has no tempo indication is the first movement of his a minor violin concerto, as well as the harpsichord concerto in g minor, which would be just the same piece. On the other side, for what I've heard, most of tempo indications on Mozart's work were not given by him.

March 7, 2012 at 12:50 AM · What you are seeking exists today in the world of jazz other styles outside the classical realm. You get your music from a chart which has the melody and the chords. Everything else is up to you, including tempo, dynamics, rhythmic feel, articulation, phrasing, and you can even change the notes if you like -- and all this is allowed while you are playing the melody, or the head -- in other words, before you even start to improvise.

March 7, 2012 at 08:32 AM · "it is difficult to say what tempos precisely they envisioned."

Larghissimo — very, very slow (20 bpm and below)

Grave — slow and solemn (20–40 bpm)

Lento — slowly (40–60 bpm)

Largo — broadly (40–60 bpm)

Larghetto — rather broadly (60–66 bpm)

Adagio — slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (66–76 bpm)

Adagietto — rather slow (70–80 bpm)

Andante moderato — a bit slower than andante

Andante — at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)

Andantino – slightly faster than andante (although in some cases it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante)

Moderato — moderately (108–120 bpm)

Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)

Allegro moderato — moderately quick (112–124 bpm)

Allegro — fast, quickly and bright (120–168 bpm)

Vivace — lively and fast (˜140 bpm) (quicker than allegro)

Vivacissimo — very fast and lively

Allegrissimo — very fast

Presto — very fast (168–200 bpm)

Prestissimo — extremely fast (more than 200bpm)

I guess most people agree that this is the tempos they intended back then as well.

March 7, 2012 at 11:09 AM · I was interested to read your topic. Many years ago I wrote music for a large ensemble with no phrasing whatsoever, just notes, and the musicians complained. One even said she did not want to play this music again. The reason I did it was for the reasons you stated.

With those comments in mind I studied phrasing, dynamics etc. in great detail and have to say my music now sounds better as a result. However I still wonder whether to start composing aleatoric music again.

March 7, 2012 at 01:10 PM · Andreas - Generally those indications work, but not as a rule.

As an example :)

The first solo sonata by Bach.

Movment 1, Adagio.

Leonard writes in his edition that is should be played ca 46 at the eight note. A third of the tempo Adagio in your list suggest.

Movment 2, Fuga, Allegro.

Perlman plays it at mm ca 69...

Movment 3, Siciliana, no tempo marking that correlates with your list.

Movment 4, Presto

Perlman mm=144, Accardo mm=132 etc... Not presto according to your list.

I can list more examples that goes against those markings than those that follows it.

I believe that those tempo markings are not to be confused with MM. markings. Rather they convey a felling. If you play something fast, it is Allegro, if you play it in a hurried feeling, it is Presto, and so on.

At least does my theory explain why most pieces in Andantino is in 6/8 time :)

March 7, 2012 at 02:13 PM · Andreas - I don't know that folks would agree that the tempos you list were the ones intended before the existence of the metronome. Maybe, maybe not. No one knows. As I said previously, I don't think pre-metronome tempo markings give you anything other than relative speeds of movements. For example, if you take the Bach sonatas for violin and continuo, we know that those have four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast succession. What precisely you can say beyond that is questionable. When you play them, you can see what tempos work best for you. I don't think you can do much more than that with the pre-metronome tempo markings.

March 7, 2012 at 02:13 PM ·

March 7, 2012 at 03:17 PM · " However I still wonder whether to start composing aleatoric music again."

Do it! At least if it´s Pieces for soloviolin or piano-violin duo. Always fun to hear what people do with the notes.

March 7, 2012 at 04:10 PM · "Actually the only Bach I can remember that has no tempo indication is the first movement of his a minor violin concerto, as well as the harpsichord concerto in g minor, which would be just the same piece."

The Prelude of the E major partita has no further indication, and the first movement of Brandenburg 3 has nothing. If you look beyond string pieces, there's tonnes of examples in his keyboard music.

March 8, 2012 at 06:05 AM · Actually, Bach, Mozart, and most of the others used a great number of descriptors in place of tempo indications (which one could really call "character indications" rather than "tempo markings"). These really don't give more than a vague indication of speed. This could apply to any dance movement. How fast, for example, does an Allemande go? Or a Bourreé?

There are only a couple of places in the entirety of the Bach Sonatas that have dynamics, which I find rather odd.

March 8, 2012 at 07:54 AM · "There are only a couple of places in the entirety of the Bach Sonatas that have dynamics, which I find rather odd."

He propably wanted to give a lot of freedom of interpretation. It´s really fun for the composer as well if you don´t really know what people are gonna do with the notes. I think so at least.

