How were you taught to interpret musical definitions or expressions?

November 21, 2020, 7:23 AM · I was reading another discussion thread and a light hearted question was posed about the meaning of the term “allegro vivacissimo”. Some of the responses stated that the meaning was to play “very fast” or to that effect. If you had asked me in my earlier years of playing the violin, I would’ve probably agreed. But my approach to these terms changed when I took some lessons from a teacher after college to improve on my playing.

In one of the lessons, he presented the idea that the musical expressions, which are stated in the beginning of a movement, typically describe the “mood” or state-of-being of the movement and that there are very few musical terms that dictate tempo. And, all of this is based on the Italian language. For example, “allegro” does not mean “fast” but instead means to be “happy” or “merry”, as defined by the Italian language. So going back, one interpretation of “allegro vivacissimo” could mean “to be happy and lively”. Another example, “Adagio” does not mean “slowly” but instead, it would mean “to be at ease”. Finally, one of the terms that would dictate tempo is “Presto” and all the derivatives (e.g., -issimos, -issimossos, etc), which would mean “fast”.

Growing up, I vaguely recall that I was taught, while in orchestra, that these musical expressions usually dictated tempo, with qualifiers that are relative to one another. For example, “allegro moderato” is slightly slower than allegro and ranges between 100-120 bpm or to something of that effect. I’m curious to know if this is how you were taught? For those of you that went music school, was this brought up in your training, whether in the classroom or in private lessons? For those of you that have studied music outside the United States, is this similar to how you were taught?

Replies (20)

Edited: November 21, 2020, 8:12 AM · Another trap is Andantino!

Andante means "moving", so Andantino means slower.
For musicians, Andante means "easy going", so andantino means less easy going, so faster.

We need an Italian Dictionary for Musicians!

(Which might not include the viola..hahaha)

Edited: November 21, 2020, 8:49 AM · Andantino is strictly speaking the diminutive of andante ("going" i.e. faster than you might think).
But Eric Taylor says andantino is ambiguous, it can mean faster than andante in some composers and slower than andante in others.
My own guess would have been 'slower' ("somewhat going"), but it's only a guess, as it would imply that andante was really quite quick. Otoh, it depends on whether the notes in it are quarter or eighth etc, and the mood is the thing. The right notes can make it feel quick even when the bpm aren't that many. Tempos like allegro or allegretto (also a diminutive) already mean faster than andante, although the metronomes typically have 'moderato' as the next one above andante.
Edited: November 21, 2020, 1:01 PM · I was never taught more than the bare approximation that you can read in books. A real understanding is something that can only come with experience. Put yourself in the composer's shoes - every work is composed with a particular tempo in mind, but before the invention of the metronome how was the composer to indicate what tempo? Of course they relied on tradition, that musicians have come to a consensus as to what "andantino" means amongst other musicians, regardless of what the dictionary says.

Of course it's magnificently ambiguous. A long while ago I came across and transcribed a score of Rachmaninov's second string quartet. The second movement (of 2) is notated 3/8 and described "andante molto moderato". The only modern recording I know takes it at a steady 3-beats in a bar, but an early Russian recording gives it a heavy one-in-a bar tread (about twice the speed of the recording) which makes far better sense of the music and I'm sure is what Rachmaninov intended. The "walking" metaphor is a pretty good one but by no means infallible.

November 21, 2020, 1:22 PM · Right, it depends on the historical period as we all eventually learned.

Sometimes in early Baroque you see things like Largo e allegro, or other seemingly contradictory things if read with 19th-c. common practice lens.

Of course it's easy for both young students and novice teachers alike to be mislead with BMP markings etched into metronomes. For example, realizing adagio doesn't always mean slow but at ease is one of those typical things a high schooler or conservatory student might learn.

November 21, 2020, 3:26 PM · While the words do indicate mood rather than strict tempo, they also imply a range of tempos which are as always open to individual interpretation.

For example "adagio" does indeed mean "at ease" but it would be impossible to fulfill that instruction with the metronome set at 150 to the beat. So of course slower tempos are needed to achieve a feeling of "at ease."

I've always hated the metronomes which give exact speeds (or narrow ranges of speeds) for the various terms.

Once I was conducting a community orchestra and we were doing a short piece for clarinet and strings which was marked "Andante." The music in my opinion needed to move at about 70 on the metronome to achieve a nice relaxed "going" feeling. So at the first rehearsal with the soloist I started it off and the soloist was livid -- "Andante means 80 on the metronome!" No range, no room for interpretation, she had been taught that andante meant 80 and there was no way she could adjust her playing. So we did it at 80 and it didn't come across nearly as nicely as it would have at the slower speed.

So as we teach others I always try to explain the original Italian meanings, I also explain that all the great composers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century spoke Italian so they would use the words with their original meanings and we who might not actually speak Italian have to do our best to interpret them so that the music works the best. If anybody says to me "Allegro = 120" I say "I agree wholeheartedly -- for some pieces marked Allegro. Others work much better at 100 and others work better at 130. This is an art not a science we're involved in."

