Music notation: Say what you mean!

I love the Italian language. I love reading it and  writing it and speaking it. Even when we Americans drop the beautiful accent or avoid the stressed double consonants, Italian is still pretty awesome. (Forget that I am Italian here… that’s just a coincidence…)

It’s funny to think that even though I first took Italian in college, I probably learned and internalized my first Italian words when I was 7 or 8. Some of the first musical terms I every learned in band were forte and piano. As I got older and studied music more seriously, I came to love the various linguistic notation I’d see. And I came to use them myself. There’s something elegant, precise, and sophisticated about the use of foreign language in music. I can’t imagine using only English in my notation!

In any language your choice of words is imperative to what you are trying to say. That may sound very obvious, but I just had a conversation with my family about synonyms and how, if you thought about it, it’s not necessarily true that synonyms have the exact same meanings as the word to which they claim to be synonymous. For example, different words for ‘delicate’ have different connotations due to our cultural use and depiction. Flimsy, frail, fragile, graceful, and breakable are all listed as synonyms for ‘delicate’ on thesaurus.com, but you wouldn’t just go through an essay and randomly replace each of your ‘delicate’s with one of these choices to spice up your prose. (Although some of my students have appeared to have done such a thing.) They really do mean different things!

The same is true with linguistic notation in music.

A professor of mine once strongly advised us composers to be consistent in our use of language in our works. That is, if we are using ‘Allegro’ in a piece, every linguistic marking should therefore be in Italian for consistency. The choice was yours- English, French, German, Italian, or any other language, I suppose- but it should be the same throughout the work.

Years before I learned this, a different professor advised me differently when I voiced my frustration an trying to find the right word to use in a jazz piece I wrote. He asked what I wanted the players to be thinking while they played, what I wanted them to feel. “Fun,” I replied. “Then write that,” the professor said. It was exactly what I meant. And it was in English.

So when I was later advised to stay consistent in my language, I wasn’t sure I agreed. Sometimes the very thing I want to say simply doesn’t have a foreign analog, or if it does, it’s not an exact match. Case in point: Crescendo vs. growing. Crescendo literally translates to ‘growing’, but when used in a musical context, it’s means to get louder. If I said ‘growing’ in a piece of music, that could be interpreted in several ways. If I put ‘crescendo’, meaning ‘growing’, no one would interpret it that way. Why should I sacrifice precision and clarity for consistency? Why it is more important to stay in the same language than to communicate clearly and exactly?

While writing my second orchestral piece, Innocente ma Curioso, I faced this issue seriously for the second time. There was a whole line of description in my head for the opening clarinet line. In the end, I made up my own descriptor, which I ended up pulling for the title. I really liked it. It said everything concisely and elegantly.

Since my descriptor wasn’t a typical one, the conductor brought it up in rehearsal, a touch of skepticism in his voice. I’m not sure what the problem was. Surely it could be translated even if he didn’t know Italian. And surely an intelligent musician could interpret it artistically. I like the idea of someone thinking I’m transgressive, but I think I could do much better than write something untraditional in Italian.

Perhaps language has so far been absent from the long list of things musicians are constantly inventing and reinventing. Maybe that’s because it’s so fundamental.

But I’m actually not trying to reinvent anything. I’m simply proposing the idea that we composers should say what we mean even if it means writing descriptors that are untraditional or in varying languages. As in prose and speech, we must be careful but also creative. Confining ourselves to one language is inherently problematic.

The musical world is constantly changing. Forms, styles, instruments, notation, and so many other aspects have adapted over time. Our language should too.

So carpe diem. And don’t be ashamed to be the first to say something old in a new way.

And enjoy my favorite descriptor…

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