March 9, 2012 at 02:40 AM · I've played (new) compositions of that type before and my experience has been they can either work out great or be exceptionally frustrating and unfulfilling. For me it's been most to do with how good/sensitive the group playing the composition is, how well they know one another's playing, how sensitive they are to one another, etc.

My experience has also been that once you get to 10+ players a piece of that type has an excellent chance of being a train wreck.

March 9, 2012 at 08:01 AM · This would work well as an exercise or performance if you understand or mark out who is leading and who is following. When you are leading you must make sure you are being heard, if you are followng you need to hold back and listen to others. The written dynamics can destroy this sense. There is nothing better in the world than having another musician listening to every note you are playing. There is nothing worse than playing with someone who only listens to themselves.

March 9, 2012 at 08:06 AM · Amber:Agree

There are some strict countepoint pieces that ónly sound good at a specific tempo and played in a certain way though. I composed such a piece recently there is only one play you can play it that really works if you want complete clarity in all parts.

March 9, 2012 at 10:37 AM · I didn't mention that you should be able to do this to any piece of music. Markings are necessary for large groups, educating and memory, but a small group should be able to "feel" ther way through any piece.

March 9, 2012 at 10:14 PM · Andreas - I must say that I think Tom is right. You extrapolated back from the metronome marks to the tempo names - eg "adagio". And even in that period, did "adagio" mean precisely the same thing to Bach as to Handel?

Also, composers were interpreters as well. There is no reason to assume that they felt exactly the same way about their own pieces from the time they completed them to the day they died, or even the very next day. Beethoven, for example, was groundbreaking in the amount of expressive indications in his music, as well as indicating metronome markings. Yet once he started writing a piano piece and misplaced it. He started writing it again, and meanwhile found his first attempt. He was shocked at how wrong he now felt he had been with the first metronome marking he had put in. Rachmanninoff was due to perform one of his own concertos with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. They had 2 rehearsals. At the first, he took certain tempos; at the 2nd he took very different tempos. Afterwards, Ormandy asked him "how do you want to play it at the concert?" Said R. "I have no idea. Take my pulse just before I walk onstage."

I had used these examples in a different thread regarding taking cuts in Sarasate's "Caprice Basque". I had also said that in my view, it's not that composers are gods, and we performers are merely trained monkeys. No, were all musicians. That said, though, I do feel that we should carefully note the composers' indications as a starting point, though not as a straight-jacket. So I do welcome the composers' indications, to get some idea.

In the little ditty that I'm trying hard to get finished by the fast-approaching deadline for the Hilary Hahn encore contest, here and there I indicate something like "allegro con fuoco", to give a basic feeling about it. I also use metronome markings, but purposely hedge my bets by saying, for example "1/4 = circa (approximately) 112-116", etc.

March 10, 2012 at 07:56 AM · Raphael: The contest seems really interesting I must say, it´s so hard to know what they really want. It´s not impossible that they want something with a lot of artistic freedom, I wouldn´t be surprised if they picked a piece with "just the notes". The midifile will give a good idea of how the composer wants the piece to be played as well of course.

March 10, 2012 at 01:21 PM · Yes - I'm certainly under no illusion that I've written Beethoven's 10th symphony! Musically, it's just a little pastry. What I can say is that it's clearly very violinistic, and that I think violinists would find it fun to play, and audiences, fun to listen to, whether they get the purposeful reference to other pieces or not.

I look at it as a win/win situation. In the unlikely event that Hilary selects it as the winner, or even for honorable mention, I'll be thrilled, and it will be good publicity for me, and I'll abide by whatever lock (ie performing rights) she puts on it. If not, I'll play it myself as an encore at my own next recital!

Best of luck to both of us, and to any other v.commers who are taking part in the contest!

March 10, 2012 at 03:19 PM · Raphael: It would be wonderfull if someone from this forum would be in the honorable mentions for sure. It´s not that likely that someone here would win but you never know.

If you read the rules you can see that they want to have the liberties (Hahn or Lisitsa) of changing the score in any way they want. I guess that many composers wouldn´t accept that.

March 10, 2012 at 07:09 PM · Andreas,

Sure, some (arguably all) pieces need certain things to make them work; tempi, dynamics, articulation, etc. I'd never suggest otherwise. And some pieces lend themselves well to different interpretations, others not so much.

One of the things I look for, as someone who works a lot with composers and 'new' music, is that if a piece NEEDS specific thing(s) for it to work; certain tempi, dynamics, 'effects', extended techniques, etc. that they be marked clearly as such. If it needs something specific and it's not marked or articulated in performance directions and isn't musically obvious ( goes for aleatoric, semi-aleatoric, traditional music or what have you)...well, that speaks volumes to me about the composer.