November 21, 2020, 3:53 PM · As an Italian speaker, the way people interpret the Italian instructions given at the start of a piece of music, has long been an irritant to me. Andante means “going” no mention of walking speed that I so often hear. Allegro of course is not a speed indication, it means “happy”. The biggest bugbear is “allegro assai” which means “happy enough” not “very fast” as I hear from non-Italian speakers. I could go on...

Saluti Carlo

Edited: November 21, 2020, 3:55 PM · My favorite music expression is:

Piace Pipistrello fuori da inferno (very fast indeed)

Courtesy: PDQ Bach

Edited: November 21, 2020, 4:01 PM · @George

A better translation would be “like a bat out of hell”.

Cheers Carlo

November 21, 2020, 10:46 PM · Mozart used “Allegro Aperto” but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that (I think he used it in the A major violin concerto if I’m not mistaken).
November 22, 2020, 2:59 AM · So where does this leave my favourite conundrum - 'andante ma non troppo' (Thanks, Ludwig)? Not too fast, or not too slow - ie slower or faster than vanilla 'andante'.
Edited: November 22, 2020, 4:33 AM · Allegro assai is another of those ambiguous ones (like andantino) - some think it means very allegro. I am happy with Carlo's version (and I am happy that andantino means on the slower side of andante).
I suppose andante ma no troppo strictly means "going, not racing", Peter.

By total coincidence last night I picked up a book with Elgar's Salut d'Amour in it, and the indication is "andantino, bpm=76". Which is on the slow end of andante, according to my metronome.

November 22, 2020, 9:19 AM · I don’t think that the “mood” vs. the speed really contradict each other.
To answer your question: Okay, as a kid, I learned that allegro is fast and andante is slow. This got refined with time and more advanced education, of course, as so many have explained, here.
But in the end, the allegro movement of a sonata is most probably faster than the andante, so the easy children’s approach isn’t totally wrong.

I mean, a kid learns that birds fly and dogs run, and only later they learn that an ostrich cannot fly, but run possibly even faster than a dog. Still, in general, birds do fly whereas dogs run.

Edited: November 22, 2020, 10:34 AM · "I don’t think that the “mood” vs. the speed really contradict each other."

Of course not, not totally. I think it's a sort of horse and cart situation. The horse trots or canters. The cart follows at whatever the speed is.

November 22, 2020, 11:01 AM · Not quite sure if I really got the analogy, but I would rather regard us as horses than as carts.
Being living creatures, our moods tend to get reflected by our motions. How wonderful does it feel when you are lighthearted and joyful! If you need to walk somewhere in such a mood, you will almost dance and have naturally a higher speed than if you are patiently describing all details to your little child. Great anger can also result in a more energetic and faster pace than depression. Etc.

November 22, 2020, 3:18 PM · Carlo,

Got it in one! My parenthetical comment was not intended as a translation. Schickele used this quite often joking with the audience.

Personally, I think it's a way faster than "Presto." Too bad it isn't
a standard expression.

November 23, 2020, 6:05 AM · "In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use"; Wittgenstein.

"When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean"; Humpty Dumpty

Edited: November 23, 2020, 12:51 PM · Italian isn't the only language used in music. What about German? I remember our first rehearsal of one of the Bruckner symphonies. As the scores were being distributed to the sections you could hear the wails going round the orchestra, "what's this mean?", "anyone speak German?" etc. The problem was solved at the next rehearsal when we were all each issued with two sheets of translation into English.

The composer/pianist Percy Grainger didn't use Italian in his scores, everything was in English. His example has been followed by some modern English composers.

Getting back to Italian, how fast is Paganini's Moto Perpetuo? I think it consists of about 4000 sixteenth notes (no recounts allowed!) and the modern aim seems to cram in as many notes per second as possible, which I think does no favours to the music. I've seen an early edition of Paganini's score, and the "speed" indication was Allegro. In his day would it not have meant something like "happy" or "merry", as mentioned in the OP's post? If Paganini had wanted it played very fast he surely would have used Presto as his speed indication.

Getting back to the 18th century and earlier, a lot of instrumental music, not involving the voice, would have been based on dance music. Perhaps this could be a guide to determining a useful playing speed for music of the period rather than the modern (mis)interpretations of instructions in Italian?

November 23, 2020, 8:06 AM · Not to mention Erik Satie.
Then there's this:
November 23, 2020, 8:47 AM · David, the thought occurs to me that perhaps the clarinettist's reservation about playing at 70 instead of 80 had more to do with breathing than anything else.
November 24, 2020, 5:08 PM · I see some words as denoting speed, while others denote mood. In the original example, “allegro vivacissimo”, I interpret "allegro" as "quickly", and "vivacissimo" as "as lively as possible".

At other times, the second part modifies the first, as in "allegro ma non troppo": quickly but not too much.

Having a smattering of other languages helps. As Trevor Jennings pointed out, some scores are marked in German. Try looking at a Mahler score - he gets downright conversational. "Nicht schleppend!"

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