March 10, 2012 at 10:16 PM · In the world of guitar many players actually learn this way, by tabs, which indicate only which note is to be played and nothing else about the piece. It can lead to some very interesting playing if one is learning a song they haven't heard with this method.

March 11, 2012 at 01:10 PM · Amber: I agree in many ways, have you premiered many pieces by modern composers?

March 11, 2012 at 04:06 PM · Andreas,

YES. Hundreds in concert...can't imagine how many if I started counting readings or the random stuff I've been sent/approached with.

'New' music is my jam and has been for years. Love. Love.


Being both violist and part of a string trio I'm not exactly drowning in exciting repertoire the same way violinists and string quartets are, so I (we) always have our heads up and our cell phones on for composers.

Everything is submitted with parts and score, and what I was saying about markings, well articulated performance directions,etc. are ways that I/we use to weed out compositions. They can't (shouldn't in some cases) all be performed. Some are sent back with requests for revision or explanation. The exceptionally sloppy or lazily executed ones don't get a read through.

One section of my studio is plastered with graphic scores that had either no or unsuitably vague performance directions.


But they sure do make pretty wallpaper.

March 11, 2012 at 04:48 PM · Take a look/listen to Terry Riley's "In C".

March 11, 2012 at 04:51 PM · "The exceptionally sloppy or lazily executed ones don't get a read through."

Does that happen a lot? A midifile like they demand in Hahn´s encore contest usually gives a good idea of the composers intentions.

It is common that you turn composers down since the piece will take too much time to learn? Something tells me that Hahn won´t select a superdemanding piece for the encorecontest it will simply take too much time to learn it well.

March 11, 2012 at 07:18 PM · I've played 'in c' a bazillion times in different sized groups. cool tunes :-)

I think it's a good example of a piece that is *supposed* to be super versatile (in the number of musicians that can participate) but in reality doesn't work out to be so. I like it, but think it works best (only my opinion, mind you) with 12 or fewer + percussion. More than that it it starts to become meaningless because the interaction between players that is *essential* for the piece to be 'the awesome' just isn't there. Again, only my opinion.

As an aside: If I'm ever onstage with another toy piano I'm gonna kick that sucker off and batter it into splintery bits with my bare hands. I need to be done hearing that sound for the next bit of forever. Dear hipsters, please stop.



Re; sloppiness

It doesn't happen a lot, but it happens enough for me to have little patience with it. There's no telling whether or not a piece is going to be good without a serious look. I try my best to be fair and reasonable when I look at things, but when I get something sloppy I get mad. I expect people to respect our/my time and have the same high standards for their work that I do for mine.

I had a piece a few years ago from a graduate composer from a well regarded department (*princ*cough*cough*ton*), her credentials were good and I was looking forward to it, only to discover when I got the music she'd written the viola part in bass clef two octaves below any pitch the viola could play. Could I read it and play it up a few octaves? Sure. Would I? Nope. Unacceptable. If she'd have been in front of me I probably would have rolled up the score and hit her with it.

As far as accepting demanding music, sure we do, but WHEN we/I can perform it depends on our schedule, current rep. and performance commitments. It's got to be practical. If a piece is good and fits, we make the time to put it on a program. But sometimes it can take a year or more depending on our commitments.

Example of the rule of practicality:

Our current rep. is Beethoven Op. 9 no 3, Schnittke Trio 1985, and Penderecki Trio 1991. I know, lunacy, but I promise they interconnect in ways that make them reasonable to put on a program together.

We need one more short piece, it can't take an excessive amount of rehearsal time, and it's got to be upbeat so the audience(s) don't go home a slit their wrists afterwords.

Do we have pieces that would fit? Kinda, but some of the venues we're playing don't have a great sound system (for trio+electronic) or don't have the stage space for 42 metronomes a shofar and an array of Tibetan prayer stones or whatever. We've got a possibility from one composer, if that doesn't pan out in the next week it's probably going to be a transcription of one of Zorn's delicious goodies. Not because we don't want to perform what we've been given, but because it just isn't practical.

March 12, 2012 at 07:22 AM · Amber: Are there any clips of you performing online`

"she'd written the viola part in bass clef two octaves below any pitch the viola could play. Could I read it and play it up a few octaves? Sure. Would I? Nope. Unacceptable. If she'd have been in front of me I probably would have rolled up the score and hit her with it."

That was really sloppy I must say, When you said sloppy I thought you meant that a piece had a 37/16 bar followed by one in 17/16 even if the notes could be divided up differently and have "more normal" bars like 7/8 and similar instead.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition
ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

AVIVA Young Artist Program

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases



Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins


Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine